Road contractors lose automatic pay raises

Jul 31, 2009

The Department of Transportation said Thursday that it will not allow private contractors to receive automatic pay hikes this budget year — a savings of at least $10 million — after a state senator called attention to the practice in a public records request.

The decision by DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos came in a letter to Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Greenacres Democrat who publicly asked for the list of road builders, maintenance crews and other contractors entitled to the salary “escalation clause” earlier this month.

In the letter Thursday, Kopelousos sent Aronberg a list of 1,967 private contractors who are eligible for the salary increases and said that DOT is in the process of renegotiating hundreds of contracts to halt the pay hikes. According to agency documents, DOT has identified $10 million in savings thus far from 266 contractors, and more savings are expected.

“Recognizing the same budget issue you have addressed in your letter, I have instituted a statewide policy eliminating any salary modification terms from new contracts and new amendments to existing contracts,” Kopelousos wrote.

Aronberg, who is running for attorney general, argued that because of the state’s deep budget woes, awarding automatic pay hikes to private contractors “was unfair to state workers and unfair to taxpayers.”

In the last two years, legislators have cut $10 billion from the state budget at the same time billions of dollars in stimulus money was allocated for road work.

Aronberg said Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson raised the issue late in last spring’s legislative session and asked Senate President Jeff Atwater to order a review of contracts. But Atwater didn’t respond, prompting Aronberg to follow up with a public records request for the pay hike information.

Aronberg has also asked the Department of Environmental Protection to do a similar review, since many of its private contracts also allow for automatic salary hikes. He said he expects other agencies to be forced to make changes to other private contracts.

“We’re cutting police and cutting teachers. We’re demanding more from state employees during these critical budget times and, at the same time, giving automatic raises to private contractors,” Aronberg said. “There seems to be a double standard for private workers and state workers.”

Aronberg said the issue was brought to his attention by former DOT auditor Deette Preacher but he expressed concern that it took a public records request to force the agency to act.

“It took a private citizens to bring it to our attention,” he said. “At the very least, there needs to be more sunshine allowed in this process.”