The Board of Supervisors’ plan to undertake a comprehensive review of employee compensation levels—in the fire service and beyond–is an important step as the region’s economy slowly rebounds from the recession. The findings of those studies, however, may put government leaders in a tighter bind.
Rest assured, the recommendations of the various consultants will not be cheap; seldom have such studies found that government workers were overpaid.
The effort to rebalance the salary structure comes at a time when many board members also are pushing for expanding services, such as in the social services field.
Those priorities, if left in a vacuum, hold the potential to create a paralyzing budget crunch next spring.
Long before they take up the fiscal year 2018 tax rate debate, supervisors should have a clear vision of their government service priorities. That’s not an afternoon-long discussion or even a topic that can be tackled entirely in the board’s planned—but recently postponed—strategy retreat. And implementing the new board’s service wish list is not likely to happen in a single fiscal year, but will be a culmination of this board’s four-year term.
Supervisors will find no easy answers. For example, the effort to increase the compensation for firefighters and emergency medical service providers is aimed at ensuring that those who complete their training at Loudoun taxpayers’ expense stay on the local force at least long enough to recoup those costs. But there is more in play there than the amount first responders take home in their paychecks. Scheduling policies and advancement opportunities also play a major role in employee retention. Supervisors also must explore ways to shore up its volunteer ranks, with the knowledge that deferring the need to hire more career personnel leaves more resources available to support the system overall.
Although positions in fire-rescue and the Sheriff’s Office require the most extensive—and expensive—up-front training, high staff turnover rates are costly for any department. As the economy heats up, the government will find more competition for workers in a region that already is one of few in the nation operating at near full employment.
“We need to pay our county workers more” may be a valid starting point for a discussion among supervisors, but it is far from a viable operational strategy.