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Peter’s Take: Reforms Needed in County Staff Salaries

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotLast week, the County Board Chair scrambled to fix a mistake he made in proposing a last-minute budget adjustment. This episode demonstrated carelessness in making critical decisions that have substantial human and financial consequences. It also highlighted the need for long-term reforms in county staff compensation policy.

In his original explanation for how the county was going to pay for a 1 percent property tax rate cut, the Board Chair — without any consultation with stakeholders or the public — proposed paying for this rate cut by eliminating step increases for county employees. He suggested replacing that system with a 1 percent annual cost of living increase and a one-time $500 bonus. After entirely predictable protests by affected employees, the Chair backed down.

Every issue and trade-off involved in this quickly-retracted proposal could have been aired months ago at the outset of the budget review process. Why wasn’t this proposal raised then?

“Live Healthy,” who says he is not a county employee but is an Arlington property owner, posted thoughtful comments to one of ARLnow.com’s stories about this episode. He writes:

I am consistently shocked at what a low value this county places on its most important asset: The employees. Employees are not a cheap set of tools that you use until they wear out and break, then replace them.

This County Board should really be ashamed of themselves for the way they treat their most valuable asset. Annual spending priorities constantly seem to focus on pet projects. Meanwhile the core services: police, fire, medical; water, sewer, streets; schools; economic development; tax collection; courthouse civil services; and others often take a back seat.

A 1% increase does not even keep pace with inflation over the last year. Looking historically, it seems that Arlington has not kept pace (even close) with inflation for many years. That is with no mention of the frozen merit increases that the employees have endure[d]. In other words, with each year that passes, our county employees’ paychecks are worth less than the year before.

It’s time for the Arlington County Board to stop pandering to interest groups and stop funding pet projects at the expense of those who make them possible. Start a multi-year process to catch up with inflation, restore merit increases, and pay our employees a salary commensurate with their hard work and dedication. 

I agree with “Live Healthy.” The County Board’s flawed approach to staff salary compensation is yet another illustration of why the Board’s budget priorities are wrong for Arlington.

In the case of staff salaries, as in so many other areas, the Board needs to focus on Arlington’s core services. 

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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