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With Employee Salaries, County Aims to be Competitive

by ARLnow.com — December 9, 2010 at 2:24 pm 1,438 59 Comments

You might think that with another looming budget gap and talk of a new worldwide Age of Austerity, Arlington County would be looking at cutting employee compensation as a potential way to trim costs.

After all, every taxpayer in Arlington knows that our famously progressive county probably pays employees more than anyone else in the region, right?

Wrong.

Arlington is, in fact, still playing catchup with Fairfax and Alexandria compensation-wise, County Manager Barbara Donnellan told a group of Arlington County Civic Federation delegates Tuesday night.

Donnellan cited a study released last year which determined that while employee benefits were on par with Fairfax and Alexandria, Arlington’s two biggest competitors in the job market, employee salaries lagged in more than half the job categories examined.

Another such study will be conducted next year.

Donnellan said that Arlington will likely continue to grant merit-based step increases to employees in the upcoming budget. That, she said, should help Arlington compete with Fairfax, which has frozen step increases. Like Arlington, however, Alexandria is still granting pay raises.

“Overall, we’re trying to maintain competitiveness,” Donnellan said. Comparisons to the private sector and to similar jurisdictions in other parts of the country are generally not helpful, Donnellan said, because the county is drawing from a different pool of potential job applicants.

As an example of one area where Arlington is struggling to fill jobs, Donnellan cited a recent recruiting drive by the police department.

Out of some 70 prospective applicants for a significant number of police vacancies (perhaps 20 to 30), only four were ultimately hired after a battery of physical and mental tests.

“Four doesn’t cut it,” Donnellan said, adding that more public safety recruiting classes will be necessary. In other job categories, she said, hiring is a mixed bag.

“We had a hiring freeze for two years, so when we do open up a job, we get a lot of applicants who are applying for it,” she said. “Are they the best and the brightest and fit exactly with the experience that we’re looking for? Not always. But we certainly have been able to capture some people in this downtime that are looking for a more stable environment to work in.”

  • Andrew

    I’m all for salaries that allow public servants such as police and fire to live in the communities they serve.

    The trouble is that Arlington is, what, the fifth richest county in the nation? So a big salary increase for publc employees shouldn’t come as a surprise to people.

    • employee

      Arlington also has the one of the highest cost of living… gotta pay the employees so they can afford to live in the county…

    • Less Government

      It’s not necessary for workers to live in the county, that’s just an excuse to make salaries higher. If we continue to let that happen we’ll have secretaries making $100,000 a year like we have in the federal government. That’s why our government is broke, because the rest of us in the private sector can no longer afford to pay exorbitant government salaries, bonuses, merit pay and waste.

      • FD

        Federal salaries make up less than one half percent of federal spending.

      • mehoo

        Name a single federal “secretary” making $100k. It’s not true. Unless you mean, like, Secretary of Defense.

        Part of the reason our government is broke because effective tax rate are at their lowest rates in modern history while real wages for taxpayers haven’t increased since Reagan started busting unions.

        • Andrew

          While the low effective tax rate is part of the equation, I’d argue the ridiculous amount of waste and unnecessary spending requires MUCH more attention.

          • mehoo

            Yes, on the spending side, there is waste. But nearly all the growth in spending has been, and will continue to be, Social Security and Medicare. We’re getting older. That’s what will have to be dealt with.

  • CrystalCity’er

    Let the Palin-esque comments begin…

    • Greg

      I can see Fairfax from my house!

    • Sarah Palin

      The unions, donchaknow, have got that stranglehold thing, strangleholdin’ the government workers, makin’ it hard for you and me and Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer to keep workin’, strugglin’, huntin’ for your own food if they’re from the great state of Alaska, and it’s socialism, socialist with a capital S to be askin’ and askin’ for more taxes when so many are workin’ and gettin’ things from welfare, canned food, canned Moose meat, put a little horseradish sauce on it and its the best Christmas dinner you’ll ever eat for your family, better than from a microwave, Trig loves it, and Todd, goin’ out there in the snow to get another log for the fire, he’s just workin’ and hopin’ like everyday peoples, gettin’ that hope thing for jobs.

      • Mark Kinzler

        As amusing as they may be, Palin jokes are no substitute for the maturity it takes to address issues like the budget gap with a county board full of Democrats. If Arlington County is serious about addressing its debt issue (~5,000 owed per resident) they’ll need to make other cuts in order to meet the demands of what I feel is a meritorious undertaking to keep public pay competitive. Otherwise its awfully difficult to say with a straight face that the board is doing its job.

        • mehoo

          You spoiled the fun, Mark.

      • Stickler

        My laugh for the day. Beautifully done. Thanks.

      • CrystalCity’er

        Agreed. Hilarious :)

      • Katie Couric

        Forgive me, Mrs. Palin, but it seems to me that when cornered, you become increasingly adorable. Is that fair to say?

        • Sarah Palin

          I refudiate what the liberal media, the liberals and those who don’t like freedom, freedom and the great nation we built from hard workin’ people, with a patch of land and hard sweat, buildin’ and toilin’ that nation, gotta build stuff if you want your fruits of your freedom, and some socialists and liberals think they can have a chunk of that, but the American people, they know the media wants to sink me, take that freedom off the table, that food off the kitchen counter of the hard worker, takin’ that freedom and printin’ liberal lies and socialism, so we gotta put that freedom thing, that freedom forward, on the table.

  • DT

    Maybe they should fix the County Police retirement system. While we are lucky to have the guys and gals we do, we miss out on many good cops because the retirement isn’t up to par.

  • PurpleFlipFlops

    Maybe they’ll raise my RE taxes again…

    • Mark Kinzler

      Tax….spend….tax….spend….when the plans fail, the planners make more plans.

      • Lou

        You left out ….take on more municipal debt….

        Maybe they should put a bond issue on the next ballot for employee raises. Although that’s probably illegal.

        • PurpleFlipFlops

          Wouldn’t matter. It would pass 80/20 just like the other bond measures this past election.

        • Doug

          Since when does “illegal” stop them – Arlington welcomes “ALL” immigrants.

    • Dan

      You can count on it !!

  • Yoda

    Who wrote this article title, Yoda. It would be much better as “County Aims to be Competitive with Employee Salaries.”

    • PikeHoo

      +1 for summoning the powers of the Force

    • Mark Kinzler

      Ignore the debt, you must. Raise taxes, you will…

      • mehoo

        As amusing as they may be, Yoda jokes are no substitute for the…

      • PikeHoo

        Speaking of ignoring the debt…how about those jokers in GOP? Lowering taxes for the richest Americans in 2011 at a cost of $900 billion over the next two years. It seems like the debt only matters when it’s a Democratic initiative.

        • Rover

          I think the point in extending the tax cuts is to avoid taking money from all Americans, including the richest, because that would remove $$ from the economy. Think of it as another “stimulus”, which is something Dems endorsed. Call it what you want, but it is just ensuring money is available for the economic engine. Raise taxes and tip the scales toward recession again.

          • PikeHoo

            Yeah, it’s called supply side economics and, under Reagan, it is widely considered by economists to be a complete failure because he cut taxes AND increased spending.

            If you enjoyed the 1st $150 billion dollar stimulus back in 2008, you should write a thank you note to George Bush because he signed that one.

          • http://arlnow wondering

            People in the higher income brackets will most likely save that extra money vs. spending it as those in the sub-$250,000 catagory would likely do. There is then no direct stimulus to the economy and the deficit keeps climbing.

          • Rover

            Strange…. I seem to remember the Carter years as dismal and the Reagan years as much better. I can’t argue with the debt, but the man did take down the Soviets and stop the Cold War and fear of nuke wipeout. I would suppose that would cost something. It accomplished the stoppage of an out of control arms race on both sides which would have been totally unsustainable had it continued. Just ask the Soviets.

            I’m not sure why you say people who make above $250K would be less likely to spend. I actually think, right now, it is the other way around. Sub $250K folks are likely to use the extra money to pay off debt rather than spend it. How many so called “rich people” take on a home improvement project and get their hands dirty? They don’t. They hire contractors, putting people to work. That stimulates the economy. They buy products. They will invest in companies…some of their investment will go to small start ups. It is ignorant to say they will save their money. Rich people put their money to work for them. That’s how they got rich. I don’t know why we want to penalize them for working hard for their money. Their tax base is something like 90% of all taxes collected, but we complain it isn’t enough. There’s an incentive to work hard to be successful! I think I’ll just not work hard, so that I can be part of the 50% of people who don’t pay federal taxes. Oh, I can collect services and benifits too then! Why work?!

          • Sarah Palin

            Of course you remember the Reagan years as better – he borrowed his way to (temporary) prosperity. Fun is fun, but sooner or later you have to grow up and be responsible and that’s not so fun.

            By the way, your memory is off – until 2008, Reagan’s recession of 1982 was the worst since the Great Depression.

          • mehoo

            Ooops, Sarah Palin didn’t say that. You could probably tell, given that it involved complete sentences.

          • Rover

            Funny…. You’ll blame the recession now on GW, even though Obama is prez. Yet, you don’t blame the early 1980′s recession on the 1976-80 Carter years?

          • mehoo

            Funny, you didn’t actually ask me who I’ll blame what for.

            Funny, I might be able to pull the same hypocrisy trick on you, in reverse.

          • Rover

            No, I didn’t ask Sarah Palin. Or, did we just catch you posting as her and mehoo and confusing yourself?

            Jedi mind trick won’t work on me!

          • mehoo

            These are not the droids you’re looking for.

        • Mike

          Call me picky, but I think it would be more accurate to say that the GOP (and the President for that matter) is aiming to keep the tax rates the same as they have been for the last decade. They’re not lowering or raising taxes, they’re keeping them at the same level. Though, I do take your very valid point that something needs to be done about the deficit.

        • Andrew

          Please provide source that anyones tax rates are being lowered from 2010 levels? I assume you are okay with everyone staying at current tax levels except those who make over $250K? Is there any logic behind that?

          • mehoo

            No, the deal doesn’t just preserve the current levels, it cuts some taxes even more, while reinstating others. The net effect is a further cut in taxes from current levels.

    • Yellow Submarine

      Thank you for saying that! It was driving me crazy.
      Or should I say, “Crazy it was driving me.”

  • Rover

    I work for a public entity slightly further out than Arlington. After studying what fair compensation would be, I feel my salary is on par and fair; not too high or not too low. Not too long ago I looked at a similar job in Arlington. They were interested in me, but the MOST they could offer me was about 75% of what I was making further away from the city. I’ve seen this in other job listings in Arlington as well. Somehow, they are way off base to elsewhere in the region, and to what is fair. At least, that is true for my discipline.

    You really have to study what happens when you don’t provide proper compensation, especially for professional jobs. If you are not able to attract a staff with higher levels of qualification often work is contracted to consulting firms (or other professional service firms). These firms charge multipliers to their published rate, often getting $200-$300 per hour for services a qualified county employee could perform at $120 per hour (including overhead…not just salary!). So, until you see what the “real” costs are to the county, don’t complain. Attracting the proper staff for the job might just save the county on contract services and make it very worthwhile.

  • Penny Pincher

    Must be why they put new meters in Shirlington. Have to get the $ somewhere =P

    • G

      Where are they putting in new meters?

  • Amy Ray

    County employees get a bad wrap on this website. I think we all owe county employees a thanks. We have some very smart, hard working, and dedicated servants. We should be proud and thankful. It could always be worse – http://wapo.st/bx7d2y

    • PikeHoo

      Good ol’ PG County. You always find a way to embarrass.

    • Dan

      “County employees get a bad wrap on this website.”

      And that is especially ironic what with this being the Christmas season…..you would think that the “wrapping” would be “premo” this time of year !!!

  • FD

    Arlington Fire Department salaries have lagged behind ALL other local jurisdictions for years. Study after study has indicated this. The County Managers and County Board have paid nothing but lip-service to the results of the studies. So here we go again….
    How many smart, talented firefighters do we need to hire, then watch walk away to other local fire departments because the pay is significantly better elsewhere? The lack of a competitive salary is causing a big brain drain.

    • Substantiated?

      Are those studies on firefighter pay publicly available? If so, what’s the link?
      And what are the numbers on the attrition rate? Is it anecdotal that firefighters leave for other jurisdictions (people change jobs all the time for lots of reasons) or is there data that shows a higher attrition rate than surrounding jurisdictions, and perhaps exit interview data that demonstrates that people are leaving because of pay issues? I heard that a number of older firefighters were retiring this year because of changes to retiree health benefits brought about by the new health care law – but that’s not related to firefighter pay.
      I saw info on another thread a month or two ago showing that the FD budget had basically doubled in the past 10 years – so what has that funding gone for?

  • http://arlnow wondering

    When does it end with each county/city using the next to justify higher and higher salaries (as well as general expenditures)? We’re facing tough economic times and the municipalities still don’t get it. Businesses, especially small to medium ones, as well as households need to keep their expenses from exceding their income. Less income, spend less. What makes government immune from this common sense fiscal approach? And yes I know that some individuals expenses do exceed their income at times but left unchecked they crash and burn. Our elected officials should be held to a higher standard as stewards of our money.

    • operate like a business, or not?

      How do you think private businesses set salaries? Through benchmarking and comparisons. The point is to keep up, not fall behind, and not overpay.

  • MC

    We could sell the Arlington Mills Community Center site to a commercial developer and use the proceeds to raise salaries for County employees.

  • CH

    Donnellan stated that county employees will continue to receive their step increases. County teachers have not had a step increase or a cost of living increase for two years. Teachers, while maybe not the worst paid, have a difficult time living in this area. Many work extended hours to keep their classrooms going and then have to take on second jobs to keep paying the bills. It is not necessarily a matter of spending less at home, when one’s “extra” expenses were already cut quite low. I would guess that most teachers spend at least half their monthly income on the rent/mortgage. I think it is time to look at other cost cutting options before freezing/refreezing salaries. I can only imagine that the county is going to begin to lose some of those workers they depend on most.

    • Louise

      Teachers received a step increase this past year and the County employees did not. It is important to also note that over the past 6 or so years that I have kept track, the Schools’ teachers also received decent cost of living adjustments while County employees did not. But this is not a competition, just an observation – the Schools put a greater premium on their staffing commitments than the County does – or so the history points out.

      During the boom years in the County when our taxes went up commensurate with our real estate values booming, the County had an influx of money and this area saw an increase in our cost of living – County employees did not get COLAs, but also saw their share of health care substantially increase while their salaries did not keep up. At the same time in the private sector, businesses kept their employees by giving bonuses and salary increases – again the County did not keep up.

      I think it’s fair to ask the question about the cost of government, but a County government can’t work efficiently or even well if employees are not of a decent caliber to handle the business of the County. Eventually that will, if it already hasn’t happened, catch up in terms of quality government.

      • CH

        Check your facts. There was NO step increase or COLA this past year. The year before there was a .5 step an no COLA. We also pay substantially more in health care than in previous years. My paycheck has actually decreased due to the freeze and increased cost. Teacher salary accounts for the majority of the school budget and therefore is the first to take a hit when there are budget woes. I am not questioning whether county employees should or should not get pay- I just think it should be done fairly.

    • AllenB

      Donnellan has no say over what raises teachers gets. It’s entirely up to the Superintendent of Schools and the School Board. The split of revenue between the schools and county government is a set formula. What the schools do with that money is entirely up to them. If you have a problem with teacher raises take it up with the school board.

  • 4Arl

    How about talking some numbers… how much would be fair to compensate a cop or firefighter? Chief? Department Head? County Manager? OK, now how much extra salary would be fair to exchange for the pension and other benefits that cost the county a fortune to guarantee? Think about it because they’re proposing to allow new management hires to take cash and opt out of the pension. Why only allow management to have this deal? See this Saturday’s county board agenda: http://arlington.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=2&event_id=383&meta_id=87292

  • The Pope of South Arlington

    Comrade Commissar, why have you disappeared me?

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