Case for pay raises was tainted

Published 8:55 pm Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Do the employees of the city of Suffolk deserve a pay raise?

There’s a pretty good chance they do. It has been four years since they got their last raise, though there have been two bonuses distributed during the same period. During that four-year span, the price of just about everything has gone up: From gas to groceries, rent to recreation, Americans are paying more for most things in life today. And, with their homes and stock portfolios worth less than they were at the beginning of the recession, folks also have fewer options when it comes to paying those bills.

So it’s fairly easy to understand why Suffolk officials would be looking for a way to reward those who have stuck with the city through this dry spell. It’s also pretty straightforward to see that the same officials wish to raise the level of remuneration for those employees until it is competitive with that of other communities throughout the area and to provide some room for advancement in pay scales between folks who are just starting their careers in Suffolk and others who have invested years of service to the city.

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Suffolk taxpayers understand, because they’re hurting, too. If someone had made an objective case to them about the need for pay raises, there’s a reasonable chance there would have been support for the idea. Surely, there would have been plenty of disagreement, considering the increases in taxes and fees that taxpayers had to accept last year, but there at least would likely have been broad understanding about the situation.

But a report presented to City Council members to support the contention that city employees are underpaid went a little overboard in making the pitch, and Suffolk taxpayers could easily have come to the conclusion that the case for raises for city employees cannot be made without fudging the numbers.

A comparison of Suffolk’s pay scales to those of other municipalities included not just the surrounding cities in Hampton Roads, but also the cities of Richmond, Alexandria, Hanover and Chesterfield. What those cities have in common, officials said, is that they are the places where Suffolk goes to find new talent. What they have in common with Suffolk, on the other hand, is unclear. All of them have significantly larger populations than Suffolk, all are major metropolitan areas or are bedroom communities for some of the most expensive places to live in the Mid-Atlantic region. None are widely known for their farms or for their wide expanses of forest or swamp.

Considering the difference in the cost of living between Suffolk and Northern Virginia or even the suburbs of Richmond, it’s a bit disingenuous to claim Suffolk’s employees are underpaid because they earn a little bit less than they would in similar positions in Alexandria or Chesterfield. Suffolk officials would have made a stronger case for raises if they’d just stuck to the simple facts.