Proposal to increase city councilors’ pay withdrawn

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Proposal to increase city councilors’ pay withdrawn
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

After city council voted unanimously to bring a proposal forward to give the mayor and councilors pay raises at its December 8 meeting, sponsor City Councilor Paul Smedberg tabled the measure Saturday.

The mayor currently makes $30,500 per year, while city councilors are paid $27,500 annually. Their posts are considered part-time positions. Under Smedberg’s proposal, Mayor-elect Allison Silberberg would have been paid $50,000 per year after being sworn in next month, while the five re-elected city councilors and City Councilor-elect Willie Bailey would have made $45,000 per year. Councilors last received a pay rise in 2002, and Smedberg said the disparity in pay between Alexandria and other jurisdictions was noticeable.

“You know, there’s never a good time to do this,” he told the Times last week. “But I was just thinking as we were starting to discuss [regional board] assignments and everything for the new council, I just sat down and started reflecting on all the assignments I have personally, and all of the time in addition to council meetings I put in and how it’s increased since I first joined council.”

But at the start of council’s public hearing Saturday, Smedberg said he had decided to park the planned raise for councilors until the fiscal 2019 budget process so that more robust public discussions can be had. He repeated his request that City Manager Mark Jinks continue to study the salaries of aides as originally proposed.

“I think we need to have a more robust discussion in fiscal year 2019 budget work sessions, where the public can get a much better understanding of what it is our responsibilities are nowadays,” Smedberg said. “Since I started on council, what I did then and what I’m doing now has changed dramatically, [along with] our responsibilities regionally. The time commitment each week to that is well over 15 hours just on the regional issues.

“It’s what it is, and we’ll have this same discussion again and we’ll have the same 25 excuses on why not to do it and we’ll move forward.”

The original proposal mobilized members of Alexandria branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor union, who took the opportunity to come before council and repeat their request for a pay raise more in line with other jurisdictions.

Larry Lee, an Alexandria Fire Department captain who served in the city for 28 years, emphasized the pay disparity compared to Fairfax County for someone with his equivalent experience.

“Every day I show up to work, the person showing up across the border in Fairfax County makes $244 more than I do doing the exact same job,” Lee said. “It’s almost as if every day I come to work, I write the city of Alexandria a check for $244.”

Lee and several of his colleagues argued in favor of a market-rate adjustment and a pay bump for years of service that rewards seniority and employees who stay loyal to one department.

“[Fire fighters and city councilors] both want to get paid according to the city’s pay philosophy, which is just a bit above the average of the region, and we’re both the lowest paid in the region,” said city firefighter Dan Grayson. “Nobody’s going to ask you to do city council stuff in Arlington or Fairfax or Prince George’s County, and they’re never going to try to come and do it here either.”

“For the last 10 years, we’ve been told we’re underpaid,” said Lt. Dan Townshend, who is set to retire next October. “We did a study that showed it. Council then wanted to do another study to look at the entire city. [Then] Chief [Adam] Thiel came in and we did another study. It’s been a game we’ve been playing for a long time now.”

Townshend noted that while he will not be impacted by any change to firefighters’ pay, his younger colleagues will be, and will be forced to move to neighboring jurisdictions for a better salary.

“It’s going to affect me for the rest of my life, it’s affected many people before me, it’s going to affect them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Every year we put it off, it’s more people that it’s affecting, since our retirement is based on our top four years [of pay].”

Tommy Tippett, president of IAFF Local 2141, went further in his criticism of council, calling it “incomprehensible” that councilors would examine a pay increase while not doing the same for other city employees like firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s deputies. Smedberg responded by saying that everything had to be considered carefully, and that Tippett and his cohorts had been in numerous meetings on the issue.

Jinks noted that firefighter and medic pay are actively part of the budget consideration process, and with Jinks set to release his proposal in January, those who spoke were hopeful of progress on the issue.

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