Falls Church Chief of Police Mary Gavin did her best to keep her cool while presenting to the Falls Church City Council Monday a stark picture of what she called “a staffing crisis” facing her department. Veteran officers are leaving the force in comparative droves and there are not the officer reserves that other larger departments can tap into. A usual turnover of two officers per year has escalated into six or seven right away, she said. That’s in a department that is less than three dozen strong.
The “accelerated loss of personnel,” she said, has seen 20 percent of the City’s small department leave since July.
“We are not being competitive and we don’t have opportunities for advancement,” she said, when asked point blank by Council member David Snyder, “What can we do?”
The short answer was compensation, she said. “We need to be paying young officers more…We need more officers.”
Hiring challenges exist everywhere now, but in the Falls Church case, “We have a minimum staff to start with, and we do not have support units to draw from if needed.” She cited the City’s larger neighbors, who can take personnel from specialized units or task forces to supplement the main department staff. “We don’t have a deep bench,” Gavin said.
Difficulties hiring and retaining staff is linked to compensation levels, too, she said. “In the case of Herndon, for example, people can walk in the door and get offers $6,000 or $7,000 more. Officers have to take a pay cut to come here.”
Herndon starts at $60,000 per year, and F.C. at $52,200.
On top of that, Gavin said, “The climate generally is that there is not a lot of support for this profession.”
Chief Gavin’s testimony came in the context of a large turnout of City employees who showed up in person at the meeting to support the petition of employee Caitlin Sobsey urging that the Council offer not a one percent, as recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields, but a 3.5 percent salary increase on top of a one-time $1,000 bonus and in wake of the $1.6 million budget surplus and $18 million in federal pandemic relief aid from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Sobsey said that representatives of City staff on the Employee Advisory Council (EAC) feel the City Manager’s recommendation “is not sufficient compensation for the staff’s ‘heroic’ efforts during the pandemic, and instead request that the 3.5 percent salary increase that was initially planned and budgeted for in FY21 be reinstated in full, in light of the $1.6 million surplus at the end of FY21, savings that were the result of cuts made to the general government budget and our salaries.”
She testified, “We do not view this as a reward or an extra incentive, but a fair and reasonable request to recoup the lost wages due to Covid budget cuts and a necessary step toward getting compensation on track to be competitive with neighboring jurisdictions.”
She added, “We fear that Council’s failure to take meaningful action on this issue will result in even lower employee morale, and create and even greater strain on the City staff, which ultimately could result in the continued loss of valued employees and institutional knowledge.”
“On behalf of all employees in the City,” Sobsey said, “The EAC strongly urges you to reciprocate the extraordinary and unprecedented efforts we have made in the past two years, and also take extraordinary and unprecedented measures to show City staff they are valued and respected.”
Later in the meeting, Councilmember Ross Litkenhous chimed in that he was “uncomfortable” with the one percent salary hike, saying it was simply “not enough.”
While Councilman Phil Duncan proposed “more caution,” Litkenhous implored the Council to “act now.” and Council member Letty Hardi added her support to Litkenhous, proposing an additional $200,000 in ARPA funds be added as bonuses to a 2.5 percent salary increase.
After a convoluted and tortured effort to find the right language for their proposal, the measure that passed 7-0 was described by City Clerk Celeste Heath as follows:
“Motion as amended by Ms. Connelly, seconded by Mr. Snyder, to grant first reading, schedule second reading and public hearing for Dec. 13…with the following changes to the proposed ordinance, at line 390, strike $1,500 one-time premium pay and replace it with $1,000 one-time premium pay, and strike 1 percent increase in base salary and replace it with 2.5 percent increase in base salary, add $100,000 to the sidewalk fund, direct staff in addition to a salary compensation study to also include a staffing capacity study, and that in addition to the 2.5 percent and the $1,000 that the City Council moves to allocate a total of $200,000 from a mixture of ARPA or the surplus to provide employees additional compensation above the 2.5 percent, the $1,000 and the $1,000 premium pay.”
Get all that? The unusually lengthy Council meeting adjourned at 12;28 a.m., just short of five hours after it was first convened.