Residents weigh in on county budget

April 22, 2011

Dozens of Prince William County’s new fire and rescue recruits packed board chambers last week to speak against a proposal in the budget that would reduce their paychecks to help fund the Virginia Retirement System.

“You don’t join the fire department to be rich, but it’s what we do to put food on the table,” said Paul Hebert, president of the Prince William County Professional Fire Fighters Local 2598. “These new employees are already at the lowest end of the pay scale and can’t afford to lose more. . . . They are out working every day, and you can see in their faces, they are concerned.”

The county funds the retirement system for Prince William employees and wants to change the system following a policy adopted by the state last year that allows jurisdictions to pass some of the cost onto new hires.

The proposed $878.3 million fiscal 2012 general fund budget calls for the 150 county employees hired after July 1, 2010, to pay 5 percent of their salaries into the retirement system. The move would save the county $13.7 million over the next five years, county officials said. State regulations prohibit employees hired before that date from contributing to the system.

“Many firefighters already can’t afford to live here; they get up at 3 a.m. and travel 40 minutes to ensure the station is staffed by 6 a.m.,” Chad Briggs, a Prince William firefighter, said to supervisors during one of two public meetings on the proposed budget. “A 5 percent cut — would you expect us to give 5 percent less to you? I think not . . . and we would never do that.”

Hebert, who was one of about 50 people who spoke at the hearings, said he fears he could lose some of the almost 60 new recruits to Fairfax — which doesn’t participate in VRS and pays more money. It might also create a division within the department.

County officials said all Northern Virginia jurisdictions that participate in VRS pass the costs to new employees. According to data from the state, 61 of 92 Virginia counties continue to cover the entire VRS cost.

Hebert, along with others, asked the board to give all county employees a raise come July 1 instead of a 2 percent pay increase that the budget would provide on an employee’s merit date. If the county waits until the merit date, some people won’t see a raise for almost a year, employees said.

“The board has told us there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Prince William County Police Association President Patric Quinn said. If that’s the case, “we need to start coming out of the tunnel, and they need to take care of the employees who stuck by them through thick and thin.”

In addition to employee compensation issues, several people requested funds for the park authority to maintain the Lake Ridge golf course, which residents said was in dire need of a face lift. The budget doesn’t call for cuts to the park authority, but the authority has lost about $4 million in recent years because of county budget cuts, park officials said.

“We are aware of your budget problems, but if the park authority budget hadn’t been cut so drastically, the serious problems that have hit the course would not have happened,” said Ellenor Gedney, who belongs to a 70-member women’s league at the club. “To offer this type of golf course to the community is really embarrassing.”

Other speakers asked supervisors to support the local free clinic, which gets $40,000 annually from the county.

Supervisors will deliberate the budget during their next two board meetings. Supervisors are scheduled to vote on the budget and tax rate April 26.

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