There is a well-known scene in the Charlie Brown Halloween television special, in which he and his friends look into their bags to see what they got for “tricks or treats.” In turn, they shout:
“I got five pieces of candy!”
“I got a chocolate bar!”
“I got a quarter!”
Charlie Brown sadly replies, “I got a rock.”
Frankly, I never really cared for that scene because it seemed a little over the top. I mean, really, who gets rocks on Halloween?
But as Loudoun County and its neighbors finalize their budgets for the coming year, including pay increases for their respective workforces, Loudoun County employees can be forgiven if they feel a lot like Charlie Brown. For example:
- Town of Leesburg employees got a 3 percent pay increase.
- Fairfax County employees got a 2.5 percent increase in addition to a 2.18 percent market adjustment.
- Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) employees got either a $1,500 raise (teachers and administrators) or a 60-cent hourly increase (classified employees such as teaching assistants and bus drivers).
But Loudoun County employees essentially got a rock.
History will someday show that the county employees received a 5 percent pay increase in FY 2013. But that fact will be completely misleading, because the raises are totally offset by a change in the way the employees’ retirement contributions are made.
More than two decades ago, in lieu of a 5 percent pay increase for the workforce, the Board of Supervisors instead agreed to start paying the county employees’ contribution to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS), in addition to the county’s contribution. This was equivalent to a 5 percent increase in take-home pay.
Fast forward to 2012, when a reform-minded Board of Supervisors decided that it did not make sense for the county to pay both the employees’ and the county’s contributions to VRS. So the Board voted to make a structural change to the system in FY 2013 and start requiring the employees to pay their share of the VRS contribution.
As a result, the staff’s 5 percent pay raise is completely negated by the newly imposed 5 percent VRS contribution. The employees will receive no increase in take-home pay.
In fact, many employees will see a reduction in their paychecks of about 1 percent, since withholding for Social Security and taxes will be based on the higher gross salary they will receive, on paper only.
The Board of Supervisors held out the possibility of bonuses for employees at the end of FY 2013, under certain conditions. But there are currently a lot of questions surrounding those bonuses, and the employees cannot count on ever seeing that money.
The Charlie Brown analogy has its limits. The Peanuts gang’s Halloween haul is, after all, kid stuff, while county employees depend on their salaries to pay for life’s necessities in a region with a high cost of living.
It is demoralizing for the county workforce to see their paychecks shrink even as the economy recovers from a deep recession and employees of other agencies finally receive pay raises after years of stagnant salaries.
It does not help when employees see one headline after another saying that Loudoun County has the highest incomes in the country, and that the median income in the county is going up even higher.
The limits on staff salaries this year were not the result of the local economy, which is improving, but rather the decision by the Board of Supervisors to reduce taxes to a level that did not allow for increases in compensation. The Board could have given the workforce raises that would have increased take-home pay while still cutting taxes, but chose not to.
In this year’s budget process, the Board cut programs, laid off employees and concluded the proceedings with one supervisor saying, “We’ve only just begun.”
All of these factors have resulted in a demoralized workforce, as is obvious when talking with nearly any county employee.
The difficult task of motivating the workforce and retaining high performing employees in an environment of negativity falls to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet, whose contract specifies that he receives the same adjustments in salary and benefits as the rest of the county workforce.
While Hemstreet recommended a 2 percent pay increase for employees, he offered up that raise in his 5 percent budget reduction option, which the Board subsequently used as the starting point for its budget deliberations.
School Superintendent Edgar Hatrick, despite a sometimes contentious budget process with a new, reform-minded School Board majority, still managed to secure modest raises for the LCPS employees.
Loudoun County government employees, on the other hand, are wondering why everyone around them is looking forward to bigger paychecks this year while they are staring down into a bag of rocks.