From Sunday’s newspaper:
By PAUL MONIES
pmonies (at) opubco.com
Thousands of state employees have gone through layoffs, furloughs or salary freezes during the budget crunch, but 130 employees at executive agencies have had raises in the last year.
Almost one-third of those raises came in the past few months at agencies whose elected heads will be leaving office in January, according to an analysis of state payroll records by The Oklahoman.
The raises range from increases of 3 percent for an audit supervisor at the Auditor and Inspector’s office to more than 40 percent for an executive assistant at the state Education Department.
Overall, 130 employees at eight elected agencies received raises from October 2009 to October 2010, the analysis found. Thirty-eight employees had raises since the beginning of the state’s fiscal year in July.
“It appears to me that the front-line employees are not the ones receiving the greater benefits on the raises,” said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.
“Right now is not a good time to be doing that because we’re looking at maybe additional furloughs or reductions in force in this budget cycle.”
Most of the raises came in unclassified positions. They are not subject to the same rules for salary increases as classified positions under the state’s merit protection system.
Officials at the agencies said some of the raises were promotions to the positions of departing employees.
Others said their agencies were below the number of employees authorized by the Legislature and they were being prudent with state money.
“We’re doing more with less while still addressing pay parity issues, both within our own agency and in comparison to other state agencies and the private sector,” said Trey Davis, spokesman for Steve Burrage, the outgoing Democratic state auditor. Burrage will be succeeded by Republican Gary Jones in January.
The auditor’s office employs 112 people, below the 140 positions it was authorized for this fiscal year. Last year, the agency had authorization for 169 employees, Davis said.
Pay raises went to 49 employees at the auditor’s office, according to the payroll analysis. Davis said those who received raises had more responsibilities, gained skills or tackled more challenging projects.
“This action is necessary for (state auditor and inspector) to remain functional and to maintain staffing levels,” Davis said. “Other agencies have occasion to work with our auditors and, in the past, these agencies consistently made job offers to our personnel because their salary structure for auditors was considerably higher.”
On the campaign trail, Republican Gov.-elect Mary Fallin talked about “right-sizing” state government, including looking at agency consolidation and performance. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Brad Henry set up a task force in 2007 to study state employee compensation. One of its top recommendations was an examination of classified and unclassified positions at executive agencies.
“Data collection processes are less uniform in unclassified service positions, resulting in inability to compare salary to market and inconsistent use and application of job descriptions,” the report stated.
Henry included money in his 2009 executive budget for an independent consulting firm to perform the study, but it wasn’t funded by lawmakers.
Zearley, who served on the task force along with private industry and government representatives, said the last statewide pay increase came in 2006. Employees under merit protection can get raises if they meet standardized skill requirements or market conditions.
“With the unclassified side, there’s not that good of a process in place,” said Zearley, whose group represents about 10,000 mostly classified employees. “I don’t think there’s any oversight.”
About 27 percent of the state’s work force, or 10,300 employees, are in unclassified positions, according to the latest Office of Personnel Management annual report. That’s up from about 8,000 unclassified positions in 2004.
Agency directors and appointed or elected leaders need a certain amount of flexibility in staffing their agencies, Zearley said.
High-demand jobs, like computer specialists or accountants, also are hard to fill for many agencies.
The Insurance Department, which had 23 employees receive raises in the last year, performed its own salary study in 2006, said spokesman Marc Young. The department noticed turnover in its financial division and years of experience as areas of concern. Those are among the criteria used by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners during its accreditation process, he said.
“A lot of those salaries were driven by changes we needed to make that were budgeted for over a two- or three-year period of time,” Young said. “A lot of those jobs in the financial division require a degree or professional licenses like (certified public accountant) or certified financial examiner.”
Tim Allen, spokesman for outgoing Treasurer Scott Meacham, said the agency recently advertised for a CPA. It had no applicants at the salary offered, so the agency had to find money to increase the position’s salary. Four employees at the treasurer’s office received raises in the last year. Three were CPAs, Allen said.
“When we have people leave, we look at reassigning their duties and giving people who picked up new responsibilities a minor increase in compensation,” Allen said.
Three employees at the governor’s office received raises in the last year. Spokesman Paul Sund said two were promotions. J.D. Strong, Henry’s secretary of the environment, said he received a $10,000 annual raise because he also became interim director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. Strong was named the board’s permanent director in October.
Some agencies, such as the state Education Department and the Labor Department, have employees who are paid either partially or entirely by federal funds. If the federal government has a pay increase or cost-of-living adjustment, it has to be implemented for those federal workers at state agencies, too.
Mannix Barnes, chief of staff for outgoing Labor Commissioner Lloyd Fields, said many of the safety inspection employees at the agency have unique skills. Most of its 87 employees are in classified positions, he said. Raises went to 18 employees in the last year.
“Our OSHA safety consultants, asbestos inspectors, boiler inspectors and amusement ride inspectors are not something you can just run an ad for in the newspaper,” Barnes said. “It takes years of training. We try to protect the investment the taxpayers made in their training and be somewhat competitive salary-wise.”
Democrat Sandy Garrett, the outgoing state schools superintendent, said agency employment has dropped to 360 from 650 when she took over in 1991. She said most of the 25 employees given raises this year were promoted into vacant positions. The agency has 50 fewer employees than its authorized level, she said.
“I’ve met with the incoming superintendent and explained this to her so she would know she has some wiggle room and some of her own people to fill in the vacancies,” said Garrett, who will be succeeded by Republican Janet Barresi in January.
Written by Paul Monies