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County employee and teacher unions came to the annual budget hearings with a united message: County employees deserve a compensation increase, and that increase must be even across the board.

The combined effect of multi-year pay freezes, rising insurance premiums and changes to federal tax laws mean that the take-home pay for county employees actually is starting to slide backward, said Randy Creller, chairman of the Employees Advisory Council.

County employees have received raises in two of the past six fiscal years.

During the same period, Creller said, prices for gas have increased and inflation has decreased the employees’ purchasing power.

“All of this combined has left your employees with a feeling of helplessness,” Creller told the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.

Leaders of the Fairfax County Government Employees Union, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, highlighted examples of what the past few years have meant to employees’ bottom line.

An electrician who started working for the county four years ago is now taking home $222 less per month than when she started, according to union member Joseph Wilhelm, and a carpenter who has worked for the county for 14 years now earns $3.42 per hour more than when he joined the county.

“How can Fairfax County ever hope to retain valuable employees when these stories are our reality?” Wilhelm asked.

Employees face an uphill battle in attaining pay increases this year.

County Executive Ed Long’s proposed $3.6 billion general fund budget for fiscal 2014 relies on a real estate tax hike to balance it and does not fund pay increases for county employees. It cuts county programs by more than $20.5 million and eliminates 91 staff positions.

The county also still is facing the uncertain economic effects of federal budget cuts and starting to learn of actual losses of federal spending, such as the loss of housing choice vouchers for 150 families.

At the same time, the Board of Supervisors also is weighing requests for increased funding from the public schools, physical and mental health care programs, housing programs and other safety net services. The board also does not have much flexibility, as it limited the maximum potential real estate tax increase to the 2 cents per $100 of value hike that Long’s budget was based on when supervisors advertised the tax rate for this week’s public hearings.

Further complicating the issue is the Fairfax County School Board’s pledge to provide a 2 percent pay raise to schools employees.

“We understand that pay raises have become somewhat of a luxury in the public sector,” School Board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large) said. “However, there is an adage that you get what you pay for.”

Teacher pay in Fairfax County is starting to slide in comparison to other jurisdictions, Moon said.

Similarly, the Employee Advisory Council said Fairfax County is the only jurisdiction in the region not considering a pay increase this fiscal year. Most are looking at raises of about 2 percent.

In a show of solidarity with county employees, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Steven Greenburg chose to speak Wednesday, when the county unions were making their presentations, rather than Tuesday, when most school funding advocates addressed the Board of Supervisors.

“I’m not here just to advocate for schools, but also for my family,” he said, meaning his fellow public sector employees. Greenburg endorsed what the county unions are asking for — giving all public employees an equal pay raise.

Giving county employees a 1.93 percent pay increase, roughly equivalent to what the School Board would like to give schools employees, would cost about $22 million, Creller said.

County supervisors will vote on amendments to Long’s budget April 23 and are expected to adopt the budget April 30.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com