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A Chance to Examine The County's Payroll

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page VA21

Psychiatrists treating the mentally ill and firefighters earning overtime will be among the highest-paid employees of Fairfax County this year, exceeding the compensation of most agency directors who supervise staffs of hundreds of workers.

County Executive Anthony H. Griffin will take home the largest paycheck, in step with his counterparts in most of the Washington area's other local governments. But the doctors and public safety workers follow close behind, in the top tier of a workforce with the region's highest percentage -- 4.6 percent -- of employees paid $100,000 or more annually, according to an analysis of payroll records by The Washington Post .

The county's workforce of 10,910 full-time and 490 part-time employees earning $10,000 or more -- excluding school and court employees -- is the largest in Virginia, serving a population that surpassed 1 million in the last year, also tops in the state. Fairfax's low crime rate, acclaimed schools and reputation for high-quality local services have pushed up housing values in an already hot market. Accordingly, local government has had to stay competitive.

"Fairfax is a bigger deal than most communities," Griffin said. "We're a full-service government. The expectations of people who live in the Washington area are pretty high. And if you're going to attract people to work here and keep them, you've got to pay them." He compared the county and its $4.6 billion budget to a Fortune 500 company.

Fairfax's median income for government workers is $53,120, records show. The county's elected leaders are unlikely to be mistaken for Fortune 500 employees, since their annual salaries are $59,000, a sum that about half of the 10 Board of Supervisors members augment with private-sector jobs.

Its sheer size gives the Fairfax government some luxuries: specialized and unusual jobs that its neighbors in smaller jurisdictions can give only part-time status or none at all. A full-time archivist, helicopter pilots for crime-fighting and rescues, urban foresters who work with builders to landscape new developments, turf specialists who maintain public lawns -- Fairfax has them all. And while other local governments hire contractors to work as locksmiths or as weigh masters at refuse disposal sites, Fairfax has its own staff members for such jobs.

In the Department of Information Technology, there are separate positions dedicated to enhancing the Web site of the cutting-edge electronic government program, designing kiosks where residents can pay parking tickets or tax bills, and managing interactive phone systems.

Some common workplace patterns persist in Fairfax. Just 16 of the 100 highest-paid employees this year will be women, records show. And as a rule, employees in human services, from day care to social work, hover toward the bottom of the salary list, even those in supervisory roles.

Brittny Li, a social worker with a master's degree, investigates abuse and neglect cases for the Department of Family Services, monitoring families, including their health care and their children's school life. Unofficially, she is on call seven days a week at all hours when her clients are in crisis. She makes $41,000 and no overtime.

"I was fully aware of the low pay when I took the job," said Li, who is 24 and rents an apartment in Chantilly. "But for me, it's really about my love for the work."

By contrast, Donald L. Vaught is on track to be paid $169,500 this year as a lieutenant in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, records show. Vaught already has earned more overtime -- $83,364 -- than his $72,173 base salary. He will be compensated more than Police Chief David M. Rohrer and Fire Chief Michael P. Neuhard. Vaught and many of the 40 other fire lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs on the county's list of top 100 earners are trained paramedics who earn much of their overtime pay responding to an increasing volume of calls for emergency services amid a shortage of paramedics.

"You're looking at people that are willing to work [extra hours], and they sign up for it," Neuhard said. With few fatal fires, Fairfax is a coveted department that has an unusually high number of career firefighters in the field, accounting for some of the relatively high compensation, officials said. Neuhard said he is trying to balance an overtime budget of about $12 million a year with more hires, including 21 new recruits this year.

"There's a point at which you need to be looking at dropping the number of people you have on overtime," he said. "We're always concerned about that."

Psychiatrists employed by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board are also among the county's top earners, the result of relatively high base salaries and in some cases, extra hours worked at contract rates that exceed their hourly pay by as much as $20. Parnell A. Cornet, for example, was paid $286,886 in 2003, $74,775 more than Griffin, making him the county's highest-paid worker. This year he's on track to be number two, with a projected $205,000.

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