Alexandria’s first responders worry about brain drain

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(File Photo)

By Melissa Quinn

Larry Lee’s career as a first responder in Alexandria began many years ago, but for the first time, the city’s budget issues have him grappling with the idea of early retirement.

He started working in the city as a police officer in 1987, back when Alexandria may not have been the best place to raise a family. Drug use ran rampant, he said, and it wasn’t uncommon for Lee to find himself responding to stabbings or working in the middle of a riot.

In 1998, Lee joined the fire department, where he has remained ever since. He expanded his duties by signing on as the vice president of Alexandria Firefighters Inc., advocating for fellow firefighters and first responders.

He’s served the Port City for 25 years, gone through as many budget cycles and seen hundreds of colleagues come and go. But for the first time since 1987, Lee will take home less this year than in years past — about $1,800 less.

Lee’s story is common among city employees who face rising health insurance costs as well as increased contributions to their pension and retirement funds.

In City Manager Rashad Young’s budget proposal for fiscal 2014, employees face the introduction of deductibles — $400 if they’re single or $800 for families — increased co-pays and a 2-percent bump in employee contributions for members of the fire and police departments.

And with increased taxes at state and federal levels — coupled with tax hikes in jurisdictions where many city employees reside — they’re going to be squeezed.

“It’s ‘Groundhog Day.’ Every year [the city] says, ‘Oh, it’s the toughest year on record, we have challenges,’ and they do have challenges, but … that’s what they’re elected to do,” Lee said.

In the past, employees paid very little for benefits. But this year, some, like Lee, will see upward of $12,000 removed from paychecks for their benefits package.

The changes to health care have been progressing with each year, and 2014 marks the second year that employees will pay roughly 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance plan. It’s become a sign of the times.

Alexandria has seen a 44-percent increase in health insurance costs since 2009. And in order to provide employee benefits, officials must ask workers to pay more, said Young.

“This is a shift to drive choices of the consumer of the benefit,” Young said. “The rising cost of health care is driving costs of health insurance.”

The changes in city employees’ health insurance will save the city about $2 million, Young said. He’s hopeful City Hall can lower deductibles even more.

But Lee worries his colleagues may opt to retire early or find work elsewhere.

About 75 percent of city fire personnel have either worked for the department for three years or less or are nearing retirement. Lee fears the department will see massive turnover if the rank-and-file decide it’s too expensive to work in Alexandria.

“You’re losing little by starting over [somewhere else],” he said. “And a lot of the older guys are … crunching numbers and all. They’d like to stay because our full retirement is at 30 years, but … you have to work the numbers and a lot of them are, and then you lose all that expertise and all that experience.”

But Lee maintains his group doesn’t want to reduce the costs they face by placing the burden on taxpayers. He just wants City Hall to figure out a way to lessen the ever-increasing costs.

“I’m never going to battle the citizens,” Lee said. “Because I serve the citizens. They’re our biggest fans. I’m never going to say, ‘Hey, they need to pay more so I can have more.’ We would never say that.”

Young believes the city is making strides to reduce the burden on first responders. His fiscal 2014 budget marks the first time Alexandria will implement a career ladder, and Young feels the city remains competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

“We are trying to be competitive in the market to attract the best employees we can,” he said. “I think the design changes we’re making and the shift in compensation — investing more money in compensation elements like career ladders and promotions — puts us in a fairy competitive position.”
And though Lee’s frustrations echo the sentiments of many city employees, City Hall has little wiggle room to act on their concerns.

Young put Alexandria’s projected $6 million surplus toward trimming down the city’s deficit, and making adjustments to health insurance and employee contributions means making corresponding changes elsewhere.

“There isn’t a lot of flexibility without determining another tradeoff,” he said.

But, Alexandria’s first responders don’t plan on giving up. Lee remains hopeful the city will hear their cries.

“I have to be hopeful,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have some kind of hope.”

Due to a reporting error, the Alexandria Times initially reported employees could pay roughly 20 percent of their salary toward health insurance in Young’s proposed budget. However, employees would pay 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance plan. Additionally, employees will pay upward of $12,000 for their total benefits package. We apologize for the error.