Almost $9 million is proposed to implement a revised Roanoke County pay scale over a three-year span, prioritizing regular raises for its more than 1,000 full-time employees, rather than increasing salaries as an afterthought like in years past, county officials said.
“I’ve been here just over 20 years,” said Roanoke County Administrator Dan O’Donnell. “Since I have been here, the county has really lacked any kind of a consistent compensation philosophy.”
In the decade since 2011, Roanoke County made pay adjustments irregularly and as an afterthought, only once other budget priorities were funded, O’Donnell said. Pay adjustments doled out by the county since 2011 average 1.43% annually, which is lower than the 1.67% annual rate of inflation during that same time, according to county data.
“We really haven’t kept up to where we should in terms of compensation at the forefront of our focus when we formulate the budget,” O’Donnell said. “We would really like to move to focus on appropriate compensation to attract and retain high quality employees — not just in public safety, but throughout the workforce.”
Wages dwindling below the pace of inflation have caused difficulty recruiting and retaining employees, especially in the realm of public safety, according to both Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall and now-retired Fire Chief Steve Simon. Roanoke County Police Department lost 35 uniformed officers since January 2020, with only five of those leaving by retirement, county data said.
“So many people do not want to be involved in public safety anymore, especially in law enforcement,” Simon said prior to his retirement. “It’s a challenge from a recruitment standpoint. I think the challenge that our department will face in the future is recruiting volunteers and recruiting new employees to be in the career system.”
A new, stepped pay scale system proposed by Roanoke County staff will provide a better-defined path for career progression in public safety. Each of the county’s public safety departments — police, sheriff and fire & rescue — will receive funds to pay more competitive salaries.
“I think that will help with retention of employees,” Simon said of the new pay system. “We get employees who stay three years and say, ‘this isn’t what I want to do,’ they want to go on to something else.”
County officials propose allocating $8.9 million over the next three fiscal years, spending $2.9 million each year through 2024 on compensation, salary and benefit adjustments.
In the proposal, fire and rescue workers will see $2.5 million for improved wages over the three-year period, while the police payroll receives $2.2 million and sheriff’s department employees get $1.1 million. All other county staff will receive the remaining $3.1 million, allocated using a different system.
“I think this is affordable,” O’Donnell said, referring to positive sales tax and housing market outlooks for the next few years. “This should be our highest priority, and I think we can do this.”
Starting salaries will increase to $42,000 in the police department, $40,000 working for the sheriff and $41,000 as a fire and rescue department recruit. All three departments currently start employees at $39,221 or lower.
“We want to get you in an entry level role, then we want to see you advance for a number of years,” said assistant administrator Richard Caywood. “We’d like to have people retire from us after a good, long, 20-plus-year career.”
From the starting salary, a step chart details how much more is earned for each advancement a public safety employee makes, whether it be reaching a milestone for time served, or promotion to a new position.
“The intent would be on every July 1, subject to good performance and our fiscal ability to pay, you’d move one step across the step chart,” Caywood said.
For all other employees, a new pay structure was compiled using the Decision Band Method, using the expertise of a hired consultant, staff said. The method simplifies Roanoke County’s current system by sorting 325 different job categories into six pay bands, rather than 32 pay grades.
As part of the new system, across-the-board pay adjustments of 3% are proposed for the upcoming budget year, totaling just under $1 million, according to county documents.
Additionally, with the minimum wage in Virginia increasing to $11 per hour by the start of next year, Roanoke County expects to spend about $20,000 more on part-time wages during the upcoming 2022 fiscal year, to make up the difference paying part-time, minimum-wage workers.
A Roanoke County compensation study began in November 2019, but was put on pause when the coronavirus began to spread in early 2021. Staff resumed the study in September 2020, and proposed a step system for public safety compensation to the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors during a work session in February.
The board will consider the proposed pay scale changes during the process of adopting Roanoke County’s 2022 fiscal year budget.