ARLINGTON, Va. - Police and fire officials in Arlington County said staffing shortages are impacting public safety.
First responders claim low pay and a high cost of living in the county are making it increasingly difficult to fill open positions. They joined forces at a county budget meeting Tuesday to ask for more money.
"Your police department is in trouble because we can't recruit and retain the high-quality officers we need," Cpl. Matt Martin told the Arlington County manager and board members.
Martin, who is president of the Arlington Police Beneficiary Association, said some of the problems are outside the county's control such as a decrease in the impression of policing and a generational shift away from choosing a career in law enforcement.
But he said in Arlington County, pay is a major factor. A new officer makes about $53,000 to work in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Firefighters said their starting salary is less than $50,000.
"Part of the problem is that our salaries just have not kept pace with the cost of living," Martin said. "Especially in this area when you factor in housing, student loans, [salaries] just haven't kept pace."
Police and fire officials said it has come to head recently with a dozen vacant positions at the fire department and nearly 50 vacancies at the police department.
It has prompted the police chief to write a letter to staff saying he is restructuring the department.
The letter from Chief Jay Farr reads in part, "For me personally, 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."
Officers said possible cuts could come to the district teams that patrol neighborhoods or even school resource officers.
"The reality is that is something that might not be there in the same form as it is now if we can't get our numbers up," Martin said.
In his budget, the county manager has proposed a 2.5 percent pay increase for police and a 4 percent raise for firefighters. But first responders said it is not enough and are asking for 4 percent for police and 6 percent for fire.
"They say that budgets are moral documents," said firefighter Brian Lynch, who is also the union president. "What we are asking for is that the wages of the people that risk their lives to protect you catch up with inflation."
There will be a few more budget hearings before the final budget is passed by the board on April 21.
Arlington County did not include any tax increases this year and most funding for pay increases would mean shifting money from elsewhere in the budget.