Approximately 35 city employees protested at Market Square Monday, preceding a special public hearing at City Hall where the city managers proposed budget was discussed in front of a raucously loud attendance. The demonstrators sought a five percent cost of living pay increase, which is less than half of the 13 percent regional livable wage, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
Headed by Brenda DSylva, a police department fiscal analyst, members of the two-week-old Alexandria Government Employee Association (AGEA) comprised the demonstration, in which workers circled the Market Square fountain flaunting five fingers representing their desired pay increase and picket signs indicating their feelings of marginalization.
Were traditionally put on the bottom level of priority, Dsilva said. By the Councils own study, were 13 percent below the cost of living, so were respectfully asking for a 5 percent increase.
According to the citys Compensation Philosophy, it is the city managers responsibility to budget for general salary adjustments based on cost of living, which has increased in the region, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The budget includes no allocations for a cost of living or market rate adjustment.
With the budget guidelines this year, everything just couldnt fit into the base budget, City Manager James Hartmann said. The budget is not yet finalized, and the public hearing was intended to give citizens say in the process before it is approved May 5.
City workers needs come during a tight budget season for the city. After an approximately $21 million shortfall of expected funding coupled with national and local economic hardships, council has expressed difficulty in balancing the citys mounting needs and lacking funds, but not for lack of concern, officials said.
We do care about all of the employees that we have under our responsibility here in the city government, Mayor Bill Euille said at the hearing. Its not that were not cognizant of these things. We wish we had all the money in the world to do all of these things at the same time, but unfortunately thats not the case.
With the cost of living high, less and less city employees are living within city limits. The few who do live in town deal with property costs while commuters face exorbitant fuel prices to commute.
The vast majority of Alexandria City employees live outside the City. Consequently, Alexandria competes in the regional labor market for workers, states a budget work session presentation on employee compensation.
Im almost ready to go out the door, said Human Services employee Elois Alexander, gripping a picket sign. I dont think Ill be ready to retire in time. A 28-year city employee, Alexander said she is at the end of her pay step, and that shes now pulling money out of her savings to pay for health insurance that previously was covered by the city.
A public safety records clerk, Stanley Bullock said he used to live here but was forced to move due to the high cost of living.
Of the 2,320 full-time city employees, 714 are in the public safety realm (police, fire and sheriffs departments), which recently experienced pay increases to compete with regional standards. The remaining 1,016 general schedule employees perform other tax-funded services like waste management and social services.
For those who receive a merit-based raise, their salary will increase by about 3 percent next year, which is about average for the region, according to a preliminary assessment memo from City Manager James Hartmann. But these raises are not guaranteed, and exclude workers who have reached the height of the pay scale. Such employees, no matter their terms of service, become ineligible for a merit-based raise once they enter the top tier of their pay scale.
The city has hired consulting firm Watson Wyatt to perform a compensation and benefits study which, as of Feb. 14, was in phase one of three. It will not be completed in time for the Fiscal Year 2009 budget. City Manager James Hartman said the study, expected for completion in late spring, is intended to change things on the policy level.
Its very tough this year with the budget guidelines, Hartmann said. Its a balance. This year, and I suspect next year as well, were going to have some hard decisions.