Declining Raises Fuel Discontent

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Many Fairfax County employees thought it was a good idea in 2000 when the Board of Supervisors scrapped traditional merit and cost-of-living increases and established a "pay-for-performance" plan. The new system offered high-achieving, non-uniformed workers a chance to win larger annual raises -- as much as 7 percent -- than they could under the old merit regime.

But there's been a lot more performance than pay, county workers say. First, officials lowered the maximum raise from 7 to 6 percent because a large proportion of 7,700 eligible employees were getting "superior" or "excellent" ratings, landing them on the high end of the scale. Other tweaks followed, squeezing the program further.

This year, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin closed a $150 million revenue gap in his proposed fiscal 2009 budget in part by cutting the top rate to 3 percent. If Griffin's plan is approved by the board, most non-uniformed workers can expect a 2.3 percent increase this year, and the average raise will amount to $816.

Yesterday, about 300 county workers gathered at the Government Center forum during their lunch hour to ask Griffin why he is trying to balance the budget on their backs.

"It's not working the way it was intended. The system has lost the integrity we thought we'd have with it," said Anita L. Baker, chairman of the Fairfax County Employees Advisory Council, a management-approved group that consults with Griffin. (Virginia forbids public employees to engage in collective bargaining.)

Griffin took the microphone and told the group that he had few options because of declining revenue. The only other choice, he said, would be to eliminate 300 positions, which could lead to layoffs. He added that with projections showing residential property assessments declining by an average of 10 percent next year -- on top of this year's 3 percent -- the county's fiscal situation is likely to worsen.

Fiscal 2010 "will be the worst budget in Fairfax County history," Griffin said.

At the same time, about half of police and firefighters, who operate under separate agreements, will receive a 5 percent merit increase in addition to the 1.45 percent "market rate adjustment" for all uniformed workers. That would bring their raise to 6.45 percent, or an average of $3,420.

The Fairfax school district will also give merit increases and cost-of-living adjustments to teachers. The school system abandoned an experiment with pay-for-performance in the early 1990s because it became "politically problematic," according to spokesman Paul Regnier.

Some county supervisors said this week that it is time to address the fairness questions raised by pay-for-performance.

"I'm not comfortable with the percentage cut [in pay-for-performance] in the county executive's budget," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's budget committee, which will meet tomorrow. "I look across the board at county employees in this system, and it's not equitable compared to public safety and what the schools will do for their employees."

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said that while dedicated funding for affordable housing and storm-water management remain sacrosanct, "we blew off our commitment to employees. That's just wrong."

Workers said that if the county had kept its promises on pay-for-performance when times were flush, it would be easier for them to accept the need to tighten up because of the current economic climate.

"If we had shared in the wealth, then we would take the pressure," said Simin Royanian, a branch manager for the county's solid waste disposal division.

It also is not lost on employees that county firefighters have done far better than most employees on compensation over the past four years, averaging 10.8 percent a year, compared with 4.4 percent for the general county workforce. During that time, the politically active firefighters union has donated more than $100,000 to board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) and other supervisors.

The county employees group has also had some friction with Connolly, who took exception to their comportment at a budget hearing a couple of years ago. Baker, a fiscal analyst for the county's Department of Administration for Human Services, said the tension led to a private shouting match between them.

"He yelled at me, and I yelled at him," Baker said. "I'm glad I had my husband with me."

Connolly did not respond yesterday to a phone message seeking comment.

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