Public safety officials say pay is falling short

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Alexandria Police Department Sgt. Charlette Mitchell in city hall following her testimony at Monday's budget public hearing (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

Members of Alexandria’s police and fire departments filled council chambers to the brim during a three-hour public hearing Monday afternoon, with many complaining about public safety funding in City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed FY2019 budget.

Jinks’ proposed budget, which was unveiled to the public last month, contained an additional $1.5 million for public safety, including salaries. The funding was an effort to make Alexandria salaries more competitive with those in neighboring jurisdictions like Arlington and Fairfax.

Most public speakers from the city’s public safety organizations said Jinks’ proposal
didn’t go far enough. Many cited a 2018 police benchmark survey that showed Alexandria police are 6.22 percent behind competing local districts in their midpoint salaries.

Many also said the city’s 4.5 percent pay increase for all sworn officers in 2015 wasn’t enough to fix the long-term problems facing the fire department, police department and the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office.

Council chambers were packed with police officers, firefighters and other public safety officials during Monday’s public hearing (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

“In the last six weeks, we have lost three officers [to other jobs]. I know because I’ve taken their equipment. I’ve seen the costs associated with equipping these officers and how much we commit to them before they’re fully invested,” Alexandria Police Department Sgt. Bobby Taylor said at the meeting. “I can assure you that $1.5 million set aside for all public safety departments to share will not fix any of our retention problems.”

APD Detective Will Oakley, who has worked for the department for 20 years, said it’s getting difficult to attract recruits.

“When I applied to Alexandria in 1990, [there were so many applicants that] testing was conducted in a gymnasium. Last week, there were 14 applicants. We’ll be lucky to hire two and keep one,” Oakley said.

Oakley said the police department is losing an average of 2.4 officers a month. He said, if no action is taken by July 1, police’s compensation would be 10 percent below the market average.

“After [FY19] budget guidance was released, several more officers put in applications at higher-paying jurisdictions. They will get the jobs. They are highly trained and an asset to any jurisdiction willing to pay for qualified officers,” Oakley said. “Some of those officers are here tonight. If compensation is not brought into compliance with policy, they won’t be here next year.”

Peter Prunty, an officer with the department since 2016, said he’s one of those officers. He said he has recently reached out to recruiters with the Arlington and
Fairfax police departments.

“I’ve done this because, even after my merit increase, I learned that individuals in the academy for both agencies are making more than myself and countless other officers in this room,” Prunty said.

“Both agencies are offering step increases because of my experience. So not only would I be making more by just going over, I would make significantly more because of the
value of my experience here.” Alexandria Fire Department Capt. Chad Lallier, who is fire captain in the West End, said recent changes making all fire department employees dual role – meaning firefighters must act as paramedics and paramedics must act as firefighters – have only increased salary inequity. Lallier said 16 people have left the department in recent months.

“We can’t hire people as fast as people are leaving. They leave faster than we can hire them,” Lallier said.

Police Sgt. Charlette Mitchell, who has been with the police department for 30 years, said

Sgt. Charlette Mitchell speaks in front of city council at Monday’s budget public hearing (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

council has a lack of respect for public safety workers.

“Many different faces have occupied these seats, but they all have had the same disregard, which is evident in poor compensation, unfulfilled promises and the lack of all of you to even attend our fallen police officer and firefighter memorial services,” Mitchell said. “… It is disrespectful and everyone should be ashamed that the public safety workforce is the lowest paid, while giving the highest service. City officers give the highest quality service and I’ve done that for the past 30 years.”

Officer Bennie Evans said it’s still difficult to make ends meet as a 23-year veteran of the police department.

“Sometimes these young, new officers, males and females, are really exhausted
because they’re out there trying to work their regular shifts and then doing overtime to be able to live within the city they work in,” Evans said. “I have difficulty living within the city limits with my income of 23 years – I can only imagine what they’re suffering through.”

Evans said he’s unsure of what to tell his son, who is going through the Alexandria Sheriff Office’s academy.

“My 29-year-old son says ‘Dad, I’m in the Academy and getting offers from other police jurisdictions that are offering me $10,000 more and a take-home car just to serve in their department,’” Evans said. “I have to look at him and ask ‘Do I want you to follow me or do I want you to go to the jurisdictions where you’ll have the opportunity to serve and protect and be respected amongst your peers?’”

Police Capt. Monica Lisle said the city must stop making promises it doesn’t keep.

“Do not promise more multi-year fixes that never seem to materialize. By failing to take appropriate action now, the taxpayers are wasting hard-earned money as officers leave to work in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun [counties],” Lisle said. 

In addition to the many public safety officials who spoke Monday, several Alexandria City Public Schools parents and PTA members spoke at the meeting to voice support for the proposed FY19 budget.

Deborah Altenburg, among the many other public speakers representing ACPS parents, said council should continue to fully fund ACPS’ budget in the coming years.

“It would be a mistake to think that one year of funding increases will solve all our schools’

Alexandria police officers packed into city council chamber’s rows on Monday (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

challenges. This cannot be a one-and-done effort. The growth of our school system will require year-after-year investment. It’s tempting to focus on something new and shiny or shift to another priority, but well-funded schools are important for all Alexandria residents,” Altenburg said.

Mayor Allison Silberberg said, upon the meeting’s conclusion, that all input would
be taken under advisement.

“Let me say that we appreciate heartfelt sentiments expressed today. I know it takes time to think through what you want to say and to prepare to say it and to come here and take time from your lives and your work and time with your families,” Silberberg said. “…This is an important issue about compensation and we will continue to discuss it as colleagues and with the community and with you. Please know that you are heard about all of the issues that we’ve spoken about today.”

City council is scheduled to adopt a FY19 budget on May 3.

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