Va. county switches to military-style pay scale for public safety

All sworn deputy sheriffs, emergency communications officers and firefighters will be designated in pay grades PS 1 through 26 according to their specialty, where PS stands for public safety


James Scott Baron
The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.

Stafford County’s Board of Supervisors has approved a new pay plan for public safety personnel to make their jobs more competitive with other localities.

The new pay scale, which is similar to pay grades used in the military and civil service, takes effect July 1. When it kicks in, all sworn deputy sheriffs, emergency communications officers and firefighters will be designated in pay grades PS 1 through 26 according to their specialty, where PS stands for public safety. They will also be placed at a step level within their grade commensurate with their years of service and experience.

Grades define the pay for levels of responsibility and authority, while steps define the increments of pay within the grade.

For years, Stafford County’s first responders were paid through an “open range” pay system that was not as structured as the new grade and step system.

“We went from year to year without knowing if we’d get a raise,” said Lt. Clinton Marbury, of Stafford County’s Company 9, Aquia Fire and Rescue. “Many had been here for years and hadn’t had a substantial raise. The new system gives us a plan, and if you have a plan, that’s a good thing.”

The new system also puts Stafford County’s first responders in line with their peers in surrounding jurisdictions, where employees are already being paid using some form of a pay grade and step system.

“All of our competitors have gone to this type of pay scale, or they are going towards it, or they’re doing something that’s considered a hybrid of it,” said Sheriff David Decatur. “It’s a way for people to have some predictability, like, where I should be next year.”

The new pay system chart clearly shows employees where they can expect to be in terms of salary within their position well into the future. For example, an Animal Control Officer II or Deputy Sheriff I in field operations, both PS-6 positions, can expect to earn $47,638 to start, increasing to $53,617 by year five, and going up to $62,157 by year 10.

Andrew Spence, community engagement director for Stafford, said full implementation of the new program would require an estimated $4 million budget increase in fiscal year 2021.

Those on the front lines say the new pay system represents progress that’s long overdue.

“It means not living paycheck to paycheck anymore, or scrounging for overtime details,” said Stafford County Deputy Adam Assur, who came to Stafford after serving in Spotsylvania County.

Assur said he made the move because Stafford County was willing to recognize his years of service and experience, and adjust his pay accordingly.

“With my experience, I went from $48,000 in Spotsylvania to $65,000 in Stafford,” Assur said. “This was the first pay raise that I’ve had in a number of years.”

Those in senior leadership positions say the new pay scale also will be a retention tool in retaining qualified law enforcement officers and firefighters.

“One of the biggest challenges for law enforcement agencies is recruitment and retention,” said Decatur. “We’re sending a clear message that we value training and experience and we also value our employees.”

Decatur said each county is constantly vying to recruit prospects from the same limited pool of applicants. He said better pay in Stafford will help recruit and retain the best employees.

“If we don’t keep up with it, then we’re going to suffer,” said Decatur.

Decatur said the county originally began looking at pay and retention issues a couple of years ago, beginning with a look at 911 dispatch personnel. At that time, the department experienced a high turnover rate.

The study found Stafford’s dispatchers were being paid 29 percent below the market average, which compared Stafford dispatcher salaries to those in Spotsylvania, Prince William, Arlington and Loudoun Counties, as well as the City of Alexandria.

“We’re not trying to get our pay just like Alexandria,” said Decatur, “But if we can be competitive and be close to them, it prevents people from driving through Stafford County to work in another county in Northern Virginia.”

As a result of that initial study, dispatchers received a significant pay raise, which was phased in over a two-year period. Following the raises, the county saw less turnover, more applications for jobs being processed, and critical vacancies being filled.

Two years ago, county officials undertook a countywide classification and compensation study, which took a look at salaries of all paid positions in the county.

The study examined how Stafford’s numbers stacked up against surrounding counties and paved the way for immediate pay increases for those found to be in positions far behind the market. It was followed last July by a 5 percent raise for all county employees, bringing county salaries closer in line with comparable salaries in surrounding jurisdictions.

In terms of competing with other counties to attract new recruits, Stafford County Fire Chief Joseph Cardello said the county used to place in the 70th percentile among surrounding jurisdictions, but after advertising the new pay scale, he said the county now places in the 90th percentile.

“That’s huge,” Cardello said. “[Emergency responders] used to go to other places and make more, but now we’re more in the ballpark with our competitors.”

Cardello said his department is already feeling the positive effects of the pay raise in their recruiting efforts.

“We had an open hiring process that just closed with the advertised pay scale and we had a 10 percent increase in the number of applications compared to last year,” Cardello said.

The annual salary for a fire and rescue recruit in Stafford County is $44,000. On July 1, that salary will increase to $49,068.

Although salary wasn’t Deputy Randall Pinkard’s first consideration when he chose his job in Stafford three years ago, it certainly is an important consideration today, as Pinkard and his wife now have twin girls.

“Our family literally doubled in one year,” said Pinkard. “The pay increase gives me hope for longevity, a full career and the ability to retire from this agency.”

“We want people to have a great career and enjoy what they are doing,” said Decatur, who credited both county officials and Stafford’s Board of Supervisors for their support and commitment during the development of the new pay system.

“If they enjoy their work, have a passion for it, and are being properly compensated for it, they will perform better,” Decatur said. “Their family lives will be better, so this is really important in so many ways.”

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©2020 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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