State agencies defend pay hikes

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Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Mississippi Capitol

State agencies are defending their decisions to raise employee salaries in the middle of a money crunch that has required rounds of budget cuts.

A legislative assistance report, completed by staff members of the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review at the request of an unnamed state official, shows that 3,396 state workers in 81 different positions got pay bumps totaling $12.4 million between July 1 and Nov. 30, 2016.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

The report drew rebuke from state leaders, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who said many of the agencies that gave out raises have complained about budget cuts.

“It is disingenuous for these agency leaders to say they are underfunded when they make spending decisions that cost taxpayers more money,” Reeves said.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall and Senate Finance Committee chairman, told the Clarion-Ledger, which first reported about the salary increases, that giving raises when the Legislature is looking seriously at the possibility of more cuts seems counterintuitive.

“Not to say they’re not deserving of pay raises, but we all have to cut back in lean times, and this seems to cut against reason and logic, that they would be giving raises at this particular time given the budget cuts we are all facing,” Fillingane said.

According to the document, which Mississippi Today obtained independently, the top five agencies giving out raises were the departments of Human Services, Transportation, Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, Corrections and Mississippi State Hospital. The total for those agencies were pay increases totaling $5 million for 1,452 employees.

Adam Moore, a spokesman for the mental-health department, said many of the increases at the agency were actually reclassifications, including employees who went from being trainees to full-time staff members.

For example, Moore said, direct-care trainees have a 90-day training period before becoming direct-care workers; these employees make up 41 percent of the agency’s workforce, Moore said. He added that other adjustments include employees taking on new responsibilities when a position is left vacant or for completing degrees and certifications.

“Direct Care staff are the front line employees who assist and support the people served by the Department of Mental Health with all of their daily life activities,” Moore said.

These workers also have among highest turnover rates in state government. Mississippi Today reported in September that the Department of Mental Health’s 49 percent turnover rate leads all state agencies.

Buzz about the salary increases came as some lawmakers received an overview from the Mississippi State Personnel Board.

“We have a turnover issue that we very much need to be aware of,” Deanne Mosley, the personnel board’s executive director, told lawmakers at a House Appropriations Committee meeting.

Mosley noted that while the number of state employees have decreased over the past decade, from about 33,000 in 2007 to 29,000 in 2016, the state’s population has increased by 4.3 percent.

Meanwhile, retirements and younger workers leaving the state’s employ, create what Mosley called a perfect storm.

Mosley’s report stressed the need to close the loop — that promoting workforce development is key to retaining state employees.

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Melinda McGrath, executive director of the Department of Transportation, reviews a document while meeting with state legislators.

The No. 2 agency on the list, the Mississippi Department of Transportation, echoed other agencies in offering a rationale for that agency’s salary increases, saying the majority of increases were automatic reclassifications and some were given after meeting educational benchmarks.

“Even with these processes in place, MDOT struggles to maintain a qualified, skilled workforce,” said Melinda McGrath, director of the Department of Transportation. “One example can be found with MDOT entry level maintenance employee salaries which are much lower than cities, counties and other bordering states, which average between $25,000 and $31,000.”

Nonetheless, some state leaders say they plan to offer more direct guidance to agencies on how to spend budget funds.

“We have tried to reign in the practice of giving raises with monies that were not intended for raises in hard economic times,” said Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. “We continue to monitor that. We are working to try and control unintended spending.