By Duncan Agnew | [email protected]
City council members discussed concerns surrounding Hurricane Florence, approved salary increases for Alexandria public safety workers and debated adding a summer public hearing to next year’s calendar at the first legislative meeting of the season on Tuesday night.
Deputy Fire Chief of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Corey Smedley spoke to council about city preparations for the potential impact that Hurricane Florence could have on Alexandria in the coming days. While the most severe wind and rain should steer clear of the D.C. area, Smedley emphasized that the city is particularly vulnerable due to the unprecedented amount of rain and flooding that Alexandria has experienced in recent weeks.
“We’ve been saturated for several days now,” Smedley said. “Based on the saturated ground, we have the potential for trees falling, so our agencies are looking at that.”
Mayor Allison Silberberg and Councilor Paul Smedberg also stressed the importance of residents making proper preparations by gathering essential supplies like medicine, food and water.
“If you or a loved one needs medicine, now is the time to ensure that you have enough medicine for a number of days going forward from now,” Silberberg said.
With the uncertainty surrounding Hurricane Florence, council encouraged all residents to be prepared for anything. In case of severe after effects, City Manager Mark Jinks signed an emergency declaration Tuesday afternoon, which will make Alexandria eligible for FEMA reimbursement of costs associated with clean-up and recovery.
“The goal here is to plan for the worst and hope for the best, and so rest assured that’s what’s taking place,” Smedley said.
Later in the meeting, council unanimously approved a number of pay raises for Alexandria public safety officers after a presentation from Chief Human Resources Officer Shawnda Howard. The pay increases come after an uproar from the Alexandria Police Department and Alexandria Fire Department ahead of the FY2019 budget being passed in May. The city has for years lagged behind the standard public safety salary for the region.
“In December 2017, a public safety compensation benchmark study was conducted, and results show that the pay for firefighters, medics, police officers and deputy sheriffs lagged regional market pay,” Howard said.
On average, pay for firefighters and medics in the city is 4.6 percent below the industry standard, while compensation for police officers lags by nine percent. Howard said that the increased salaries will increase employee retention and engagement.
Ultimately, these changes will raise police officer pay by 6.2 percent and firefighter and medic compensation by 5 percent. Additionally, salaries for four job classifications in the sheriff’s office will increase by a single pay grade, or close to five percent.
“Collectively, these near-term pay solutions will help to improve the city’s regional competitiveness and
positively impact employee engagement,” Howard said. “We recognize the value and skill of public safety employees, and the competition for talent will be ongoing and require us to remain vigilant and focused in our efforts to recruit and retain high quality personnel.”
Council approved without further discussion the proposed increases, which are scheduled for official implementation later this month.
Despite some concern over expenditures from Smedberg and Councilor Willie Bailey, council also unanimously passed resolutions to provide additional loans to the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation for The Bloom/Carpenter’s Shelter and the Gateway at King and Beauregard projects.
At the end of the meeting, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson proposed an amendment to the calendar that would establish a mid-summer public hearing. Council goes on a two-month recess during July and August as per the guidelines of the current schedule, but Wilson and Councilor John Chapman noted the long holding periods that business owners applying for permits may experience as a result of the break.
Councilor Del Pepper, who has long opposed summer meetings, expressed more of a willingness to support this proposal.
“If you’re talking about just one public hearing — no legislative meetings — then I might be more interested in that,” Pepper said. “… If you’re saying it’s just a public hearing and no more, and if it’s not too disruptive of the planning commission schedule, then I would withdraw my opposition.”
Silberberg was hesitant to support the change without first gathering thoughts from the public. She voiced concern that because so many residents travel during the summer, some interested community members might not be able to participate in a meeting.
However, Smedberg noted that residents have to miss out on public hearings throughout the year for a variety of reasons.
“I just don’t see a downside to [a summer public hearing] at all,” Smedberg said. “People in this community travel all year round.”
In order to add a summer public hearing, council would have to make a calendar revision that would be voted on at some point in the coming months, Wilson said.
Council will meet again on Saturday for its September public hearing.