By Callie Hietala
Martinsville City Council heard from a number of outside agencies Tuesday during the second of three budget work sessions. Several agency heads noted struggles with staffing shortages – which most attributed to low pay. All requested raises for staff who are underpaid and increasingly overworked as vacancies remained unfilled.
According to those who addressed council, the local 911 center has lost 32 percent of its staff, while the Henry-Martinsville Social Services Department has carried a 45 percent vacancy rate for many months and Blue Ridge Regional Library staff have not received a cost-of-living salary adjustment in at least a decade.
Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center
“Just like many of the other public safety professions and departments here in the city and the county and abroad, we’re dealing with the same staffing issues that many others are,” Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center Director J.R. Powell said, and attributed the challenges to several reasons, primarily the center’s inability to compete with salaries in neighboring jurisdictions.
Powell said he has been at the center for 27 of the 33 years it has been open, and “our center has always been known in the region as having very little turnover.” However, in the past 16-months, the center has lost 32 percent of its staff, or seven of its 22 dispatchers. While one retired, six others left for other opportunities that offered better pay, including one recently hired by the city.
“The staff that we have are dedicated,” Powell said of those who remained, “We’re continuing to function. We’ve all had to pitch in.”
Of the 120 centers in Virginia, the local center ranked 25th in the number of calls processed in 2021, Powell said. “In other words, we answer more calls than 95 of those 120 911 centers in Virginia. That’s a large number.”
In the region, the center answers more calls than the counties of Franklin, Patrick, Pittsylvania, Rockingham, and Roanoke and the City of Danville he said. Only Roanoke City processes more calls in the region.
He added that when Henry County made a salary adjustment for law enforcement and public safety late last year, and “the city was able to offer the same for some of the law enforcement this year, we were not included in any of those salary increases.
“Our dispatchers are considered essential personnel,” he said. “We answer 400 calls per day. We’re not like a department where somebody calls in sick, we can shut the door, turn the lights off, and they’ll be back tomorrow. Somebody has to come in to fill that seat.”
Powell said he tries to keep morale up among his staff, “but that is a question that comes up: Why weren’t we included? And I didn’t really have a direct answer. We weren’t included in any of those conversations.”
He asked the city for funding to address on-call compensation for dispatchers as well as a salary increase for the staff. He said he plans to approach the Henry County Board of Supervisors with the same request at that board’s public hearing.
He said the center has an on-call schedule, but it has not been compensating staff for being on-call. From discussions with the human resources department, he said he learned that, because being on-call puts a limitation on a dispatcher’s time when they are off-duty, they must be compensated for that time. In checking with other 911 centers across the state, including those in the region, Powell said, “I found that we were the only one in the region that was not compensating their dispatchers for being on-call.”
Powell said that, while Patrick County pays its dispatchers a flat fee with the understanding they will be on-call throughout the year, most provide an hour of salary for each 24-hour period spent on-call. When an employee is called in, they earn their regular hourly rate.
Averaging the salaries of his 22 dispatchers, Powell said providing an hour of compensation for those on-call equates to a little more than $14,000.
He requested the city fund a $1.50 per hour salary increase for all staff to help attract new employees and retain current ones.
“There was a time when we were the highest-paying agency in the region. Now we’re the lowest,” he said.
The starting pay for one of his dispatchers is $32,594. In comparison, the cities of Roanoke and Danville each pay starting dispatchers $34,000 annually, and Patrick County is considering increasing starting salaries to the same amount, he said. In Pittsylvania County, the starting pay is $36,000.
The disparity in pay has contributed to staff loss, particularly due to agencies within an acceptable driving distance offering better pay, Powell said.
He requested an hourly increase rather than a percentage because “I’m looking to get the money to the side of the house that needs it …. 5 percent of my salary is a whole lot different than 5 percent of a new employee’s salary. Our interest is trying to get that beginning salary, and those employees at the lower end of the scale, up to a more competitive range.”
He added that, on July 1, 2021, a statewide increase in the 911 tax on cell phones took effect. For 2023, the projected revenues to his center from that tax are estimated at $53,946. He suggested those revenues could contribute to the requested pay adjustments.
“I’m afraid what you might find is when you’re doing the salary surveys, you’re matching what people are doing now,” said City Manager Leon Towarnicki. “The people that you’re matching are probably doing something July 1. So, probably July 1, you’re going to be behind. My reaction to this, and we haven’t had this conversation, but I don’t think you did enough.”
Powell said he was trying to be reasonable, given the other budgetary challenges facing the city and county, “but the city manager is exactly right. We’re probably going to find ourselves back again next year, circling the wagons, trying to catch up.”
Amy Rice, director of the Henry County-Martinsville Social Services Department, said, “I will sound just like J.R.”
She said her agency has carried a 45 percent vacancy in its family services group for several months. “They are our folks who are providing Child Protective Services (CPS) and Adult Protective Services,” she said, adding that of the 30 positions the department has posted from Feb. 2021 through Feb. 2022, 43 percent were Family Service Specialist (FSS) positions.
Foster care numbers have more than doubled since 2017, Rice said. Currently, she has two case-carrying FSS staff, and 93 children in foster care. In CPS, two specialists are carrying 50 cases each, while in the family preservation unit, there are 133 open cases and, as of Friday and after another resignation, there will be two case-carrying family service specialists to handle them.
“We are at a critical level,” she said. “We are losing folks to other agencies. They just pay more than we do.”
Rice said the base salary for FSS staff, who are required to have a 4-year college degree, is $36,993, or $17.80 per hour.
Blue Ridge Regional Library
“Our hardworking staff deserve a raise,” said Blue Ridge Regional Library Director Rick Ward. He said he included an increase in his budget request to give his staff that raise.
From 2014 until the present, “the city has increased their contribution to the library by $5,659. In 8-years, less than $6,000. So that’s kind of sad,” he said.
He noted the rate of inflation—which he said was at 8-percent—was not only affecting the library’s costs, but the costs of staff as well. Additionally, he said, the hourly minimum wage has increased to $11, with another increase to $12 in January. The library system must compensate for that as well.
Ward requested $13,142 from the city to address salary issues, which he said was a 4.45 percent increase over last year’s contribution, and 0.02 percent of the city’s current budget. He said he made the same request of Patrick County, and plans to request $36,000 from Henry County, which has multiple library branches. Martinsville and Patrick County only have one branch each.
He said Henry County was currently proposing level funding for the library, which he hoped to address during the county’s public hearing on the budget next week, and Patrick County originally proposed cutting library funding by 11 percent, but has since agreed to level funding.
Lawson said if Ward decided on the amount to request based on the city and both counties contributing, and Patrick was only going to provide level funding, “that skews your numbers.”
Ward said, if need be, the library’s contingency funds could be used to cover what Patrick may not provide, “but I really don’t want to because salaries are something that need to be sustainable.”
He said he only recently learned of Patrick’s decision, “but that doesn’t mean I can’t come back” with his request again. “But somebody has to be first,” he said.
Council member Danny Turner asked if the city was “in a situation to say ‘we’ll be first,’ if they (Henry County) do their part?” to which Ward said he plans to approach the county next week.
Public Defender Sandra Haley presented the same request she made to county officials in April—a 5 percent salary supplement for the staff of the Public Defender’s office, excluding herself.
She noted her office is experiencing the same difficulties retaining and attracting staff.
“Historically, localities have provided supplements to Commonwealth’s Attorney’s offices,” she said, and added there are “huge variances” between the salaries of public defenders and commonwealth’s attorneys, sometimes as high as tens of thousands of dollars, despite the offices being staffed by people with the same skills and talents.
Haley said the total amount needed to provide the supplement is $29,638.50, which she divided proportionally between the city, Henry and Patrick counties, based on the percentage of cases originating from each locality.
In total, she said, the current caseload of the office is 749 clients, with 284 clients in the city.
Haley requested $11,262.63 from the city, noting that “that is very close to what you’re paying Mr. Hall’s office,” referring to the Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Hall.
Haley said she planned to request $4,149 from Patrick County, and is amending her original request of Henry County from $15,193.34 to $14,226.48 due to a calculation error.
Council members took no action on any of the requests during the work session.
Council stipend increases
Towarnicki noted the current proposed budget includes 10 percent stipend increases for city council members. Currently, council members receive $455 per month, which would increase to $500.50. The mayor currently receives $555, which would increase to $610.50.
Towarnicki said council members have not received an increase in quite some time, and reduced the stipend several years ago. He explained that in 2011, the council’s total stipend of $28,500 (which has been in place at least since 2009) was reduced by 5 percent to $27,075 in 2011. It was restored to $28,500 in 2012, its current resting place.
“But that’s to go along with all the other increases. Council didn’t ask for this,” council member Chad Martin clarified.
Towarnicki said, “to be perfectly clear, nobody solicited this. We looked at everything else and just felt it was time. It hadn’t been done in a long, long time.”
Turner noted that the General Assembly “passed some laws that allowed city council to pay themselves pretty substantial amounts.”
“This is nowhere near that substantial amount,” Towarnicki said.
“Your school board maxed out, but you are nowhere near that,” added City Attorney Eric Monday.