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Recession doesn't halt state agencies' raises

South Carolina's largest agencies have handed out thousands of hefty pay increases to employees during the past five years - a period that includes one of the worst budget crunches in state history.

From 2004 through 2009, the state's five biggest departments awarded nearly 8,300 salary increases of 10 percent or more, according to state Budget and Control Board data. Collectively, that's enough increases for about one-third of the 22,000 employees in those agencies.

And in 2008-09, as state revenues dwindled and basic services were trimmed, the five biggest agencies gave more than 2,000 pay hikes of 10 percent or more, according to the budget board. The average raise for all state employees was 7.8 percent in 2009.

The state Department of Transportation has had the highest number of salary increases of at least 10 percent since 2008, followed by the state departments of Social Services, Corrections, Health and Environmental Control and Mental Health, records show. The DOT also had the most hefty increases since 2004, according to the budget board.

State agency officials said the pay hikes were provided to keep good employees from leaving and, in many cases, to increase pay for some of their lowest salaried workers. In other cases, workers were taking on more duties and deserved compensation, officials said. Many of the increases were considered promotions, instead of raises, that pushed employees to higher pay brackets.

But some state legislators said they are concerned that employees have gotten big salary boosts as the budget crisis has intensified.

Among those receiving big increases at major agencies since 2008 were as many as 200 employees already earning at least $50,000, public records show. Since 2004, the big agencies had awarded more than 600 salary increases of at least 10 percent to workers making $50,000 or more.

"I don't know that it sends a good message, a positive message to people who may be getting laid off or otherwise furloughed," said Rep. Dan Cooper, an Anderson County Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

The recession has sent South Carolina's unemployment rate soaring to near 12 percent and cost many people their jobs.

In state government, lawmakers have slashed the budget repeatedly in the past 2.5 years as revenues have come in lower than expected. Agencies have forced many of the state's 62,000 employees to take a week of unpaid leave. Some agencies have encouraged early retirement or offered buyouts, while others have laid off workers.

Just in the past year, more than 1,100 state workers have left government jobs, in part because of the economy.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said people everywhere have had to sacrifice, and government workers who remain employed should be no different.

"Even the best employees aren't going to get as a high a raise at times when we don't have the money," Davis said, noting that the Legislature should consider a salary cap during tough times.

Gov. Mark Sanford's office issued a statement Friday saying he would have to look more closely at the raises before passing judgment.

But the statement said "there's a disconnect between some of the compensation schemes within the public system versus the private sector."

The Budget and Control Board pay increase data, provided at the request of The State newspaper, extends only to the largest, non-university agencies.

Even so, the report's findings that 8,200 employees got big pay increases provides a glimpse of raises in state government since 2004. The report covers both pay raises and promotions.

Top officials benefit

Although the budget board data did not break down who received the big pay boosts, other records obtained by the newspaper show that some high-paid workers have gotten increases of at least 10 percent since 2004.

Department of Transportation records show that 57 DOT officials who make more than $75,000 have also gotten pay increases of 10 percent or better since January 2004. The majority of those increases were for engineers, department records show. The average South Carolina worker makes slightly more than $37,000.

Also, nearly 50 DOT employees making at least $50,000 have received more than one raise exceeding 10 percent since 2004. That includes a DOT worker who got four of them, records show.

DOT Director Buck Limehouse is also one of those who received a hefty pay raise.

In 2007, soon after he was picked to head the department, Limehouse got a raise exceeding 15 percent. That boosted his salary from $118,000 to $146,000.

His raise was approved by the state Agency Head Salary Commission, said Limehouse, who said it was done without his knowledge.

"No one, the governor or me or the (DOT) commission had anything to do with it," he said.

The idea was to make his salary comparable to that of his predecessor, Betty Mabry, and other state agency directors, said Limehouse and Mary Gail Monts-Chamblee, the DOT's human resources director.

Limehouse, who plans to leave the agency when his term expires early next year, said he didn't want his salary raised above $118,000. But he said it would be difficult to find a quality director after he leaves at the $118,000 annual salary.

He stressed, however, that he has attempted to cut costs at the DOT and pledged to look into other high increases for well-paid agency employees.

"I kind of think I need to get my arms around it," Limehouse said. "I'm going to have to have some better controls. Maybe some of them are justified, but I sure want to know about it from now on.''

Records show that some well-paid officials at the Department of Health and Environmental Control also got big increases.

Robert Arndt, the agency's director of information systems, was the highest paid DHEC worker to get an increase of between 10 and 20 percent from 2004-09, DHEC records show. He received a 12.5 percent increase in 2008. He now makes $108,317.

The agency's coastal division director, Carolyn Boltin-Kelly, was the highest salaried agency employee to receive a pay increase of at least 20 percent from 2004-09, records show.

Boltin-Kelly makes $119,119, according to the state salary database. She got the 20 percent pay raise in 2005. DHEC records indicate that her salary was $83,411 in 2005, the year she was hired.

Arndt and Boltin-Kelly declined comment, DHEC spokesman Thom Berry said. Berry said both Boltin-Kelly's and Arndt's salaries were considered low for the positions they held when compared to similar jobs in other state agencies. As a result, the Budget and Control Board approved increasing those salaries, Berry said.

In another instance, DHEC rehired a former agency shellfish regulator as a liaison for its health regulation program in 2007, then awarded him pay increases of 13.6 percent and 14.5 percent.

That helped hike Ken Moore's salary from $61,000 to $85,000 in three years. DHEC officials said the increases were justified because of his general experience with regulations and government, even though had no experience in health licensing.

Pay hikes backed

Agency officials interviewed by The State said they don't think the number of hefty salary increases is excessive. Some noted that the amount dropped sharply in 2009 as the budget crunch intensified. The agencies awarded more than 1,500 pay increases of 10 percent or more in 2008. By 2009, the number was 477, the budget report says.

Even when revenues are tight, there are times when it makes sense to award big raises to retain valued workers, agency officials said.

That's particularly true for health care workers, lawyers, doctors and engineers - people in great demand by other government agencies and the private sector, state agency officials say.

John McGill, director at the S.C. Department of Mental Health, said his agency can't afford to lose key workers.

"It is not as simple as putting a freeze on all hiring or on all salary increases," McGill said in a written statement. "Turnover among clinical staff is ongoing. The department's mental health centers, hospitals and nursing care facilities require an adequate number of nurses and other medical professionals to operate."

The DMH noted that less than 1percent of its work force got big raises last year.