- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

RICHMOND (AP) | State officials are defending bonuses and salary increases given last year to employees at the Virginia Department of Transportation amid ongoing plans to cut staff.

Documents obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch show that the department paid more than $200,000 in one-time bonuses and more than $300,000 in salary increases last year.

The move came as the state agency planned to reduce overall staffing levels by 1,000 employees and to cut 450 hourly and temporary workers during the next 18 months.

Some legislators questioned the payments, given efforts to cut spending.

“Certainly there are some very talented employees at VDOT and all state agencies,” said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, Hanover Republican. “When we’re stopping core services and laying off employees and still paying out one-time salary increases, then you have to really ask whether we are making good decisions with our resources.”

But Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer said the bonuses help preserve public safety on the state’s bridges and roads.

“I think it’s essential to attract and retain the right people to safely manage our highway system,” Mr. Homer said. “And we delude ourselves if we think we can do this on the cheap.”

The $306,432 in salary increases were part of $2.37 million in “salary adjustments” made for 684 workers who were promoted, reassigned, given expanded duties or transferred when the department shuttered 28 percent of its facilities, Mr. Homer said.

The department risked losing experienced workers and having to pay to train replacements in specialized positions without the increases, he said.

“A structural bridge engineer, a traffic operations center - people’s lives depend on these things,” Mr. Homer said. “You can’t train somebody overnight for that. It costs thousands of dollars. We simply can’t afford to lose these highly qualified people.”

Retention payments from the state go beyond the transportation department.

Last year, Virginia taxpayers funded $3.65 million for 7,458 one-time bonus payments to state employees, said Gordon Hickey, spokesman for Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat.

“The commonwealth certainly recognizes the tough economic times we’re in and continues to tighten our belts just like citizens,” Mr. Hickey said. “There’s real value in offering skilled employees rewards and affirmation to retain them and to reward them for improving their skills.”

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