Police, fire unions vie for piece of 2.5 cent tax hike floated by Arlington County Board

Police officer gives out citation in Courthouse (staff photo by James Jarvis)

Arlington’s police and fire unions are vying for more funding in the county’s proposed $1.62 billion budget to fix compensation issues they say fuel attrition and vacancy issues.

County Manager Mark Schwartz, meanwhile, makes the case in the 2024-2025 budget that the county has been and is committed to meeting these problems with funding while balancing other budget priorities.

Since Arlington County authorized collective bargaining in 2022, the unions representing police, firefighters and paramedics have focused on tackling how members are paid, blaming it for driving employees to work for other jurisdictions in the region with higher compensation.

Currently, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 2800 has 25 vacant uniformed positions, for a 7.5% vacancy rate, while ACPD has 72 vacancies, for a 19% vacancy rate, according to presidents for both IAFF and Arlington Coalition of Police (ACOP). IAFF says this is more than twice the number of vacancies in 2018, while police vacancies appear on par with ARLnow’s last report in the fall.

Last budget cycle, the county committed to a three-year effort to fix these problems for first responders. Union leaders say the county has contributed enough to change its pay system to one where salary increases track with years of service. Still, they say, it has not set aside enough to ensure all members are paid according to their years of service.

“Last April, the County Board identified addressing pay compression for firefighters as a priority for FY25 but our members are still waiting for relief,” IAFF Brian Lynch said in a statement. “Meanwhile other communities are responding to the nationwide shortage of firefighters and police officers by increasing wages across the board, and our people have been voting with their feet.”

The 2025 budget proposes a 2% increase over last year’s budget for ACPD, for a total of $85,839,546. The fire department’s budget is unchanged from last year for a total of $76,023,512. The budget includes step increases for ACOP and IAFF employees in line with their collective bargaining agreements.

“Our employees are the foundation of all the great work that we do in the County,” Schwartz says in his budget message. “This budget continues our commitment to the collective bargaining agreements (CBA) in place and provides pay increases for non-bargaining employees… We will continue to evaluate various job classifications and contribute to the increases in healthcare costs.”

Still, the 2025 budget acknowledges that understaffing is impacting public safety metrics, at least for ACPD. Between 2020-23, received cases increased from around 6,800 to north of 8,400, but assigned cases hovered around one-quarter to one-third of these totals. During the same time, the percentage of successfully closed cases dropped from a high of 60% to a low of 48%, attributed to an understaffed Criminal Investigative Section.

The fire department’s budget section does not discuss understaffing impacts. It does note that the total number of incidents has and will continue to increase, partially driven by more hospital transports and public service non-emergency responses.

These trends may fuel intradepartmental shortages. Lynch says this spring ACFD will lose 13 personnel to an accelerated paramedic training program and six to teach a new class of recruits. Vacancies in emergency services will also increase by 19 as ACFD pulls firefighters from the field to train them to also be EMTs and medics.

“That’s with no one leaving the department,” he said. “That is over 13% of the bargaining unit — an unprecedented lack of personnel.”

Funding for public safety, including the police and fire departments, makes up 11% of Arlington’s budget (via Arlington County)

Shortly after Schwartz proposed his 2024-2025 budget on Saturday, the unions pitched a tax rate hike of one penny. On Tuesday, the Arlington County Board authorized public hearings on a tax rate that was one penny higher, which the county says would generate some $9.1 million in additional revenue.

Chiefly, this was to insure Arlington Public Schools against budget uncertainties while state funding levels are determined. More broadly, Board members said it gave them a higher ceiling so they could discuss extra funding to address the opioid epidemic and teen wellness, affordable housing, county jail improvements and Metro’s budget shortfall.

Salaries for first responders did not make the shortlist. Still, ACOP President Randall Mason tells ARLnow he looks forward to meeting with the Board on March 6 to present the organization’s case for “any money they find as they trim down the budget.”

“No reasonable person can look at ACPD’s vacancy rate compared to other local jurisdictions and come to the conclusion that our pay system doesn’t need significant assistance from the Board,” he said, noting the vacancy rate is the third-highest among 21 police and sheriff’s offices in the D.C. area.

As for the Board, in the last budget it added funding to implement the new pay system. Most ACOP members received at least 10% increases last year, funded by freezing 26 sworn positions. The fire department’s step system also saw a boost, with an additional $62,200 in one-time funds for longevity bonuses, rewarded to those who have reached the top of the pay scale.

This was an important first step, says Mason, noting that under the old system, 200 of 300 officers had at one time been paid less than a colleague with less time with ACPD.

While the new system lays the foundation, Lynch says 149 IAFF members — nearly 50% — will be one to four steps behind their service years and, depending on their rank, underpaid by 4 to 26%.

Although the unions are competing for a piece of the $9.1 million, IAFF and ACOP say it will take slightly more than that to be competitive with the neighboring jurisdictions to which they are losing staff.

The firefighters union says some $4.3 million this budget would continue last year’s longevity bonuses and help catch up firefighters who are behind on their steps. The police union says $7.8 million — a number floated in negotiations — would drop the number of steps police have to climb, from 26 to 12, to reach the top of the pay scale. This, says Mason, would make Arlington competitive with Fairfax County’s 9-step and Alexandria’s 15-step systems.

“Over 60% of our officers live outside of Arlington County,” Mason said. “Driving through these other jurisdictions for the worst step system and worst merit increase is illogical.”