Make WVDOH pay more realistic

Repairing holes in the West Virginia Division of Highways pay schedule is just as important as filling in potholes, in the long run. Yet, despite being instructed nearly two years ago to do that, the agency has not completed the task.

Attracting and keeping qualified, hard-working employees is a challenge for the DOH, because of private-sector competition. Why should a dump truck driver stick with the DOH when he can earn substantially more money elsewhere? That is a problem especially in counties such as ours, where the energy industry is booming.

Nearly two years ago, state legislators recognized the challenge and instructed the DOH to do something about it. A bill enacted during a special session in October 2017 instructed the agency to revamp its pay schedule, in order to compete with the private sector.

Nothing ever seems to happen expeditiously in Charleston. The DOH still has not finished the pay schedule project.

Nearly 300 of the agency’s about 5,000 employees got tired of waiting earlier this year. Through their union, they filed a formal grievance over delays in amending pay scales.

Given carte blanche, DOH officials probably could have come up with a new plan within days. But this is West Virginia, and scarce funding always gets in the way of improving our highways — or even maintaining them adequately, for that matter.

No doubt concern over how to pay higher rates is part of the reason for delay. But lawmakers, in writing the 2017 bill, noted that they had approved some additional personnel funding for the DOH. They also granted the agency new flexibility in how it hires and pays employees.

Funding for the DOH has increased noticeably — from $1.268 billion in fiscal 2018 to $1.334 for the current year. Much of that has been eaten up by higher costs for repair materials, equipment and contractors, however.

DOH officials should wrap up work on the new pay scales, within a matter of weeks, not months. If they devise new rates and find their budget does not contain enough money to cover them, they should go back to the Legislature. There, whether the state can afford supplemental funding can be debated.

Employees who filed the grievance cannot be blamed for losing patience with the DOH bureaucracy. One way or another, the agency needs to get moving on pay scales.