Firefighter Raises Unrelated To Contributions, Officials Say

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The biggest single campaign contributor to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors doesn't put up homes, manage apartment complexes or develop shopping malls.

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2068 brings big money to the table: more than $100,000 in the past four years, nearly all of it going to Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) and the incumbent supervisors seeking reelection Tuesday, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

During that four-year period, the union's 1,183 active firefighters and paramedics have received salary increases significantly higher than those of other county employees. Including merit raises, for which nearly half the force is eligible each year, firefighter pay has risen an average of 10.8 percent annually since 2004, according to county data. That is more than the police (9.3 percent) and far more than the general county workforce (4.4 percent), groups that contribute comparatively little to board campaigns.

Supervisors and union leaders say it is unfair to look at the pay packages as a quid pro quo for generous political contributions. The increases, they say, were intended to keep salaries competitive with neighboring fire services.

Connolly, who has received $37,500 from the union for his campaign, declined to respond to phone messages. His campaign manager, James Walkinshaw, said: "Our response is that these are men and women who put their lives on the line every day. Gerry is proud to support them and proud to have their support. They do difficult and dangerous jobs. In terms of the year-by-year salary packages, we don't have anything to say on that."

Firefighter compensation has long been a sore spot with Fairfax police. Asked whether he thought the campaign contributions brought firefighters bigger paychecks, Marshall Thielen, president of the Fairfax Coalition of Police, said, "I'm not going to go on the record with that one." The average base salary for a Fairfax firefighter is $56,990 a year, compared with $52,754 for a police officer, according to county figures.

Board members say the more meaningful comparison is not with Fairfax police but with other fire departments, and they have been attentive to the union's desire to stay competitive regarding salary. This year, supervisors rejected a proposal by County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to change the methodology used to compare Fairfax with public safety salaries elsewhere in the region. For several years, the board has promised the union that pay would never fall below 95 percent of the "market average," derived from firefighter salaries in the region's other major jurisdictions, including the District and Montgomery County.

Griffin, facing a tightening budget outlook, wanted to lower the threshold to 90 percent. The board said no.

"There's been a lot of work done to make sure that our firefighters are well paid in comparison to everybody in the region," said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), chairman of the board's personnel committee, who has received $10,000 from Local 2068 this election cycle, according to Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit research group in Richmond.

Development and real estate interests still collectively dominate the funding of campaigns for the Board of Supervisors. They have provided $1 in every $3 of the $2.5 million raised in the 2007 election cycle, which began in 2004, according to the research group. Most of the top contributors, including the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association, developer Cyrus J. Katzen and Cherokee Management Services, have a direct interest in land use and zoning decisions made by the board.

But Local 2068 brings more than cash to politics. It offers boots on the ground to candidates it has endorsed, for planting and removing signs, for phone banks, even for moving furniture from one campaign headquarters to another. It also affords elected officials the opportunity to associate themselves with immensely popular, almost iconic figures in the post-9/11 world: first responders.

"I think there's pretty broad public support for treating them well," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), who has received $6,000 from the union for the 2007 campaign. "Particularly since 9/11, people have an enhanced appreciation for what the risks are and what the benefits are to having the best [fire and rescue service] we can."


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