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Va. officials adjust city budget to give 5% pay raise to first responders

Newport News officials proposed a pay raise and step plan to be more competitive with neighboring departments


FILE - Newport News Fire Department logo on the side of a truck.

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By Josh Janney
The Virginian-Pilot

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Newport News is adjusting the city’s proposed budget to give public safety workers a 5% pay raise in the next fiscal year and implement a step plan that officials say will make the city more competitive with surrounding localities and help retain employees.

Budget Director Lisa Cipriano said if implemented, the plan would make Newport News “a leader on the Peninsula” when it comes to compensating public safety employees.

The raises and step plan are estimated to cost around $5.1 million. The original budget proposal for the 2024-25 fiscal year included $2.6 million to increase public safety pay, but the proposed step plan is expected to cost the city an additional $2.5 million. To pay for it, the city will likely need to reduce its contributions to the Capital Improvement Plan.

In recent weeks, Newport News police and firefighters have advocated for the council to improve their pay. Many expressed concern that firefighters are overworked and underpaid and struggle with physical and mental exhaustion. Others said public safety workers may find employment elsewhere if the council does not act soon.

“We believe the implementation of the public safety step-pay plan is crucial for ensuring the recruitment and retention of our dedicated public safety personnel,” Adrian Manning, president of the Newport News chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said during a public hearing on the budget earlier this month.

Manning said compensation has not kept up with the cost of living or real estate prices, and employees cannot afford to live in the city in which they work. He said the new comprehensive step pay plan would incentivize experienced officers and firefighters to remain in the city, bolstering the expertise within the public safety departments and ultimately enhancing the safety of Newport News.

Matt Jerasa, who serves as the president of the Newport News chapter of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association, advocated for a pay scale increase and said that law enforcement in general struggles to retain, train and recruit qualified police officers.

Public safety worker retention has been a struggle across Hampton Roads in recent years. To address the issue, cities across the region have doled out hiring bonuses or implemented step increases — making it difficult for cities that do not increase pay to compete.

Hampton, for example, implemented a step plan for all sworn public safety officers in the current fiscal year. The plan provides a 2.5% pay differential for each year of service for the first 10 years of service and then every two years afterward.

Several Newport News council members expressed appreciation for public safety workers and said they would work on ensuring the city’s police and firefighters are well compensated and remain in the city.

During a Tuesday work session at Denbigh Community Center, Cipriano presented the council with a new city manager-recommended proposal that would increase pay.

The proposal would implement a 5% general wage increase in July for all sworn public safety staff. In January 2025, all sworn public safety employees — including those in the fire and police departments and the Sheriff’s Office — would be placed into a step program based on their assigned grades and years of experience. Cipriano said the 5% increase is to start the public safety employees “on the path” to the total pay adjustment that would occur by January.

Step structures in compensation involve predefined steps (or levels) through which employees advance, generally based on seniority, to get higher pay. The structure defines the pay grades of various positions and includes a plan for incrementally increasing salaries over time.

Cipriano noted that step plans provide a clear framework for employees to progress and allow them to “see where they are going.” She said a step plan makes it easier to promote retention and is easy to administer because “it is a progression through the plan.”

She said one disadvantage of the plan is that performance beyond minimum standards is not rewarded.

“All people in the same grade receive the same pay at the same time,” she said. “And it is very rigorous. There’s very little room for any change or opportunity for change.”

Cipriano outlined a hypothetical example of pay increase for an employee who is currently making $60,000 and should be making $65,000 based on the new step plan. She said the 5% wage adjustment would bring the salary up to $63,000 in July, and then in January, that employee would be placed into the step plan and the salary would bump up to $65,000.

Cipriano did not provide specifics on how much more employees would receive per year in the step plan, telling the Daily Press that the city is still working on the details. The total cost of implementing the program could vary as the city refines the details.

The step plan would be approved as part of the City Council’s vote on the entire budget. Several council members expressed gratitude for the proposal and indicated support.

“I just want to thank the budget department for putting this great presentation together and making it happen,” Councilman John Eley said. “I know it took a lot of long hours, long nights. And I’m just so thankful for our police and fire department. They’re going to get some of the things they asked for.”

Police Chief Steve Drew said after the work session that the council’s support “sends a clear message to the men and women who do this job that they’re valued.”

Drew had previously proposed a step plan and said the new proposal is similar to what he had requested. He said the plan will assist with recruiting efforts.

“When you hire someone on Day 1, I can tell them where they’re going to be in seven years from now,” Drew said. “(The plan is) in line with the vision I had. And it just means a lot. I’m thankful.”

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