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More than 200 turn out at rally in support of locality pay

July 29, 2005|BY RICHARD F. BELISLE

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

In the 14 years between 1990 and 2004, public schools in Kanawha County, W.Va., dropped 6,902 students from its rolls. In the same period, Berkeley County picked up 4,483 students.

The numbers showed up on a map of all 55 counties Thursday night in the auditorium of Orchard Road Intermediate School in Berkeley County. More than 200 teachers, school service workers, state troopers and state employees attended in a show of solidarity for locality pay for state workers in the Eastern Panhandle.

It was the second of two public sessions this week as part of an effort to convince Gov. Joe Manchin to include locality pay in a special legislative session he is calling in September on salaries and benefits.

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Locality pay refers to increasing the salaries of state workers, including teachers, who work in the Eastern Panhandle where the cost of living, especially housing, far surpasses what residents pay elsewhere in the state.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, ran the meeting.

More than 75 people turned out for a similar meeting Wednesday night in Jefferson County, W.Va.

Most Division of Highway workers in the Eastern Panhandle have been enjoying a 15 percent increase in their paychecks since July 1, Unger said.

Now an effort is being launched by the area's delegation to Charleston to include all state employees in the Eastern Panhandle.

"We've been talking about it for years and bills have been introduced that have gone nowhere," Unger said.

A state worker in Braxton County makes the same salary as one in Berkeley County, but a lot more comes out of the Berkeley County worker's paycheck for housing, he said.

"It's a fairness issue and we've got to communicate that to the rest of the state," he said.

The idea that state workers should earn more in the Eastern Panhandle doesn't sit well with most of the rest of the state, promoters of the locality pay effort said.

State Del. Bob Tabb urged the workers to call or e-mail the governor to let him know that locality should be included in the call for the special session. "Don't send form letters, just calls or e-mails," he said.

Manny Arvon, superintendent of the Berkeley County School District, said the main reason the district loses teachers is salary vs. the cost of living in the Panhandle.

Last year, the district lost 154 teachers, he said. Replacements have had to be found for about 600 teachers in the last five years, he said. "There can be no consistency when you replace 60 percent of your staff every five years," he said.

Berkeley County is the fastest-growing county in the state. Last year, the school district added about 700 new students, Arvon said.

Del. Walter Duke, a Republican who represents southern Berkeley County, said the Eastern Panhandle always supports statewide efforts when disasters like floods affect other parts of the state.

"We've been hit by a flood. It's a tsunami," he said. Property assessments have skyrocketed to match rising real estate prices. "Taxes have doubled," he said.

A house that costs $400,000 to build in Berkeley County costs twice that much in Frederick County, Md., he said. "That's why people think this is the promised land," Duke said.

State troopers have not had a raise since 1996, said Brian Bean, a 13-year-veteran on the force.

A Berkely County dispatcher starts out at $13,800 a year, one resident said. A new school bus driver earns $16,000, said another.

Some social workers with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services in the Panhandle, especially single mothers, often qualify for the same services as her clients, a woman social worker said.

Kristi Hepburn has been teaching at Burke Street Elementary School in Martinsburg for a year. "I can't afford to live here, pay my rent and my student loan," she said.

She's engaged and her fianc is moving to the Panhandle, but she doesn't think they will ever be able to afford a house here, even with both salaries.

One state worker, when applying for a mortgage, said she was told by an incredulous lender, "You're a state worker and that's all you make?"

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