Budget blues

Budget blues

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Suzanne Laboy, wife of Peter Laboy, the Alexandria police officer grievously injured in the line of duty last year, vividly described her husband’s daily struggles while arguing for preserving life insurance benefits for city employees Monday.

“While he was serving the city, doing a job he wanted to do for his whole life, putting his life on the line, he suffered a gunshot to the head,” she said, testifying before the Alexandria City Council at the first budget hearing of the year. “[The] bullet will remain in his head, inside his brain, affecting every thought, every idea he has and every action he makes.”

Susan Laboy was one of the many residents who criticized the city’s proposal to stop paying for retiree life insurance benefits in the fiscal 2015 budget.

“He will continue to need every last thing that was promised to him and others on the day they made a commitment to serve the citizens of this city,” she said. “Please reconsider making any changes to the benefit that these men and women count on, need and deserve.”

Monday marked the first chance for residents to weigh in on the city’s proposed $634.9 million budget for next year. More than 70 people lobbied for dollars for various city services, including money for retiree life insurance, the law library and keeping a fire engine stationed in a part of Old Town.

But the most contentious cut — so far — in City Manager Rashad Young’s budget was the idea of placing city retiree life insurance premiums entirely onto former public employees. Ken Howard, a retired police captain and president of the Alexandria Retired Police, Fire and Sheriff Association, said the cut has a much bigger impact on former city workers than it does on the city’s bottom line.

“This saves less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the budget,” Howard said.

And Michael Conner, a retired deputy fire chief, said it’s unfair to remove benefits to those people who made the Port City into what it is today.

“You all use terms like a clean, diverse and vibrant community,” Conner said. “But that didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen yesterday.”

Current employees also lobbied the city council to restore life insurance premiums to the budget. Police Lt. Mark Bergin, who’s slated to retire after doctors blocked him from returning to active duty following multiple heart attacks in the fall, said ponying up the cost of life insurance would be difficult, to say the least.

“I’ve never been scared to go to work, I’ve never been scared to put my life on the line, but I’m scared today,” Bergin said. “[I] can’t buy life insurance at age 55 with a heart condition.”

Another retired police officer, Paul Story, said the move might lead to higher costs down the road.

“The current contract is ending in March of 2015, and I have to believe that our current preferential group treatment rates are based on the city’s direct fiscal involvement in this, and not only that, but the whole competitive bid process benefits us with regard to this benefit,” Story said. “I fear rates will increase significantly for retirees if you don’t maintain that.”

Elsewhere in the budget, several lawyers advocated for restoring funding to the local law library, which is based in the basement of the city courthouse. Attorney David Chamowitz argued that the resource is critical to small law firms and residents.

“The single city employee, the law librarian, did more than 4,000 reference assists last year,” he said. “Of those, 1,800 were for nonlawyers.”

And more than a few Old Town residents decried a proposal that would move a fire engine from the area to the new station in the West End. Officials want Engine 204 relocated, leaving just a ladder truck and an EMS supervisor at the Powhatan Park station.

Resident Abby Spangler said the move would increase response times in Old Town — putting residents in harm’s way.

“We here in this area think that’s a travesty,” Spangler said. “To take our engine from Old Town and transfer it over to 210, we understand there’s an ethanol plant over there with flammable issues, and we don’t want 210 to be without an engine, but we don’t think you should take our engine and put our citizens’ lives at risk.”