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Dozens of state's salary increases top $10,000

by Michael R. Wickline | August 29, 2021 at 3:43 a.m.
From left, Charles Kokes and Frank Peretti, both assistant medical examiners at the state Crime Laboratory, and Kerry Moody, community relations director of the office of the Arkansas attorney general, are shown in this undated composite photo.

Several dozen state employees outside of public colleges and universities have received raises of at least $10,000 so far in the fiscal year that started July 1, according to state records.

These increases mostly resulted from promotions coupled with merit raises.

Executive-branch agencies were authorized to use an amount equal to 3% of the total of base salaries to grant merit raises to selected employees. Officials estimated the merit raises will cost about $28 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The average salary is $45,523 for the executive branch's 22,886 employees at the start of fiscal 2022, up from the average salary of $44,520 for 24,109 executive-branch employees at the end of fiscal 2021, said Kay Barnhill, state personnel administrator.

She said the agencies have about 1,200 fewer employees at the start of fiscal 2022 compared with the end of fiscal 2021 because there "has been so much fluctuation in our workforce due to covid, retirement of higher paying positions, etc. that the average salary has also fluctuated as well."

Executive-branch agencies do not include those of other constitutional officers, like attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. Those officials decide on their employees' pay.


The three largest raises have been granted to associate medical examiners at the state Crime Laboratory.

They are:

• Charles Kokes' salary increased by $68,123 to $295,201. Kokes served as the acting chief medical examiner while state officials, for two years, conducted a national search to fill the post, said Crime Laboratory Director Kermit Channell.

• Stephen Erickson's salary increased by $67,261 to $291,466.

• Jennifer Forsyth's salary rose by $62,883 to $272,492.

In addition, associate medical examiner Frank Peretti's salary increased by $31,916 to $244,698 and associate medical examiner Adam Craig's pay increased by $30,161 to $231,235.

Channell said in a letter dated May 5 to Department of Public Safety Secretary Jami Cook that the salary increases for forensic pathologists are "necessary to maintain our accreditation, continue operations of our medical examiner's office and enable the lab to continue to serve the criminal justice community and provide timely death certificates for the citizens of Arkansas."

In June, the Legislative Council authorized these five salary increases as well as authorizing the Crime Lab to hire Christy Cunningham as an associate medical examiner at a salary of $260,000 and Theodore Brown as the chief medical examiner at a salary of $350,000.

A section of Act 995 of 2021 --- the Department of Public Safety appropriation -- allows departments to exceed the maximum salary level by up to 50% for associate medical examiners and the chief medical examiner with the approval of Legislative Council or the Joint Budget Committee in order "to recruit and retain employees that meet the licensure requirements for medical examiners established" under state law.

"Arkansas is trying to compete for a very limited supply of physicians with the education, national certifications, and training for these important positions our state's courts, prosecuting attorneys, and law enforcement depend upon," said Shealyn Sowers, a spokeswoman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

"For years, the Crime Lab has received very few applications for the job openings posted," she said Friday in a written statement.

Channell said there are only about 40 graduates of forensic pathology programs each year across the nation and three of the state's six associate medical examiners are eligible to retire.

Cunningham is a former deputy coroner at the St. Tammany Parish coroner's office and was an associate medical examiner for the state Crime Laboratory from 2016-18, according to state records. The position for which she was hired was created in 2019.

Brown is a deputy medical examiner for counties in western and northern Michigan and northern Indiana and medical director of the Department of Pathology and program director of the Forensic Pathology Fellowship Program at Western Michigan University, Homer Stryker M.D., School of Medicine, according to state records.

In addition to boosting salaries for the associate medical examiners in this year's regular session, the Legislature also created a loan-forgiveness program for pathologists at the Crime Lab.

Act 360 of 2021 created the State Crime Laboratory Student Loan Forgiveness Program to help pathologists with the repayment of their student loans. The payment, made directly to the pathologist's student loan creditor, will be limited to $25,000 for each 24 months of work at the Crime Lab or $100,000 per pathologist.

Channell said he has been contacted by four forensic pathologists interested in filling the associate medical examiner post that Peretti will retire from soon and he said this interest was because of the loan-forgiveness program, competitive salaries and Brown's reputation.

In addition, he said he wants Brown to help create a fellowship program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to help "grow your own" forensic pathologists.

Brown's employment begins Sept. 13, said Department of Public Safety spokesman Bill Sadler. Brown will become the highest-paid executive-branch employee.

Kokes is now the highest-paid such employee and Erickson is the second highest-paid, according to state records.

Department of Human Services Secretary Cindy Gillespie, who had been the highest-paid, is now the third-highest, at $287,042 this fiscal year.

Sowers said that the chief medical examiner won't be the highest-paid physician in the state.

"This salary is necessitated by current market demands," she said.


Several administrators at the state Department of Health received raises exceeding $10,000 this fiscal year with their promotions.

They include:

• Este Frazier's promotion from an accountant to interim director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission led to a $32,292 raise, to $86,886, during this fiscal year.

• Renee Mallory's promotion from deputy director of public health programs to chief of staff, coupled with a merit raise, boosted her pay by $19,982 to $158,757.

• Jennifer Dillaha's promotion from state epidemiologist to the chief medical officer, coupled with a merit raise, boosted her salary by $18,654 to $205,213. Dillaha is frequently quoted in the media about the state of the coronavirus pandemic.

• Don Adams' promotion from director of the Center for Local Public Health to deputy director of administration, coupled with a merit raise, boosted his salary by $17,921 to $142,383.

• Kelley Garner's promotion from epidemiology supervisor to chief epidemiologist, coupled with a merit raise, led to a $17,181 raise to $79,823.

• Michael Cima's promotion from epidemiology officer to state epidemiologist, coupled with a merit raise, boosted his salary by $12,511 to $99,398.


According to state records, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's chief spokeswoman Amanda Priest received a $31,349 raise to $108,000 this fiscal year.

Asked about Priest's pay raise, Rutledge spokeswoman Stephanie Sharp said, "Amanda Priest has played a critical leadership role for Attorney General Rutledge as her Communications Director and Senior Advisor proving herself repeatedly during the challenges of 2020.

"Her salary was increased to be commensurate with her work product, work ethic, responsibilities, professionalism and commitment to the people of Arkansas over the last four years. Her salary is comparable to her peers in state agencies," Sharp said.

Among the chief communications officials for state agencies, Department of Human Services spokeswoman Amy Webb's salary is $116,177, and Department of Transportation spokesman David Parker's salary is $113,074, according to the Arkansas Transparency website. Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin's salary is $101,404 and Department of Commerce spokeswoman Alisha Curtis' salary is $98,533.

According to state records, other raises of at least $10,000 in the attorney general office's this fiscal year included:

• Kerry Moody's promotion from director of public affairs to deputy chief of staff led to a $29,330 raise to $120,000.

• Deputy Attorney General Charles Harder's salary was raised by $27,359, to $150,000.

Priest said Harder has served in the office's Public Protection Department since 2016 where he has advised the attorney general in her litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors; investigations and litigation of pharmacy benefit managers; and litigated numerous consumer protection cases.

"Due to his responsibilities, workload and commitment to the state, his salary was increased to match his peers," Priest said.

Sharp said Harder will retire, effective Wednesday. The attorney general's office hasn't announced his replacement yet.

• Daniel Faulkner's promotion from senior assistant attorney general to deputy attorney general for state agencies led to a $23,952 raise to $119,999.

• Katy Restum's promotion from community educator to director of public affairs led to a $23,013 raise to $70,000 a year.

• Brian Bowen's promotion from deputy chief of staff to chief of staff led to $20,439 raise to $165,564.


The secretaries of the veterans affairs and agriculture departments each received 8% merit raises this fiscal year and the secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism picked up a 4% merit raise, according to state records. Each of the three department heads ended up with a salary of $144,999.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Nathaniel Todd received a $11,020 raise.

Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward picked up a $10,359 raise.

Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst received a $5,164 raise.

Sowers, Hutchinson's spokeswoman, said the governor granted merit pay increases to Ward, Todd and Hurst to make the compensation more equitable with other Cabinet secretaries.

Eleven other department secretaries got 3% merit raises or the equivalent of one.

The $287,042 base salary of Gillespie, the human services secretary, and Education Secretary Johnny Key's base salary of $239,361 remained the same, but each received a 3% lump sum payment in lieu of a merit raise. The lump sum payment is $8,280 for Gillespie and $6,904 for Key, said Alex Johnston, spokeswoman for the Department of Transformation and Shared Services.

Under state law, an employee compensated at the highest pay level authorized for his or her classification is eligible to receive the merit pay increase authorized as a lump-sum payment and the lump sum is not considered to be exceeding the maximum salary.

The secretaries who received 3% merit raises include:

• Military Secretary Kendall Penn, whose pay increased by $5,569 to $191,225.

• Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther, whose salary increased by $5,319 to $182,642.

• Inspector General Secretary Elizabeth Smith, whose pay increased by $4,869 to $167,171.

• Transformation and Shared Services Secretary Amy Fecher and Public Safety Secretary Jami Cook, whose pay increased by $4,771 to $163,805.

• Labor and Licensing Secretary Darryl Bassett, whose salary increased by $4,744 to $162,885.

• Commerce Secretary Mike Preston, whose state salary increased by $4,658 to $159,953.

Preston, who also serves as executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, is paid private funds from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission Foundation, to supplement his state-paid salary and is eligible for a bonus of up to 30% of his base salary.

In fiscal 2021, his base salary totaled $182,700, including $155,295 in state funds and the rest in private funds from the foundation. Hutchinson recommended the foundation grant the "full bonus" of $54,810, which it paid in June.

• Secretary Solomon Graves, whose pay increased by $4,495 to $154,357.

• Energy and Environment Secretary Becky Keogh, whose salary increased by $4,277 to $146,874.

Health Secretary Jose Romero hasn't received a raise so far this fiscal year. His total salary is $273,779, said University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences spokeswoman Leslie Taylor.

Romero is a UAMS employee and his paycheck comes from UAMS, but "we contract out his time," she said. The Department of Health contracts with UAMS for 80% of his time, and the other 20% of his time is covered by two other UAMS contracts -- one with the Conway Human Development Center for 9.5% of his time and the other is Arkansas Children's Hospital for 10.5% of his time, she said.

Romero did not get the merit increase because he is a UAMS employee, said Sowers.


The largest non-higher-education increases in pay at state agencies sometimes pale in comparison with some given at the state's larger colleges and universities, particularly for doctors at UAMS.

According to Taylor, the five largest raises at UAMS are:

• A $257,822 increase to $988,068 for Samuel Overley, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery.

• A $248,276 increase to $473,276 for Michael Cassat, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery.

• A $220,392 increase to $803,589 for Theresa Wyrick, associate professor of orthopedic surgery.

• A $197,006 increase to $760,426 for Jeffrey Stambough, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery.

• A $182,450 increase to $302,450 for Brian Russ, assistant professor of emergency medicine.

Taylor said the orthopedic surgeons on this list are paid on a system that coincides with their meeting certain benchmarks regarding their productivity, and their salaries can go up or down each year based on their ability to meet those benchmarks.

She said Russ is making the same salary that he was in fiscal 2020, after taking a step back from his faculty position in fiscal 2021 so he could complete an emergency medicine fellowship at UAMS. He has resumed his faculty status in fiscal 2022.

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