Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne says that the city has a problem compensating its employees, and at Monday’s budget public hearing told city council that raising taxes is not the answer.
“The proposed budget does not close the gap with our competitors in the region,” Lawhorne said. “Taxes go up, people leave town. We need to change things.”
Lawhorne’s comments were notable, since his department is proposed to receive $135,000 for office staff, in addition to a 1.5% pay increase for all city employees, which City Manager Mark Jinks has proposed in his $799.9 million fiscal year 2021 budget.
The budget proposal would also see a real estate tax increase of 2 cents, which would fully fund the city’s public school system request. Jinks wants to raise taxes every other year over the course of six years in order to pay for construction of two new elementary schools.
Lawhorne said the methodology behind the tax increase is the problem.
“Make no mistake about it, I support tax increases to fully fund our schools and public safety,” he said. “It’s how we get to this point that concerns me. Kicking the can down the road over the years will eventually catch up to you. Then it creates a significant tax demand and it hits our seniors hard. My ask tonight was for city council to think about it.”
Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said that employee compensation is the dominant conversation in every city budget.
“You will go to any local government in this region and you will see these exact same conversations occurring at their budget public hearings,” Wilson said. “Everyone is dealing with the same challenges. We’ll talk again about about what the best ways that we can make sure that we have competitive pay and fair and equitable pay for all our employees, and that’s my commitment.”
A number of representatives from various city departments attended and spoke at the meeting, including the Alexandria Fire Department and the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.
Mike Chandler has been an Alexandria firefighter for 31 years, and said that staffing shortages and working overtime have become the norm at the department, which is among the lowest paid in the region.
“It’s very hard to keep folks motivated. In some cases it’s almost impossible, because it’s very hard to argue with the increased compensation they can go get right next door in some of the neighboring jurisdictions,” Chandler told ALXnow. “We’ve had difficulty retaining quality employees because of mainly pay issues. We’ve become a training ground for our region. Recruits come here, they get trained, they get a little bit of experience and they move to some of the neighboring jurisdictions because then they can make so much more money.”
The budget proposes transitioning a part-time nurse practitioner to full-time nurse to provide health support for the city’s firefighters and medics, and $360,000 for six reserve firefighters.
AFD Captain Josh Turner, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2141, says that three firefighters have moved to neighboring jurisdictions in the last two weeks. He estimates that it will cost upward of $2 million for city firefighters to be 100% staffed at the midpoint in the region.
“A 1.5% raise is great. I’m really excited for 1.5% for my members, but it’s not enough,” Turner said.
City council will discuss employee compensation at its next budget work session on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at City Hall.