Cash-strapped Fairfax County rushes to spend $500k on firefighter uniforms

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Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland,Fairfax County

Fairfax County residents face a tax increase next year because the county insists that spending can't be cut any deeper. But at the same time, the county is rushing to spend nearly $500,000 in coming weeks on dress uniforms for firefighters who say they don't need or want them.

The $500,000 for the uniforms is in this year's budget, so county officials have to spend it before a new budget is adopted April 30. Firefighters, however, said it would be better to transfer the money to the 2014 budget, which is running a $169 million shortfall that would be partially covered by a 2-cent tax increase under current county plans.

Fairfax plans to buy four uniforms for each of the 1,400 people working in the department -- two long-sleeved ($86.56 each) and two short-sleeved ($73.24 each) along with four department emblems ($5.95 each). The new uniforms look much like the ones firefighters already have except for the addition of Velcro strips that would allow workers to change their name tags or rank by changing tags rather than getting new uniforms.

"The shirts they're buying for us are the exact same ones we already have with the exception of the Velcro strip," said a captain with the department who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the purchase publicly. "The ones we have aren't well-worn. They aren't ripped. It doesn't make a lot of sense."

Fairfax firefighters only wear their button-down uniforms between November and April, when it's too cold for the T-shirts they usually wear, or when they're attending a public event. A department memo sent to employees last month urged them to submit shirt sizes quickly "due to fiscal year time considerations" but didn't provide details of the pending purchase.

Transferring the $500,000 to next year's budget would barely make a dent in the shortfall the county faces. But officials said it's an indication that the county can easily reduce spending beyond what it now proposes, possibly enough to reduce or eliminate the need to raise taxes.

Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook, R-Braddock, said it's not unusual for county agencies to spend money at the end of the fiscal year that would've otherwise been spent elsewhere or carried over to future budgets. He said he would be concerned, however, if the department was "spending just to spend."

Dan Schmidt, a spokesman for the county Fire and Rescue Department, defended the purchase, saying the uniforms were necessary and that most of the department's employees favor them. Buying shirts now will eventually save the department $50,000, Schmidt said, and the new design allows employees to hand down their uniforms to someone else to cut down costs.

"Sometimes leaders need to spend money upfront to save money for the future," Schmidt said. "Efficiency is the primary reason why we're doing this. It will generate long-term savings."

Capt. John Niemiec, president of the county's Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association, said carrying the $500,000 to the 2014 budget could lessen the blow of pending budget cuts or give a raise to employees now facing a pay freeze next year.

"We are focused on compensation right now," Niemiec said. "Is this spending going to impact the ability to get a pay raise? Can it be put towards additional training?"

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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Taylor Holland

Staff writer
The Washington Examiner