City’s H.R. Chief Tells Council Employee Unrest ‘Worst I’ve Seen in My 25 Years’
A salary bonus, perhaps, but how much? The Falls Church City Council at a budget work session last Thursday heard an alarming report on the psychological state of the City’s workforce in the face of projected further cuts to take home pay, and began talking about supplementing salaries with one-time bonuses to soften austerity’s blow.
In a rare show of consensus, former mayor Robin Gardner and first-year councilman Ira Kaylin appeared on the same side of the issue, though Gardner expressed more concern for the compensation level, and Kaylin for the fact that any such action be in the form of a one-time bonus so as not to trigger multiplier effects associated with pension and other factors.
Gardner told the News-Press yesterday that she had not heard back yet from City Hall on her request for what the dollar amount would be to compensate City employees at a level that would be even with their net take home pay this year.
“If it would cost a million dollars, or something like three cents on the tax rate, then I don’t think I could go that far,” she suggested, “But we do owe it to our employees to do the best we can.”
At last Thursday’s work session, the City’s veteran director of human resources Richard Parker was so soft spoken that his comment was almost buried beneath a litany of numbers about City employee compensation, pension and health insurance levels.
He suddenly, and softly, threw in, “In my 25 years in Falls Church, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
He was referring to the level of activity in recent months by City employees seeking emergency draws on their deferred compensation accounts and advances on their paychecks.
“Our employees are getting hammered by rent increases, rising gas prices and rising food costs,” he said. Later, he explained that the financial squeeze from three years of salary freezes in Falls Church “is now effecting everyone.”
He said that employees bought homes on the belief that over times their salaries would continue to rise over time, and that in other cases, a spouse’s loss of work could be a factor, but that the situation has now changed drastically overall.
“It’s due to a combination of things,” he said. Faced with the prospect of significant real cuts in take home pay, he said, “I know of four or five” Falls Church police officers who are actively looking for work elsewhere.
“Quite frankly” Parker said, “Employees are asking,’What is my future in this organization? A lot of other places are starting to recover, and no other jurisdictions are showing negatives” in terms of employee net take home pay like Falls Church.
Parker’s muted eloquence stirred some on the Council, including Gardner and Kaylin, usually at loggerheads, to explore options for putting more into City employ paychecks in the coming fiscal year.
Gardner said boldly. “I want to compensate our employees better.” Adding a written comment on FCNP.com this week, she added, “I thoroughly believe that we as a Council should be supporting our police force and have been very vocal about it throughout this budget cycle and every cycle since I’ve been on Council.”
Council member Lawrence Webb chimed in, saying, “We have to say ‘we value what you do here, we know you make a difference,'” and, “We have to show them in some kind of monetary way.”
While Vice Mayor David Snyder objected, saying that talk of defections by City employees, including police, bely figures showing average compensation in Falls Church is higher than in neighboring Fairfax County.
“This could be rhetoric beyond what the numbers show,” he said. Snyder also noted that downward pressures on Falls Church employee take home pay is due to the fact that the City’s employee pension funds reward the City employees comparatively greater down the road.
Snyder added in a comment posted to FCNP.com, “I am concerned about the compensation for our employees and want to do what we can for them.”
But the bottom line, Parker retorted, is that “paychecks are going down” for Falls Church City employees, and they’re not elsewhere.
Council member Ira Kaylin stressed that any salary increases would have terrible multiplier effects for the City, especially in terms of future pension fund costs, at a time when the City simply can’t afford it. “If we don’t have the money, we don’t have the money,” he intoned. “We face a very difficult future for the City if we can’t figure out how to raise revenues.”
In a rare moment of agreement, however, Kaylin did agree with Gardner on the concept that if a way could be found for City employees to be compensated further, it would be best done through one-time bonuses, rather than salary increases.
The subject was left by the Council with the following preminary conclusions, as summarized by Mayor Nader Baroukh: No one objected to City Manager Wyatt Shields’ proposal to increase the employee participation in their own pension plans from 1.6 to 5 percent for regular employees and from 2.2. to 7 percent for police, but that the discussion of potential salary increases or bonuses would await additional data for discussion in coming weeks before the Council’s final adoption of its budget April 26.
The Council’s next budget work session is tonight, April 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Dogwood Room at City Hall.