Number of Top-Paid Staff Growing at DOT

June 3, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Bundle of MoneyAlthough the total number of S.C. Department of Transportation workers has dropped slightly in recent years, the number of higher-paid staffers has grown, with double-digit increases in top-salary categories, a review by The Nerve found.

More than half of the increase in the number of higher-paid workers occurred during the tenure of DOT Secretary Janet Oakley, who announced Monday she was resigning –  for unexplained reasons – after only a little more than a year on the job. The Nerve in April 2014 reported that prior to becoming Gov. Nikki Haley’s nominee for DOT’s top position, Oakley was the longtime director of policy and government relations at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), a Washington-D.C.-based nonprofit organization funded by member states, including South Carolina.

The Nerve revealed then that since 1994, the S.C. DOT had paid AASHTO a total of nearly $11 million.

The Nerve’s latest analysis of the state employee database maintained by the S.C. Budget and Control Board found that from June 1, 2012, through March 10 of this year:

  • The total number of DOT workers receiving at least $50,000 annually grew by 134, or 16 percent, to 987 employees, while the total number of full- and part-time DOT workers from 2012 to 2014 dropped by 186, or 4 percent, to 4,280, according to BCB records;
  • Total base salaries in the $50,000-plus group increased to nearly $69 million, a 16 percent jump when adjusted for inflation;
  • The total number of workers making $50,000 to $64,999 grew by 7 percent to 475; total base salaries rose to about $27.1 million, a 5 percent  increase when adjusted for inflation;
  • The total number of employees receiving $65,000 to $79,999 jumped 21 percent to 289; total base salaries increased to about $20.9 million, a 20 percent hike when adjusted for inflation;
  • The total number of staffers making $80,000 to $94,999 rose 15 percent to 131; total base salaries grew to $11.3 million, an 11 percent increase when adjusted for inflation;
  • The total number of workers receiving $95,000 to $109,999 increased 54 percent to 77; total base salaries grew to about $7.8 million, a 51 percent jump when adjusted for inflation; and
  • The total number of employees making at least $110,000 jumped 88 percent to 15; total base salaries rose to $1.8 million, an 82 percent hike when adjusted for inflation.

The average annual income in 2014 for all DOT workers making at least $50,000 was $68,324; the median income – the halfway point of all salaries – was $64,697, The Nerve’s review found. In comparison, South Carolina had a per-capita personal income in 2014 of $36,934, ranking it 48th in the nation and which was 80 percent of the national average of $46,129, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

In 2012, then-DOT Secretary Robert St. Onge, a Haley appointee, was paid an annual base salary of $146,000, according to the state salary database. He abruptly resigned in January 2014 after being arrested on a drunken driving charge and was replaced by Oakley, who was making $156,220 as of March 10  – the same amount St. Onge received in 2013, records show.

The growth of higher-paid DOT workers has occurred as the $1.6 billion agency experienced a nearly 16-percent reduction – 25 percent when adjusted for inflation – in average annual funding for its state highway maintenance program during Haley’s first four years as governor in comparison to the administration of former Gov. Mark Sanford, as The Nerve reported last month.

B.K. Jones, who served as the DOT director from 1994 to 1997 at the end of a 30-year career with the agency, told The Nerve in an interview published last month that after he retired, DOT focused more on new construction than on maintenance. He questioned the need for a gas tax hike proposed by Haley and state lawmakers, pointing out, among other things, that current DOT workers have told him they “don’t have anything to do.”

The shift toward more private contract work has created employment opportunities for some high-level DOT staffers. At least 17 top DOT staffers over the past 12 years have taken jobs with 10 companies that collectively have received more than $72 million from DOT since fiscal 2011, The Nerve reported last month.

South Carolina Policy Council research intern Danny Morris contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803)254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.