Fairfax considers overhauling county pay system

Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland,Fairfax County

Fairfax County's top administrator wants to change the way the county pays its employees to ensure it has enough money to survive a pair of looming budget shortfalls.

County Executive Ed Long said he realized the county's compensation program was becoming "financially unsustainable" after spending about $50 million on employee pay raises last year -- the first raises for the 12,000 workers in three years -- and after determining that the county budget would be out of balance by $169 million in 2014 and as much as $274 million in 2015.

Rather than freeze employee wages again, Long is proposing a new pay system that would give employees a cost-of-living pay increase in odd-numbered years and a performance-based pay increase in even-numbered years. By rotating the two types of pay increases rather than lumping them together, the county will save as much as $30 million each year, he said.

"It is clear that employees' peace of mind regarding pay has eroded," Long said. "It is essential that compensation expectations be recalibrated to better balance fiscal realities with employee needs and desires."

Long's proposed system would also encourage individual supervisors to promote current employees to fill open positions rather than hire outside applicants, a move he said would encourage employees to work hard even though they know they won't receive raises or evaluations some years.

Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said she was pleased with Long's proposal, which puts in place an "extremely valuable" foundation.

Other board members, however, weren't sold on the idea.

Supervisor John Cook, R-Braddock, expressed concerns with the program and its ability to motivate employees and keep them from "jumping ship" to other local governments.

"We need to make sure that, over time, staying with the county makes economic sense," Cook said.

It will be especially important for the county to avoid high turnover given that nearly half of its workforce will be eligible for retirement in 2015. Long's system addresses this by requiring all employees who leave the county to complete exit interviews and otherwise share knowledge about their jobs with their successors.

Long said he plans to schedule a series of meetings with employees in the coming months to discuss the program, which won't take effect until fiscal 2015.

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