Fairfax County public safety employees advocated for better pay Thursday during the final public hearing on the county’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget plan.
County Executive Ed Long’s budget proposal does not include pay increases for county employees, nor does it fund merit increases for public safety employees.
Earlier in the week, county employees made their dissatisfaction heard – Thursday night, police officers and firefighters joined them.
Chris Cochrane, president of the Fairfax Coalition of Police and a 25-year veteran of the force, said police had been happy to find merit increases restored in last year’s budget. But many were surprised and angered to find that they had been halted once again this year.
“It is tough to consider that after one year, the merits will be frozen again,” Cochrane said. “This will diminish morale, affect retention rates and truly be unfair.”
Cochrane said officers were recruited to the county under the impression they would receive merit increases for each of their first eight years on the force.
“Remember, these are not bonuses,” he said. “These are established and documented in our pay scale.”
While it may not hurt the more veteran officers in the department, the lack of merit increases makes life harder for the department’s new talent, Cochrane said.
“By doing away with merit increases, you are affecting mostly the younger officers … the officers who need the money the most,” he said.
Officer Amy Gee has been with the department for six years and works as a school resource officer for Fairfax County Public Schools.
Gee is married and hopes to one day have children, but she and her husband both work full time and can only manage to pay for rent and basic living expenses.
“Once we do start a family, how are we going to afford the extra living expenses associated with kids?” she asked the Board. “The cost of childcare alone is almost like paying for a second mortgage.”
Officer Gershon Ramirez has also been with the department for six years, but unlike Gee, he has children at home.
Ramirez said it could be difficult to do his job when the stress of life at home weighed on him.
“I constantly have to pick up overtime shifts,” he said. “I constantly have to stay late, come in early. I’ve missed several birthdays, anniversaries.”
Both Gee and Ramirez said they took jobs in with FCPD because it was good, noble work. They just wanted to be appropriately compensated for their service.
“I knew I was not gonna be a millionaire,” Ramirez said. “That’s why I play the lotto.”
Cochrane urged supervisors to restore merit increases and lower the retirement contribution for public safety employees from 10 percent to a more manageable 7 percent.
Without these steps, Cochrane feared officers would go to neighboring jurisdictions with better payment plans, possibly affecting the crime rate.
John Niemiec, president of Fairfax County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics, echoed Cochrane’s sentiments.
Since FY2009, the Fire & Rescue Department has had 35 positions and $16 million cut from its budget.
“We are just looking for a little more of the ‘fair’ in ‘Fairfax County,’” he said.
Niemiec advocated for the Board to restore market rate adjustments to the salaries of all county employees, as well as merit increases and longevity steps for all public safety personnel.
Niemiec also voiced his union’s opposition to STRIVE, Long’s new proposed payment plan that has been none too popular among county workers.
“My membership cannot and will not support the proposed changes to compensation as outlined in STRIVE,” Niemiec said. “This implementation would equate to a “pay-cut” not only for my membership, but for all county employees.”
Thursday's hearing was the last of three this week; the Board of Supervisors will convene its Budget Committee on April 19 to continue working on the plan.
The budget will be adopted April 30.