Council considers budget add/deletes, as firefighters plead for more funding

Council considers budget add/deletes, as firefighters plead for more funding
Photo/Missy Schrott Alexandria firefighters called on City Council to increase compensation, expressing concern over staffing shortages and the resulting burnout among members of the fired department.

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City Council is nearing the end of budget season, and with adoption of the budget set for May 4, the community weighed in on council’s add/ delete changes to the fiscal year 2023 budget during Saturday’s public hearing.

Council has proposed changes to City Manager Jim Parajon’s $829.9 million operating budget that range from pay scale adjustments for city employees to additional dedicated funding for affordable housing and climate change initiatives.

One of the more notable changes includes a proposal to add six new staff to the Alexandria Police Department’s Field Operations Bureau, which oversees patrol operations, including the city’s school resource officers. The six positions would be funded using the $800,000 that was deleted from the SRO contingency funding in the last budget cycle. Previously, for the FY2022 budget, council reallocated funding for SROs to mental health services, which created a fierce debate within the community. According to council’s add/ delete document, the change will put the decision of how the funds are allocated in the hands of APD, while leaving policy decisions to council.

Other notable add/deletes include the $495,000 addition of five speed cameras in school crossing zones and a $600,000 add for a bodyworn camera program that, with additional funding from ARPA and federal earmarked money, would bring the program to $2.2 million. There is a proposed $277,000 increase to the Alexandria co-response team program, which partners police officers and mental health specialists from the Department of Community and Human Services. The money would fund an additional police officer and DCHS therapist duo, on top of the one already proposed in the budget.

Other adds include a $2 million increase in dedicated funding for climate change initiatives, the expansion of three DASH bus lines and the hiring of another position in the city’s burgeoning race and social equity office.

The budget item that received the most community input remained compensation for the city’s first responders. Members of the Alexandria Fire Department, who have been urgently calling on the city to increase their pay in order to mitigate ongoing recruitment, retainment and staffing challenges, turned out in large numbers to testify before council.

Currently, the FY2023 budget contains a 6% pay increase for firefighters, a 5% raise for police, a 4% increase for general city employees and an additional 0.5% citywide pay scale adjustment.

According to members of AFD and IAFF Local 2141, the union representing firefighters in the city, a 10% pay increase would be required to make Alexandria’s fire department competitive with other jurisdictions.

Mike Faber said that during the past few years the department has struggled with severe staffing shortages and burnout, both direct results of compensation that has lagged behind that of neighboring Arlington and Fairfax County, among others. Arlington announced on April 21 that it intends to increase starting salaries for firefighters to $60,000. According to Faber, who is one of only five Alexandria firefighters who live in the city, those who have worked in AFD for six years do not earn $60,000.

The lack of staff in Alexandria firehouses has taken a toll on those who are currently working overtime, with some saying they consistently work 56-hour work weeks and 24-hour shifts.

“In a sense, the city doesn’t just employ me, it owns me and my family because my ability to participate in my home life is controlled by my employer,” Faber said.

“As a firefighter/paramedic, I’ve been on calls where I’ve tried in vain to resuscitate a dead infant and then been told two hours later that I have to stay at work for another 24 hours,” Alexander Lee, a six-year Alexandria firefighter and paramedic, said.

Faber said the staffing shortages present a danger to the community when the fire department is not able to provide full levels of service. According to Faber, a part of AFD has been out of service every day since Aug. 12, 2021.

“Right now, I know that the neighborhood firehouse where I live, where my wife and kids sleep, may not have an [advanced life support] provider on the ambulance,” Faber said. “It scares me knowing that if they were to get into a car crash, we would have to wait for the Arlington or Fairfax rescue squad to get there first to get them out of the car, or, if something bad happens to them at the house, the only thing the staff on the ambulance could do for them is get them to the hospital.”

Lee testified that the department’s relatively low compensation has proved a challenge for recruitment and retainment of talent. Since graduating from recruit school in 2016, Lee said 25% of his graduating class has left the department. This year, Lee helped train the most recent class of recruits, work that he said was both the highlight of his career but also “bittersweet.”

“Members see other jurisdictions where their firefighters work less hours, make more money, spend more time with family and experience less burnout, and ask, ‘Why should I stay here?’ And, honestly, I don’t have the answer,” Lee said. “And pretty soon those recruits will be asking me the same thing, and that’s what makes this bittersweet: I can’t tell them why they should stay. I don’t have an answer. And there’s a part of me that hates that because as one of the people responsible for training them, I can’t [help] but feel like I’ve been a part of the system that views them as disposable.”

According to Josh Turner, president of IAFF Local 2141, in a recent survey of the fire department, 76% of respondents said they had considered leaving the department in the last 24 months.

Firefighters were not the only community members present to share their thoughts on the FY23 budget. Several residents of Chirilagua and the West End, as well as members of Tenants and Workers United, were on hand to advocate for additional affordable housing investments.

There are two council-sponsored adds that would allow the city to invest more in affordable housing. One addition would increase the revenue dedicated to affordable housing to a full penny per $100 valuation of sales tax, which would come to $4.6 million in dedicated funding. Councilors Kirk McPike and Alyia Gaskins also proposed using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to create a dedicated affordable housing fund that would help increase the level of affordability for residents.

Wilfredo Diaz, who has lived in the West End for seven years, commended City Council for the affordable housing resources proposed in the budget.

“For the first time I feel that the mayor and City Council are actually working to improve the lives of those living in the city,” Diaz said. “We hope you all can support the current budget housing proposals, that we allow the city to invest in more affordable housing, such as families like myself who earn very little.”

Ingris Moran, lead organizer for TWU, emphasized the need for deeply affordable housing. Contrary to other public speakers, Moran argued that the city spends too much on its police department and urged council to reconsider its use of $800,000 to fund six police positions.

“The police department needs to redistribute their current money to ensure they cover their needs,” Moran said. “We need more funding for basic services like food pantries, eviction prevention services, rental assistance, mental health and other immediate services.”

Council’s final add/delete discussion is slated for May 2 at 7 p.m., ahead of the scheduled final adoption of the budget and tax rate on May 4 at 7 p.m.