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City Moving Forward With $2.5M in Police/Fire Raises, Rejects More Costly Plan

The downtown headquarters of the Richmond Police Department. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond City Council has rejected a proposed pay plan for police officers and firefighters, at least for this year.

At a budget meeting Monday, some council members and city officials expressed concerns that the new plan hadn’t been vetted. It was crafted by members of the fire and police unions and submitted to the city earlier this year. While three council members proposed budget amendments to begin funding the new pay plan starting January 2022, a majority of the nine-member body formed consensus around budgeting $100,000 for a third-party study of the plan, instead.

Ninth District Councilmember Mike Jones, who voted against allocating more money for the new pay plan, said city council spent too much time on the issue, and not enough discussing more pressing priorities like affordable housing.

“There are too many uncertainties when we start talking about a new plan,” Jones said. “I am for the $100,000 to do the study, and then not tying up any other budget dollars in this particular budget.” 

Richmond police officers and firefighters won’t be left empty handed. 

City Council is considering amendments to a 2021-22 budget Mayor Levar Stoney proposed in March. Although they’ve scrapped the idea of reworking the pay plan, Stoney’s original budget proposal contains two step increases or raises: one for the upcoming year, and one for last year that was skipped due to the coronavirus pandemic. The two raises under the current pay plan will cost the city roughly $2.5 million, compared to the new proposed pay plan that would have cost around $4.4 million.

Police and fire union representatives, however, remain unimpressed with the current budget. 

Brendan Leavy, a detective and president of the Richmond Coalition of Police, said some officers and firefighters, especially the most veteran employees, won’t actually see two raises or step increases in practice. He says that’s because the current pay plan is broken.

“Twenty five percent of public safety [employees] wouldn’t be getting two steps [increases], they’d either be getting zero steps or one steps,” Leavy said. “There’s a few that are actually at top pay, but most of them are stuck in a step that you have to sit in for two or even five years.” 

Leavy said the new pay plan being proposed by the police and fire unions would be much simpler, providing pay increases based primarily on years of service. They are also pushing for career development to be properly funded.

“You’re supposed to be able to go to certain training classes or you can use your college credits over the years to give yourself a raise,” Leavy said. “I’ve been with the police department for almost six years and [funding for career development] has only been unfrozen once. It was open for about three months.”

Spending additional money on raises for police officers was a tall ask, following a summer of nightly protests against racism and police violence in 2020. Defunding the police was a rallying cry for demonstrators, and embraced by a minority of Richmond City Council members. Municipal governments across the country are also dealing with tighter budgets following the pandemic and economic recession.

But city officials say refusing to fund the proposed pay plan this year has more to do with responsible governance than politics. 

Lincoln Saunders, Richmond’s acting chief administrative officer, said no one outside of the unions proposing the new pay plan has had an opportunity to analyze it. Saunders, who is Stoney’s second in command, also warned city council members against setting aside money to implement the pay plan later on in the budget year.

William Echelberger, city council’s budget analyst, echoed those concerns during a recent budget work session.

“I can’t tell you who [the new pay plan] helps, who it hurts, how much money it gives to whom,” he said. “I can’t tell you what problems it solves. I can’t tell you what problems it creates. I can not tell you right now.”

While city council members agreed to hold off on instituting an increased pay plan for police and fire, the decision is not necessarily final. Richmond City Council will meet again to debate amendments to the 2021-22 budget on Wednesday, April 28.