Patrick Gorman was just beginning to enjoy his job as an Arlington, Va., police officer when he decided to quit.
His wife was pregnant with twins, and they already had a 2-year-old. Even with both working full time, he said, they couldn’t afford to live in the area. Two months out of training, he left the department in February and moved to North Carolina.
Police and firefighters in Arlington and neighboring Alexandria say such stories are increasingly common and that without significantly higher salaries, their forces will dwindle.
The issue has taken on particular urgency in recent weeks as the localities hammer out their 2019 budgets, with cops packing government meetings and holding rallies. While Arlington and Alexandria have agreed to increase law enforcement pay, unions say neither is going far enough.
The tensions come as similar complaints by teachers in other states have brought questions over the adequacy of public servant salaries into the news.
Police say they face an extra recruiting challenge because interest in the profession has declined, partly because of concerns over police shootings nationwide.
“Being a police officer is something young people used to dream about. Those days are gone,” Alexandria Detective Amy Santiago said at a recent budget meeting where officers and firefighters showed up in force to protest a proposal that offers a modest pay boost. “Why would anyone want to go into a career where you are not liked? Why would anyone want to do this for what we get paid?”
Officials in the Washington area say the struggle to recruit and retain good cops is even harder in a transient area where federal alternatives are abundant.
In Alexandria, where starting salaries for police officers lag behind neighboring jurisdictions at about $48,000 a year, union officials say they’re losing at least two officers a month.
One Alexandria officer, Peter Prunty, testified at the same hearing that he was planning to leave the department after just a few years because he couldn’t afford to live in the city. He also works in the National Guard, he said, yet still qualifies for the city’s subsidized housing.
Alexandria raised police pay three years ago but since then has fallen back to the bottom of the regional pack. “It’s an arms race in the region — everyone’s competing for the same talent,” Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said.
Pay is higher in neighboring Arlington, where salaries start at $53,000 a year, but some on the department say it’s still not enough. Matthew Martin, president of the Arlington Police Beneficiary Association, said the county is not losing cops to other forces in the area, but to states where the cost of living is lower and salaries are often higher.
“They’re going back home,” he said, “or they’re going to Florida.”
Arlington police also require applicants to have at least 60 college credit hours — a demand the top brass says makes for better officers but also means their recruits have other job options. Gorman, who served six years in the military and has an engineering degree, left the police force for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Firefighters in both jurisdictions also have been pushing for pay increases, arguing that their departments also are struggling to keep workers.
“Our compensation is terrible,” Alexandria Capt. Chad Lallier told city officials at the budget meeting. “We can’t do anything to get people in here.”
Sixteen employees have left since July, he said, and of the 14 people hired to replace them, only 10 remain.
In Arlington, firefighters’ starting salary is lower than police — $48,000 a year. But they say consistent long hours also are a problem. They work 56 hours a week, and understaffing means many end up working mandatory overtime as well.
Max Leidigh made over $100,000 in his final year as a firefighter in Arlington, because he volunteered for so much overtime. But he moved to Denver last year, where he can make more, work fewer hours and spend less on his apartment.
And he said not everyone was happy to keep working after a 24-hour shift.
“Me, I’m not married, I don’t have any kids,” he said. “There are people who have families . . . it’s an issue for child care,” when there is mandatory overtime, he said.
Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks said the “blue bidding war,” is a problem across the country. He cited a Center for State and Local Government Excellence poll finding that police are the hardest public employees to hire and a recent Governing magazine analysis that police salaries are rising faster than the rest of local government.
“Supply and demand is off, and in the Washington area it’s exacerbated,” Jinks said.
He has committed to raising no taxes in this year’s budget and said a proposal to increase police pay by raising the city’s hotel tax was a bad idea. He’s proposed $1.5 million this year to raise public safety salaries, with more to come in future years.
Arlington’s county board has likewise voted not to raise tax rates next year.
Arlington County Manager Mark Schwarz proposed a 2.5 percent pay raise for rank-and-file police officers and four percent for firefighters, on top of 3.5 percent merit raises for all county employees.
The public safety unions stress that a larger boost in salaries would save on training costs. They said it costs about $100,000 to prepare new officers and firefighters for the job. Paying out overtime because of staff shortages racks up its own costs.
And they say well-trained law enforcement makes both places attractive to tourists and residents.
“Our force is getting younger as the experienced guys leave,” Oakley said. “It’s less experience on the street, it’s less services for the public.”
In Arlington, police can no longer respond immediately to every complaint. Chief M. Jay Farr has proposed restructuring to deal with a smaller force, including potential cuts to special-event support and school resource officers.
“It is disheartening to be with the department this long, experience the hard work everyone has undertaken to make this a leading police agency and have to reduce many of the aspects that allow us to positively impact the quality of life of our community on a daily basis,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, cops and firefighters in both jurisdictions are continuing to agitate for more funds. So many came to an Arlington board meeting Tuesday that some were asked to leave — it was a fire hazard.