JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri Transportation Department officials are expected to be grilled today by the Senate Transportation Committee for hiring a public relations director at a salary of almost $100,000.
Committee member Ronnie DePasco, D-Kansas City, said he was "shocked" when he heard of the new position and its salary.
"They're hurting for money, so they're paying someone new to do public relations?" DePasco questioned.
MoDOT Director Henry Hungerbeeler hired Rich Hood to be director of communications at a salary of $96,000. Hood is a former vice president and editorial page editor at the Kansas City Star.
Hood, who started the job Nov. 13, oversees the department's public affairs and governmental affairs efforts, said department spokesman Jim Coleman.
The Senate Transportation Committee was already planning to meet today to discuss funding solutions for long-range transportation in the state.
Committee chairman Morris Westfall, R-Halfway, said he plans to focus on funding options and efficiency changes to meet the department's needs.
House members also have questioned the new position.
"As MoDOT is seeking credibility and accountability, if they are perceived to be spending lavishly, we're going to have to look at this very closely," said Rep. Joan Bray, D-University City.
Rep. Delbert Scott, former House GOP leader from Lowry City, serves on the House Transportation Committee, and agreed with DePasco.
"I have respect for Rich Hood and I think he's a great guy," Scott said. "But that salary is completely out of line with other state communication directors."
Among other state officials in similar positions, Jerry Nachtigal, director of communications for the governor, makes $84,000. Don Kling, in the state treasurer's office, makes $33,624.
In addition, MoDOT's public affairs director, Sue Cox, saw her salary increase 13 percent during the past two years, going from $73,596 to $83,807, even though most state employees have received only meager raises during the same time.
The Transportation Department's extra spending comes when the state auditor has issued several reports this year questioning the department's spending patterns. Earlier this year, in reference to construction spending plans, the auditor stated that "more accountability over the plans is needed."
Further adding to the problem is that MoDOT receives less funding than almost all neighboring states' transportation departments do.
"Considering the relatively low level of revenue available to the MoDOT to allocate to the highway system, Missouri's resources to maintain and improve the state's road system are limited," the audit says. "To address this situation, it was recommended that MoDOT work with the legislature to explore the possibilities of increasing the revenues available for highway purposes."
The department's response to the audit stated that its top legislative priority during the last session was to increase funding, and will remain its top priority for the coming session.
The hiring is expected to be questioned at next month's House Transportation Committee meetings as well, according to both Bray and Scott.