FRANKFORT — Eleven Department of Agriculture employees have received merit-based pay raises this fiscal year, when most of the state's nearly 34,000 employees will receive no cost-of-living pay increase and must take six unpaid days off from work.
A review of state personnel records by the Herald-Leader showed that no other agency in state government has given merit-based pay raises in fiscal year 2011, which began July 1. In the previous fiscal year, only nine employees from across state government received such awards.
Almost 4 percent of the agriculture department's 302 employees have received merit-based pay raises since July 2009, compared to about 0.02 percent of the state's remaining 33,821 executive branch employees, the newspaper found.
As an elected official, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer is not bound by a September decree from Gov. Steve Beshear's budget office to suspend indefinitely merit-based pay raises, known as adjustments for continuing excellence, or ACE awards.
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The raises in Farmer's department, which were approved by the Personnel Cabinet, will cost $3,605 a month, or $25,235 for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.
Farmer, a Republican running for lieutenant governor on a slate with Senate President David Williams, said the raises were given to employees who are doing more than one job because of cutbacks to the Department of Agriculture's staff.
"Because of the budget, the department's head count had shrunk over the past three years," said Bill Clary, a spokesman for Farmer. "There are a number of employees who have taken on the responsibilities of two or three people."
Some state employees say it's not fair that only a few people have received pay raises while everyone else struggles with higher health care costs, no cost-of-living increases and the loss of six days of salary.
Jan Williamson, vice president of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, said she doesn't begrudge the employees who have received merit-based pay raises. But like those workers, most other state employees are working very hard, she said.
"I don't see how they can justify it in this time of economic downturn," Williamson said. "It just appears that the rules aren't being uniformly applied."
In letters nominating the employees for pay raises, agriculture department officials lauded their subordinates for performing additional duties during tight financial times.
For example, Brian Garland, an administrative specialist, received a raise because "since the retirement of numerous staff members within the technical branch, Mr. Garland has stepped up to the plate," according to a letter sent to the state Personnel Cabinet. "He has taken on additional responsibility with the Rinse and Return Program."
The newspaper obtained the documents through the state's Open Records Act.
Another employee, Tina Garland, received a raise because she had increased the number of schools participating in the department's Farm to School program from two to 40, according to documentation provided by the state Personnel Cabinet.
Clary said Farmer thought it was more economical to give the pay raises than hire more staff.
"We're probably 50 positions short of where we were three years ago," Clary said. "The work still has to get done. The thought process was that this was more cost-effective than hiring new people."
Funding for the pay raises came from federal grant money — if the employee was part of a federal program — or savings generated by the loss of those 50 positions.
As part of the two-year state budget, no cost-of-living pay raises were given to state employees. Beshear's administration also decided in September not to give any merit-based pay increases as part of a broader effort to control agency costs.
In a memo, Mary Lassiter, the state budget director and secretary of the cabinet, told state agency heads that ACE awards would be "suspended indefinitely."
"While there have been few requests for these awards during the recent series of budget reductions, no requests will be considered until further notice," Lassiter said in the memo.