Community News __Featured Slider — 21 March 2013
Alexandria’s first responders worry about brain drain

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.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. . I am not only a first responder working for the City of Alexandria, but I also live with my family in the city as well. I pay taxes to the City of Alexandria, give my money to local businesses, and have a real vested interest in the City of Alexandria. I always try my best to keep my own personal opinion and prejudice at ease, but I read this article and found myself nodding my head in a manner of agreement and complete disgust. Getting into this job, I knew I would not obtain a hefty salary or find myself at a prestigious position. Like most others I work with, I have a college degree, and I continued my education at a very challenging academy to obtain my certification beyond my education. I could easily find a job in another job field that’s better paying with less stressful. For the City of Alexandria, and its citizens, I work 12 hour shifts, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, including all holidays, weather emergencies, and/or any other disaster you can think of. Like I said, it’s for the citizens of Alexandria and not me that I do this. The job is so low paying; I could easily find a job paying much more that I did not have to make the same sacrifices. I regularly find myself placed in life or death situations at 3 AM and get called into work at a moment’s notice. I do not get extra pay or gratitude for this, and again, I fully understand. I put my own personal safety on the line to help any citizen living in the area I am responsible for. As most others I work with, I have a sense of self-worth that I grasp onto and try to overlook how bad this profession really is. Keep in mind that I also have a family and wish to have a normal life.
    With all said, the City of Alexandria made the conscious choice to hire Mr. Rashaad Young as a city manager over a year ago, including a large salary bump in their previous manager, Mr. Hartmann. Regardless of the fact that Mr. Young got hired at $245,000 a year, which was way more than the standing city manager (tough economic times, but huge increase of city manager salary)? Mr. Young had a tough challenge to face in tough economic times and no one denies that. Mr. Young has shown through his plans that he will diminish city employees’ salaries and benefits as a means to even out the budget. This is unacceptable as the City of Alexandria already has been the lowest paying jurisdiction in the entire DC metro region. There are 2 consequences of Mr. Young’s approach and here they are:
    1. A less competitive field of people is interested in the jobs offered by this city. It’s the lowest paying and less competitive job market in the tri-state area. This means the first responders are being hired from a pool of less than average job pool. Your quality of fire fights, police officers, and medics will now be less than average because of this. Your crime rate will rise, your quality of life will decrease, and your property values will decrease in response.
    2. All the first responders that have worked hard throughout their careers are now disgruntled with the fact they have sacrificed so much for no appreciation and now their pay is being decreased. Those responders not only have to deal with short staffing (more call volume), but that Mr. Young wants them to contribute a large sum of their salary into their own life insurance, health insurance, pension, etc. Since 2007 the City of Alexandria has paid their first responders the lowest in the DC, VA, MD region. However, those same employees have had the quickest response rates, medical saving rates, lowest crime rates, and least complaints in the same area.

    The City of Alexandria needs to dedicate some attention and appreciation to the first responders in the city. Those same employees are already showing interest in neighboring jurisdictions where the pay, benefits, and appreciation are at the very least a competitive salary. You should “get what you pay for” when it comes to those first responders. There have been rumors of those first responders coming together to “get what they are paid for”, which would mirror the response times, medical, police, and fire responses of areas in the area for the pay. This means the citizens should expect a large decrease in services and this would affect their overall safety and quality of life. If you look at the Police/Fire Departments recent years, you will see recruits are only using the city to get “certified” then move elsewhere.

    So in conclusion, if the City wants to have professional “first responders” to include fire fighters/police/medics, they need to make decisions to do so. This means they need to match their pay and benefits (better if possible, but never has been considered) as surrounding jurisdictions. The City of Alexandria has been establishing itself as a “stepping stone”. This means employees are being hired paid for training, certified, then jump to a better jurisdiction where they are paid more with a lower cost of living.

    Wake up City Council, citizens of Alexandria, and Rashaad Young. If the citizens want the security of having a quick and professional response of first responders, they need to compensate them as such. It only makes common sense that these people will go to other jurisdictions that will compensate them in a manner they deserve.

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