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The Cost of Competition

County Under Pressure to Offer High Salaries and Keep Budget Under Control

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page LZ01

When one of Loudoun County's neighbors hired its respected fire and rescue chief this year, the nation's fastest-growing county cranked up its recruiting machinery.

There were ads and interviews to cull the 50 applicants down to three. Then, in a county where scouting for qualified new faces has become a never-ending assignment, officials broke out the cheese.

Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick is the county's top-paid official, at nearly $194,000. (L. William Kobelka For The Washington Post)

The finalists for the job that will pay as much as $125,000 a year -- the fire chief in Portsmouth and candidates from Virginia Beach and Arlington County -- joined about 100 county employees, volunteer firefighters and others for fruit, dip and a quietly cutthroat schmooze session designed to test chemistry, vet community reaction and help reveal the right choice.

"I did a lot of eating and observing," said Susan Hack, the county's manager of human resources. "We're fast growing. There are complex issues. It's a difficult job with difficult organizational demands. . . . From an HR perspective, it was fascinating. I just love stuff like this."

It's a good thing, because as Loudoun's population continues its relentless growth, finding new government workers -- and the money to pay rising salaries in the region's competitive public and private job markets -- has become an increasingly difficult and costly task.

Over the past five years, as more than 65,000 new residents have arrived, the annual price of running Loudoun's government departments and schools has jumped more than 90 percent, from about $369 million to more than $710 million. The bulk of that money goes to paychecks for ever-increasing numbers of workers. Since 2000, the number of full-time general government positions has increased 56 percent, to 2,812. School employment rosters have grown 77 percent, to 6,429.

As a majority on the Loudoun Board of Supervisors has pushed to reverse long-term growth controls imposed by its predecessors, debate over how to pay for Loudoun's development has sharpened. Taxpayers frustrated by the steep annual increases in property assessments that have funded government growth also demand sterling services, from parks to public schools.

Although some supervisors have proposed cutting or privatizing government functions in a bid to save money, it remains unclear how new residents, who have brought with them higher incomes and expectations, would react if such efforts were implemented on a widespread basis. It's also unclear whether efforts to spur the county's already swift home building could make housing more affordable, which some officials say is their goal, and what impact such efforts might have on the job market and salary pressures.

What is certain, Loudoun officials say, is that surging growth in the county and the region keeps upping the cost of finding and keeping enough qualified government help.

"As population increases, we've had to hire more government employees. In order to hire more people, we have to offer salaries that are more competitive," said Supervisor Jim G. Burton (I-Blue Ridge).

Burton noted that Fairfax County has made a practice of waiting to set school salaries until after Loudoun does in an effort to keep the upper hand in attracting teachers.

"You not only have to compete with other jurisdictions, but in many cases you have to compete with private industry. . . . You want to hire an electrician? A stenographer? A computer programmer? You have to compete with the private sector," Burton said, adding that if the county can't hire "quality people, the quality of the service decreases."

Burton, who is in his third term of scouring county budgets, said Loudoun has largely hit the right balance between staying competitive and keeping costs under control.

Supervisor Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run), who has aggressively questioned county spending since joining the board in January, also said she does not believe county employees' salaries are too high.

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