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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published May 22 2013

State employees get raise in 2013-15, but some unhappy

BISMARCK – Mike Stebbins, a third-generation public employee and supervisor for the Department of Transportation in Underwood, watches semi-trailers fly by him on highways every day.

The 57-year-old maintenance man spends his days mowing, fixing signs and plowing snow during the winter, among many other things.

He loves his job, particularly plowing snow off roads.

“It’s me against Mother Nature,” he said. “I’m trying to keep the roads open so people can go to grandma’s at Christmastime.”

While he believes he’s compensated well for what he does, he isn’t convinced it is enough.

Stebbins will see a raise in his salary during the next biennium thanks to the state Legislature. But, he said Wednesday, it could be a larger increase.

“Everybody would like to see more money, everybody wants more money,” he said. “Us DOT guys, we’re underpaid for what we do out here. We’re way out here with the traffic, we have semis buzzing by us every day of the year and various other hazardous jobs, and it’s only getting worse with the oil.”

Just over two weeks ago, lawmakers approved a plan to give state employees an average 4 percent salary increase during the first year of the 2013-15 biennium and a 3 percent increase in year two. An additional 1 percent state-employee match will go into their retirement, with no extra state-employee contribution in the second year.

Stebbins has worked for the DOT for 25 years and has heard many times from state legislators that when times are better, they will make it up to state employees.

Although he is happy, he wonders why the Legislature dropped Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s plan for a 4 percent increase in both years and an extra 1 percent state-employee match both years.

The Senate endorsed the governor’s plan, but the House cut it down and wanted a 3 percent salary increase for both years with no state-employee retirement match for either year.

“The times are better, I don’t see how they can get better than they are,” Stebbins said. “They’ll tell you what you want to hear but vote differently when it comes to the legislative session.”

Dalrymple’s spokesman, Jeff Zent, said Wednesday that the governor’s office was satisfied with the final pay package.

“It’s close to what we proposed,” he said.

The head of the North Dakota Public Employees Association called the new plan disappointing.

Stuart Savelkoul, executive director of the organization with more than 2,500 dues-paying public employees, said the state is already struggling to recruit and retain high-caliber employees, and that the salary bump the Legislature approved won’t have much impact.

“When you aren’t offering competitive wages to fill the positions with qualified people, the alternative is you don’t fill the position or compromise on the caliber of employee you want,” he said.