LINCOLN — The state’s new corrections director is getting a hefty raise over past prison chiefs, fulfilling a pledge by Nebraska’s new governor to pay higher salaries for “transformational leaders” for state agencies.

Scott Frakes, a former deputy prison director in Washington state, will be paid $180,000 a year, a 51 percent increase over the salary of departing Nebraska prison chief Mike Kenney.

Gov. Pete Ricketts released his salary and the salaries of three other new state officials Friday.

Ricketts said he saw no contradiction between his goal of limiting government and the steep increase in pay for the Department of Correctional Services director.

He called Frakes’ higher salary an “investment” in improving an agency plagued with problems. Those problems range from overcrowding to early releases of prisoners and a lack of programs to help inmates change in their lives.

“We have to invest prudently and wisely to make sure we’re doing a better job,” Ricketts said.

Getting someone who can chart a new course for state corrections should help Nebraska slow the growth of government, he said. It also should help boost public trust in government.

“We’re paying Director Frakes commensurate with his skills and his experience,” Ricketts said.

Frakes has more than 32 years of experience in corrections, starting as a corrections officer and moving his way up. He comes from a system that has embraced prison reforms such as the reduced use of solitary confinement and increased community supervision.

The prospect of paying 50 percent more for a new corrections director caused little concern among state lawmakers questioned.

State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the Appropriations Committee chairman and a member of a special committee that investigated corrections problems, said lawmakers also are looking to Frakes to make major changes. Fixing the agency’s problems is more critical than salaries, he said.

Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis took a similar position. He said he has no problem with paying what it takes to get someone who can right the ship.

“Apparently the last two guys were overpaid because they couldn’t do the job,” he said.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, an Appropriations Committee member, said he is willing to give the governor the benefit of the doubt on what is an appropriate pay level. He said he doesn’t know enough about Frakes’ background to question his salary.

Frakes, who was paid $112,284 in Washington, will begin his Nebraska job on Monday. He will oversee 10 prisons and 5,221 inmates.

Outgoing director Kenney was being paid $119,000 a year. His predecessor, Bob Houston, was paid $130,000.

Frakes’ salary would make him — at least for now — the highest paid of any director whose agency is under control of the Governor’s Office. Heads of two agencies outside the governor’s control, the Department of Education and the State Investment Council, were paid more last year.

But Ricketts has seven other agency directors yet to hire, including the CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services.

That position was the highest paid agency head under Gov. Dave Heineman. That person oversees about one-third of all state employees and one-third of the state budget.

The governor said he will take the same approach to filling the remaining cabinet positions as he did with Frakes — setting salaries based on each new hire’s experience and qualifications.

Ricketts also released the salaries for three other state officials he has hired.

For two newly created positions in the Governor’s Office, the governor said he will pay state Chief Operating Officer Felix Davidson $135,000 a year and Sharon Pettid, who will specialize in human resources issues, $120,000.

Davidson is slated to start work Monday.

Pettid joined the Ricketts administration earlier. She is working as deputy director of the Department of Administrative Services but will move into the Governor’s Office if lawmakers approve an increase in funds for the office.

Ricketts said Davidson will work on helping streamline state government and improve its functioning through “best business practices” and new technology. He is to assist agency directors in setting goals and creating strategic plans.

Pettid is to do the same in the human resources realm, the governor said. She will help with identifying, attracting and retaining high levels of talent in state government, he said.

Those two new positions account for most of Ricketts’ bid to boost the governor’s office budget by 20 percent in the two budget years beginning July 1.

The last of the officials is the state’s new head of the Department of Economic Development, Brenda Hicks-Sorensen, who will be paid $145,000 a year. The last economic development director was Catherine Lang, who was state labor commissioner at the same time. She was paid $134,281.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9583, martha.stoddard@owh.com

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