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Lawmakers hope to raise some kind of relief in W.Va.

August 29, 2005|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Despite initial opposition to their "locality pay" proposal, two Eastern Panhandle lawmakers said Sunday the effort is continuing to give local state employees some sort of relief from the high cost of living in the Eastern Panhandle.

Lawmakers were pushing for locality pay for local state employees, but they "ran into a buzz saw" of opposition from officials in other parts of the state, said Del. Walter Duke, R-Berkeley.

Duke said lawmakers in other parts of the state said they could not vote for locality pay for fear they would get voted out of office by their constituents.

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Locality pay is higher pay given to state employees in certain areas to help them offset higher costs of living in areas such as the Eastern Panhandle.

Local lawmakers have said passage of locality pay is vital to stem the loss of state workers in the Eastern Panhandle to higher paying jobs in neighboring states.

Lawmakers said high housing costs in the Eastern Panhandle is one of the biggest obstacles that make it tough for state employees to stay here.

Sen. John Unger said one of the reasons the locality pay issue ran into trouble is because there was a debate over the difference of costs of living in different parts of the state.

Some state officials were arguing that some services were more expensive in other parts of the state than in the Eastern Panhandle, Unger said Sunday.

Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, said he now thinks there is a better way to approach the issue.

Unger said a good argument can be made for paying local state employees more if a "cost of labor" or "market differential" model is used.

A cost of labor or market differential way of determining wages can often be seen in the private sector, Unger said.

It means that companies are forced to pay higher wages to retain employees in areas where the cost of living is higher, Unger said.

Unger used the example of a Sheetz convenience store clerk.

Unger said he observed where Sheetz convenience store clerks were earning $8.25 per hour in the Eastern Panhandle but were only earning $6.45 in Morgantown, W.Va.

Unger said he talked about the cost of labor-based wages to members of Gov. Joe Manchin's staff at a meeting last week at Cacapon State Park in Morgan County .

"They were very receptive," Unger said.

Duke said he believes lawmakers might be able to get at least a housing allowance for teachers.

The housing allowance could be given through a modification of the state-aid formula for public education.

"We're working on it. It's not like we've abandoned all hope," Duke said.

Pay raises are expected to top what promises to be a busy agenda for the special session, slated to begin Sept. 7. Manchin has promised a government-wide review of working conditions and pay since lawmakers met for the regular session in February.

Manchin shared details from his pay raise proposal with legislative leaders late last week, starting Thursday with House Speaker Bob Kiss.

Kiss said he wanted to give Manchin a chance to confer with other lawmakers before commenting publicly on the plan's details. Kiss did say that locality pay was not discussed.

"That was beyond the specifics we talked about," Kiss said. "I can't say whether that's included or not. We didn't talk about it."

There are several pay raise proposals from professional organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, which wants $2,000 raises for all classroom educators.

Unger said he likes proposals like those, but what "frustrates me enormously" is that they do not go further and advocate help for Eastern Panhandle teachers.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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