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Ortom’s quest to reduce Benue’s ‘crazy’ wage bill

The Benue State Government is making frantic efforts to reduce its monthly wage bill so it can pay salary arrears.

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Irked by the challenges of nonpayment of salaries to its workers, the Benue State Government has decided to take the bull by the horn in order to reduce the monthly wage bill from N7.8billion to N4.5billion.

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Governor Samuel Ortom earlier this week announced the decision to trim the wage bill which the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said is the third highest in the country.

He said that doing so would not only enable his administration pay workers’ salaries as at when due but help in curbing the alleged over bloated wage bill. 

Ortom, who spoke at the monthly stakeholders briefing meeting in Makurdi, also vowed  to prosecute the cabal behind the “crazy” wage bill in the state which in his estimation had made life unbearable for workers as government could not pay them timely.

The governor said the ranking of the state by the NBS shows how expediently his administration needs to act to either reduce its wage bill or its workforce for the betterment of all.

Daily Trust gathered that the state government presently owes both at the state and local government workers between seven and 11 months salaries.

The Ortom-led government on assumption of office over two years ago inherited five months unpaid salaries from the previous administration of Dr Gabriel Suswam, a development which forced the new governor to access a N10 billion loan out of which he expended N7.5 billion on payment of two month’s salaries.

Ortom had claimed that he inherited a total debt of salaries, pensions and gratuity which stood at N69 billion before the federal government issued a bailout of N28 billion out of which many workers were said to be settled.

Apart from that major federal government financial interventions in the state, the first and second tranches of the Paris Club refunds of N12.7 billion and N6.5billion respectively could not offset the N69billion arrears in the face of a monthly shortfall of about N2billion.

And so addressing stakeholders of the state on Monday, the governor lamented his dilemma as he vowed to do whatever it takes to correct mistakes made along the line and to uproot cabals working against the system.

“Two years is enough time to strategize and put things right. The worker deserves its wages and we should not muzzle the axe that threaded the corn. The salary issue is beyond me. I have not been sleeping or comfortable on how we can surmount this,” he said.

“After analysing figures coming from the National Bureau of Statistics and the situation in the country, we decided that for us to be comfortable with the allocation accruing to the state and the IGR, we must reduce our wage bill from N7.8 billion to N4.5billion. If this is done, workers can get their salary before the month ends,” he said.

To achieve the reduction of monthly wage bill, the Chairman, staff verification and biometrics committee, the state’s Deputy Governor, Engineer Benson Abounu, told the stakeholders that many anomalies were discovered during the staff verification exercise and that his committee painstakingly looked at many grey areas such as disengagement of contract staff, removal of medical students from state government’s pay roll, reduction in the salary of tertiary institution staff and screening of pensioners.

He pointed out other areas to be considered include, the laying off of contract staff of Benue Internal Revenue Service (BIRS) who were later converted to civil servants, laying off of medically unfit civil servants, merging of the state’s owned College of Advanced and Professional Studies (CAPS) with the Benue State Polytechnic and payment of SIWES allowance which hitherto had been dubiously enjoyed by some state workers monthly to a yearly allowance among others.

The deputy governor went on to say that part of the solution being proffered would mean that only those who are engaged in shift duties should be given shift duty allowance while contract staff will be thrown out to create space for graduates looking for jobs.

He further noted that medical students who were placed on salary as if they were already working amounting to N144million per month would be placed on government scholarships.

And for the tertiary institution staff, Abounu said there would be a need to look at what is obtainable in other tertiary institutions in the country to bring down the wage bill of these workers.

In his remark at the meeting, Senator Jack Gyado, said the state was not created for only workers but for everyone and therefore urged the government to reduce salary by 50 percent and not the workforce. 

But, a former local government chairman, Godwin Donko and other speakers at the occasion such as a former Minister of State for Education, Professor Jerry Agada, Professor Mvendega Jibo among others agreed to the plans to bring down the wage bill but differed in their submission on how to achieve the feat.

Professor Jibo urged the state government to look inwards and see how best to tackle the issue by weeding out more ghost workers who he noted were largely responsible for the over bloated wage bill of the state. 

However, the State Chairman of Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC), Comrade Godwin Anya, told our correspondent that the union would support the idea of government to reduce the wage bill but it must be done genuinely.

Anya said if there were ghost workers to be weeded out, the government would have their backing but that they won’t support a situation were real workers would loose their jobs in the bid to reduce the state monthly wage bill at all cost.

“Labour must sit with government to see the areas it would be acting on properly. We will support the removal of ghost workers. We can only appeal for contract staff to be converted to permanent workers but we would not allow genuine workers to suffer unjustly,” Anya posited.

Governor Ortom had recently disclosed that he needed N40billion to clear all outstanding salaries of workers in the employ of the state government.

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