The Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted yesterday to spend $8.3 million in county funds on raises for public employees of up to 6.5 percent, even as calls to reduce taxes have escalated this election year.
Officials said the raise completes their goal of making county salaries more competitive with those in neighboring counties, and they said it was appropriate to use part of Prince William's $8.1 million budget surplus to cover higher pay. They also promised that half of any future surpluses would fund a tax cut. The other half would go to schools, they said.
Supervisors said the raises fulfilled promises made during recent boom times, when Prince William pay could not compete with that in neighboring counties or the private sector. Even though many area companies are laying off employees and county workers are more likely to keep their jobs, officials said worker morale and loyalty would suffer if the raises were not given.
"In good economic times, when the private sector was dramatically increasing their pay, the public sector pay raises obviously did not keep pace," said Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large). "When times start to slow down, public-sector raises look dramatically higher, when in real life we're just simply trying to keep pace."
Prince William is one of a number of area counties considering pay increases this year. Fairfax County supervisors are pushing for raises lower than the 5.3 percent originally recommended; Montgomery County officials are weighing 7 percent pay increases for most employees and as much as 10.5 percent for firefighters; and a 5 percent raise is on the table in Arlington County.
The raises in Prince William were included in a $611 million budget that the board adopted yesterday, which also included a 2.5 percent pay increase for board members. The spending plan includes a 7-cent reduction in the property tax rate, to $1.16 per $100 of assessed value, though tax bills will rise an average of 9.3 percent, or $218.
Denny Daugherty, a leader of the Prince William Taxpayers' Alliance, said that if officials think employees deserve a raise, "they need to schedule this adjustment in pay over a longer period of time. Taxes need to stay within 5 percent of last year or people are going to have to cut back on other things in their own budgets. The average taxpayer hasn't enjoyed a pay increase of 6.5 percent this year."
Five candidates for supervisor, backed by members of the Taxpayers' Alliance, demonstrated outside the government center before yesterday's meeting, calling for board members to adopt a property tax rate of $1.10 or less. They suggested a 10 percent across-the-board cut in the county budget to lower taxes, and called the pay raises extravagant at a time when most people are struggling to make ends meet.
The raises "are not making us any more competitive," said Brentsville District candidate Richard D. Jankowski (R), who predicted that any employee with a home in Prince William would spend the entire raise on a higher property tax bill.
Prince William officials said the raises complete a multiyear effort to bring salaries in line with those of neighboring counties. Until recently, the board's policy was to offer salaries that were at least 10 percent below those of other Northern Virginia localities, reasoning that the county's lower cost of living would offset higher salaries offered elsewhere.
But that policy resulted in about 15 percent of county positions going unfilled and a steady loss of public safety personnel, officials said, so they agreed to use one-third of any budget surplus to help raise pay. In the four most recent budget years, raises have been 5.9 percent, 8.5 percent, 7.2 percent and 6.5 percent for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Officials said the raise adopted yesterday completes their goal of having salaries within 5 percent of those in neighboring counties, although some employees, including planners, engineers and select public safety officials, make more than their counterparts in other jurisdictions.
"In the future, we'll be able to focus the changes that need to be made on specific positions," Connaughton said.