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County Board members defend plan for another big pay raise

'This is not a part-time job,' board members contend

Those with long memories will remember when Arlington County Board positions were treated as part-time jobs – there are, after all, thousands of full-time staffers to do the heavy lifting of community governance – and the paychecks of those serving were commensurate with those part-time expectations.

It’s a fading memory, indeed.

Current County Board members on June 10 voted unanimously to approve an ordinance that will allow for raising salaries up to $119,833 for board members and $125,460 for board chair (a position that typically rotates annually among members).

That’s up about 50 percent from current levels, but if the five board members felt any embarrassment or shame in taking the action, they were not showing it.

“This is not a part-time job – it should not be a part-time job,” said County Board member Matt de Ferranti.

Acknowledging that the proposed pay levels were “generous,” de Ferranti said they were in line with median incomes in the county. Going much further, he and several other board members intimated, might indeed cause raised eyebrows among the public.

Nobody from the public came to speak pro or con on the issue at the requisite public hearing, although that may be because few knew the amounts involved. They were not posted until several days in advance of the meeting.

The action taken June 10 will not raise salaries immediately, but will set the stage for ultimate enactment over coming years. State law requires that board members can only raise the ceiling for salaries once every four years, when there are two of the five County Board seats on the ballot.

The current salary set for members is $77,648 and $83,413 for the chair, but that will grow to the current maximum cap of $89,851/$95,734 with the start of the 2024 fiscal year on July 1.

The issue of County Board salaries already has been raised in the 2023 County Board election, with independent candidate Audrey Clement suggesting board members surreptitiously included a raise (to $89,851/$95,734) under the radar of the public during the budget process.

Clement is mostly correct – while County Board members have been increasing their pay incrementally to reach the existing cap in recent years, they largely have been doing so without providing much advance notice of their plans.

Based on the dollar amounts, it appears Arlington officials may see themselves in the same league as Loudoun and Prince William counties, communities with more population and significantly more land area yet whose elected supervisors are paid somewhat less than Arlington board members soon will be.

That point resonated with County Board member Katie Cristol. She ultimately voted to support the increase, but admitted “some discomfort” that Arlington elected officials would be getting paid much more than local jurisdictions “twice our size.”

Board member Libby Garvey in recent years reportedly has been perhaps the most aggressive, behind the scenes, in pushing for pay raises. She said all regional jurisdictions should consider upping pay rates for elected officials.

“Most [in the region] do not probably get what I think people ought to get in this day and age for public service,” she said.

Among Northern Virginia jurisdictions, elected leaders in Fairfax County – the biggest of all – are set for a pay raise; starting in January, its nine district supervisors will earn $123,283 per year and the board chair $138,283, based on a vote taken earlier this year.

In Arlington’s southern neighbor Alexandria, with somewhat less population and land area, the mayor earns $41,500 and City Council members $37,500.

The decision to boost the pay ceiling comes as a community conversation about major changes in Arlington’s governance structure might be stalled.

The Arlington County Civic Federation recently adopted a package of proposed changes to the 90-year-old governance structure, including adding seats to the County Board and School Board and changing the timing of elections.

But some of its proposals would require action by the General Assembly and governor, which might open a can or worms and might, to mix metaphors, create a genie that could not be put back in its bottle. In addition, the proposed changes could threaten the current Democratic political oligarchy in Arlington, potentially leading the party and Democratic elected officials to try and scuttle them.

Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), who likely would take the lead on shepherding governance-change legislation in Richmond, thus far appears ambivalent on doing so next year.