FRANKFORT —The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is going in the right direction in raising salaries of hundreds of engineers to curb high turnover and costly contracts for private engineers, several state lawmakers said Tuesday.
But concerns also were raised about state pay to other professionals and skilled workers who are leaving state government to find better-paying jobs in the private sector.
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said he was not begrudging better pay for transportation engineers but said he was concerned about pay for correctional officers, social workers, prosecutors, public defenders and teachers.
"If we are going to start handing out increases in pay, there are others to look at, too. I'm frustrated," said Westerfield, who is running this year for attorney general against Democrat Andy Beshear of Louisville.
Westerfield said he saw in news reports that some of the engineers receiving raises were "already making six figures."
The average annual salary for engineers before the increase ranged from $109,764 for transportation engineer directors to $30,137 for transportation engineer technologists I.
Senate Transportation Chairman Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, noted that the Road Fund, which pays salaries in the Transportation Cabinet, is separate from the General Fund, which pays salaries of most state workers.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Tuesday that about 550 engineers in the Transportation Cabinet received raises on June 16 averaging 20 percent to follow an order from Kentucky's 2014 General Assembly for the state to make the salaries more competitive with similar jobs in surrounding states and private businesses.
The pay hike will cost about $7.8 million a year. The money is expected to come from savings in personal-service contracts used to hire outside engineers.
Members of the state legislature's Transportation Committee received information about the pay hike Tuesday from human resource officials Mary Elizabeth Bailey in the Personnel Cabinet and Carol Beth Martin in the Transportation Cabinet.
Most of the reaction from the lawmakers was favorable.
Harris said the money for the pay hike is "well spent" compared to the escalating cost of contracts for outside engineers. The cabinet last year spent $150.7 million for professional engineering service contracts, compared to $101.7 million in 2004.
Rep. Russ Meyer, D-Nicholasville, said the salary jump is needed.
Two Republican senators —Albert Robinson of London and Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon — asked the human resources officials to determine how much retirement benefits will cost with the salary increases.
Higdon also said the cabinet should look at raising the number of weekly hours worked by the engineers from 37.5 to 40 to boost their pay.
The cabinet is considering that change, said spokesman Chuck Wolfe.
It would cost an additional $5.6 million but would also affect about 500 engineer technologists who did not get the raises last month, he said.