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Arlington’s First Responders Ask for Better Pay

Police and fire officials flooded last night’s (April 3) budget hearing to speak out against stagnant wages.

Public safety personnel say that police and fire wages are too low to allow them to live in Arlington long-term. Many are joining up, but soon realizing that their pay is insufficient to live in the county and raise a family.

The starting salary for a firefighter in Arlington is $48,000, while an entry-level police officer makes just under $53,000, according to organizers of last night’s demonstration.

A recent study found that single Arlingtonians can live comfortably on just over $56,000 a year; a couple with two children can live comfortably with just under $114,000 per year.

The proposed 2019 budget includes a four percent raise for ACFD but only a two-and-a-half percent raise for ACPD.

A “strategic restructuring” is in the works at the Arlington County Police Department, as its functional strength falls well below its authorized force. Recruiting has been a challenge, officials say.

Matthew Martin, the Arlington Police Beneficiary Association president, said that the department currently operating with 44 officers below full strength. That’s about two full patrol squads, according to the association.

‘Your police department is in trouble,” said Martin. “We can’t recruit and retain the high-quality officers that we need.”

The high turnover itself is a financial problem, as the department must then pay for recruiting and training the short-time officers, forcing the county to advertise job opportunities on billboards as far away as suburban Pittsburgh.

Ashley Savage, the police department spokeswoman, told the Tribune-Review that the billboard campaign “eventually will cover territory from Youngstown, Ohio, to Cleveland and from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.”

Matt Quinn, a financial crimes unit detective who has been on the force for 12 years, said that since there are not enough officers for core services it’s hard even for those who don’t leave the department to move up.

“We have to focus on our core services, which is patrol, which means we have to make sure that that’s taken care of before people start looking at the detective bureau or other assignments within the bureau,” Quinn said.

Arlington County will not raise property tax rates this year, but fees are set to rise for several county services and amenities while other programs are seeing their budgets cut.

IAFF Local 2800, which represents Arlington’s professional firefighters and paramedics, noted that ACFD is paid as much as 20 percent less than their nearby counterparts.

So even if the demands are met, and a four percent increase is achieved, it’s just a start in the eyes of several fire and police officials.

“I think it’s a start for the department as a whole… but definitely over the next couple years we have to work at compressing the pay scale and increasing the starting pay to attract more good candidates,” Quinn explained, saying it would be a good start in a multi-year process.

The County Board room, at capacity, was closed off shortly after opening as dozens of people — many in support of other causes, like nixing a proposed cut for Arlington Independent Media — poured in. The overflow crowd was allowed to watch and listen from the hall.

“We brought the fire department here, I think we’ll be fine,” one officer joked after the room was instructed to squeeze in to fit more people in the seats.

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Whenever we feel indecisive, it’s usually because different parts of ourselves see things differently and are motivated by different priorities and concerns. In fact, it’s usually the friction between these different “camps” that makes us feel stuck.

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