In the last few weeks, state legislators from the Eastern Panhandle, led by Senator John Unger, D-Berkeley, have making the case for varying the compensation of state and public school employees by local housing costs. This is a good concept and is used widely in varying degrees by the federal government, many state and local governments in other states, and the private sector. Locality pay adjusts the compensation of people performing similar jobs in different area by ensuring that people living in high cost-of-living areas can afford the same standard of living as a person making the same money for the same job in a cheaper area.
The main roadblock to locality pay in West Virginia is politics. Only a small number of counties, mainly Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, and Monongalia, have substantially higher housing costs and general cost of living than the rest of the state. The public employee organizations (since we, thankfully, haven't adopted official unionization of public employees even though they exert a tremendous influence in Democratic politics that makes that a distinction without a difference) have maintained an unwavering insistence upon a uniform statewide pay scale based on rank and seniority (and level of degree in the case of teachers).
I think it's important for people in the rest of West Virginia to understand why we need to have locality pay. If you think that people who can find more money elsewhere should follow they money, you're right. Since teachers in Maryland and Northern Virginia can easily make $10,000 or $20,000 more than they can in West Virginia, guess where many of the Eastern Panhandle's teachers have gone? And this does not even take into account the growing need to fill additional positions because, unlike almost ever other county in the state, enrollment out there is growing by leaps and bounds. Now, you ask, why can't the counties out there add to teachers' salaries what the state pays? Well, they are. In fact, the counties in the most dire need of locality pay have the maximum amount of excess levies allowed by the state constitution.
While I am arguing generally for locality pay for all state-paid employees, I am using teachers as specific examples. The take-home pay for a beginning teacher in Berkeley County is, according to Senator Unger, about $1,600 a month. The rent on an efficiency apartment--essentially a hotel room with a mini-fridge and maybe a full-size stove--is $800 per month. The average home is now over $250,000, compared to the less than $100,000 in the rest of the state. A $250,000 30-year fixed mortgage at current rates (5.35%) for someone with excellent credit would be $1,396 per month just for the principal and interest (property taxes and insurance not included). According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), affordable housing should consume no more than one-third of a person's income. Thanks to skyrocketing property values and resulting property tax bills, even buying a home does not end the ever-escalating cost of living in the Eastern Panhandle.
I'd like to dismiss one more misconception about regional pay. This does not require pay cuts for people in other regions. Rank-and-file public employees in West Virginia are not paid well by the standards of any region. What regional pay will do is ensure that all state employees and teachers throughout the state can afford the same standard of living rather than receive identical paychecks that are far from equal in purchasing power.