City public works employees request fair compensation

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City public works employees request fair compensation
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

The city’s public works employees turned out in numbers to call for fair compensation at the first of two city council budget public hearings on Tuesday.

The group of sanitation workers, vehicle operators and other city employees were impossible to miss in their neon yellow shirts. They were also impossible to ignore, walking up to the mic one after the other to ask city council and City Manager Mark Jinks to address the ongoing issues surrounding employee compensation.

“Everybody wants to come to Alexandria to live. Tourist attractions is booming, real estate is booming. Everybody’s booming except us. We are still down here at the bottom,” Bernard Banks, a vehicle operator for the city, said. “We don’t want it all, we just want to be fairly compensated. That’s it, that’s all we want.”

Jinks’ proposed $799.9 million FY2021 budget already includes merit-based pay increases and a 1.5 percent pay raise across the board for full-time and part-time city employees. But city employees argued it’s not enough, especially as the city continues to struggle in retaining its workers.

“We are losing people at a fast rate,” Banks said to council. “They’re going to other jurisdictions that pay better; they’re paying much better.”

An entry level class I equipment operator earns a minimum of $32,180 per year in Alexandria, while a class II operator earns a minimum of $35,368 per year, according to the city’s Compensation and Human Resources Information System.

Fairfax County paid its motor vehicle operators a minimum of $41,054.83 per year, while Arlington hewed closer to Alexandria, paying class II operators a minimum of $35,192 annually.

The proposed FY2021 budget includes $834,397 in targeted pay increases for public safety officials, including the chief deputy sheriff, deputy fire chief, police captains and lieutenants and class I firefighters. A 6.6 percent raise for class I firefighters would bring their annual salaries to $52,531, which is still the lowest in the region.

The city’s targeted efforts to increase compensation for the city’s first responders has left public works employees out in the cold, Thomas Knighton, an employee in the stormwater management division, said.

“While you are in warm, dry houses, we are in the weather for 12-hour shifts. Rain, snow and severe thunderstorms, earthquakes and even other natural disasters,” Knighton said. “We may not see our families for days. We’re making sure the city is safe and the roads stay clear so police, fire and rescue personnel can get to their emergencies.”

Sheriff Dana Lawhorne also took to the podium on Tuesday to criticize the proposed 2-cent real estate tax increase. Lawhorne expressed skepticism that raising taxes is the best strategy to achieve the city’s goals moving forward.

“Taxes go up, people leave town. We need to change something,” Lawhorne said.

The proposed tax rate hike would raise the real estate tax from $1.13 to $1.15 per $100 of assessed value. All of the revenue gained from the tax rate increase would go towards funding city and school capital projects, such as the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School rebuild. The city manager also proposed increasing the real estate tax by 2 cents in 2023 and another 2 cents in 2025.

The needs of the school system make up the majority of the FY2021 operating budget and FY2021-2030 CIP budget. The proposed budget includes the full $241.4 million in funding for Alexandria City Public Schools, which parents and PTA members broadly supported.

“The city manager’s budget proposal prioritizes the future of Alexandria: it’s children,” Alexandria PTA Council President Katy Matthews said. “I can’t express strongly enough how the city’s PTAs support this and ask that you do also.”

Alicia Rutherford, a member of the George Mason Elementary School PTA, spoke to the impact that a fully funded schools budget could have on the students at George Mason. The school’s modernization process is currently scheduled to begin in 2023.

“Our 81-year-old wood frame school currently has no fire sprinklers or carbon monoxide detectors and obsolete fire alarm panels,” Rutherford said. “… Our children have attended schools in these conditions for too long and any further delay is unacceptable. Please support funding the proposed CIP so that Alexandria students today and in the future have the safe and healthy schools they deserve.”

The hearing on Tuesday was the first of two budget public hearings. The second is scheduled for April 18 and will be dedicated to discussion of the proposed tax rate increase. In the meantime, council will be busy with weekly work sessions leading up to scheduled budget adoption on April 29.

(Read more: King Street pedestrian zone takes shape)

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