Chief: Virginia Beach Police Dept. has ‘demoralizing’ pay situation; officers make thousands more than supervisors

Virginia Beach is paying dozens of police sergeants and fire captains thousands of dollars less than the lower-ranking personnel the officers supervise.

In a report prepared for the City Council and released to the public this week, Police Chief Jim Cervera wrote the pay situation — called “vertical salary compression” — has been an ongoing issue that is “demoralizing” his department. He wrote that 26 of the 34 officers who have been promoted to sergeant since June 2013 receive a salary that is, on average, $9,000 less than the most senior master police officers’ pay.

There are also 19 Fire Department captains whose salaries are less than the highest paid master firefighters; the median salary difference between captains and those firefighters is almost $11,000. Cervera wrote the pay gaps permeate all levels of the two departments but are mostly relegated to “first-line” supervisors.

Such “vertical compression” pay gaps are common, according to Regina Hilliard, the city’s Human Resources director. Many other city departments currently suffer from them, partly because the city stopped granting merit raises during the recession, she said. She could not immediately quantify how widespread the issue is.

Cervera and Fire Chief Steve Cover have expressed concerns over the pay scenario in recent budget presentations to the City Council. Cervera said it was discussed during budget season last year as well.

“Some compression typically occurs in pay systems, but the significant gap between supervisor/subordinate pay in our system is concerning and demoralizing to employees,” Cervera wrote in his report. “Any appropriation to address this issue while minimizing additional horizontal compression will be greatly appreciated.”

There are no plans to address the vertical pay gap in the proposed 2017 budget. Hilliard said there are plans to offset “horizontal” pay gaps, or the ones between employees with similar responsibilities, however.

Mayor Will Sessoms said in a brief interview Wednesday that the pay gaps greatly concern him and that he will look for money to close them before the City Council passes the budget, which is for the fiscal year that begins in July.

“I don’t know that we can find it, but we’ll try,” he said.

Cervera, who was not available for an interview Wednesday, wrote in his report that the city addressed similar pay gaps during 2007 and 2008 “at a maximum cost of $4.5 million per fiscal year.”

“At that time, the intention was to revisit and alleviate compression periodically” because the current pay system continues to generate pay gaps, he wrote.

“However, no further compression adjustments were made due to the down-turn in the economy,” he wrote.

Cervera gave the example of a recruit who joined the department in 2005, just before merit increases stopped, and was promoted to sergeant a decade later. The officer is now paid the minimum for his rank — just under $60,000. That amount is less than the maximum for his subordinates, 231 of whom carry the rank of master police officer and make an average of $9,500 more than the sergeant, the report says.

“Despite increased responsibility and supervisory requirements, it is impossible that this sergeant’s base salary will ever be higher than most of these master police officers without a substantial vertical compression adjustment, market adjustment and/or a significant change in the city’s compensation strategy,” Cervera wrote.

Before 2008, when merit raises were still given, it was more likely that sergeants entered the rank with a higher salary, Cervera wrote.

The chief offered two solutions. They amounted to giving supervising officers raises all at once or in tiers. He said either is a short-term solution — as were the raises given a decade ago — and that “a long-term solution should be explored.”

City Manager Dave Hansen added a note to the report reminding the City Council that the problem is city-wide and urging “that we keep a balanced and fair approach to assessing this issue.”

Sessoms said he agreed and that the city could not favor one group of employees over others when it comes to raises.

Have a story idea or news tip? Contact City Hall reporter Judah Taylor at or 757-490-2750.

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