In tight times, Perdue keeps full staff

Gov. Bev Perdue has trimmed her office budget, but her circle hasn't shrunk.

Staff writerFebruary 27, 2011 

  • Britt Cobb, chief of staff, $164,572

    Al Delia, policy director, $160,000

    William McLaughlin, deputy chief of staff, $154,000

    Don Hobart, special adviser to the governor, $154,000

    Andy Willis, senior assistant for governmental affairs, $153,000

    Eddie Speas, chief legal counsel, $150,000

    Bev Perdue, governor, $139,590

    Pearse Edwards, special adviser for communications and policy, $136,000

    Howard Lee, director of the Education Cabinet, $130,000

    Joel Thomas, special assistant to the governor, $120,000

— These are hard times in state government, but not so difficult that Gov. Bev Perdue didn't trade up for a more expensive chef at the Executive Mansion last summer.

Indeed, while Perdue has engaged in some belt-tightening in the governor's office during the recession, she has not undertaken a full-fledged austerity campaign. She has reduced the positions funded by her office by 15 percent, but through funding by other sources has been able to keep roughly the same number of staff.

Take the case of Stephen Moravick, who cooked in the mansion for 12 years under three governors. In August, she replaced him with David Gaydeski, the chef for a decade at the Carolina Club in Chapel Hill, where Perdue is a member. Gaydeski started out at $76,000 a year, about $6,000 more than Moravick was making.

"It wasn't my choice," said Moravick, when reached at The Cedars, an upscale retirement community in Chapel Hill, where he is now the chef. "She decided it was time for a change. There was no notice."

Despite the chef upgrade, Perdue's staff says her office has worked to keep costs down in the new climate.

"Overall, the governor's office budget has shrunk since we took office," said Chrissy Pearson, Perdue's communications director. The overall governor's budget, Pearson said, is down 5 percent since Perdue took office.

Perdue has achieved those savings by freezing salaries and leaving open eight vacant positions. But she also has shifted funding for some positions to other agencies.

Faced with the worst state budget situation since the Great Depression, the governor has been calling for sacrifice across state government. She has called for all state agencies to reduce budgets by 2.5 percent during the current fiscal year. And she asked those agencies to prepare recommendations for budget cuts of 5, 10 or 15 percent for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to deal with a budget shortfall that she now projects will be $2.7 billion.

But how has Perdue done in her own office?

According to records provided by the governor's office, Perdue has managed to reduce the number of people on her office payroll, although not the actual number of bodies.

The governor's office has remained relatively stable in size in recent years.

In the last month of Perdue's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, there were 63 positions with a total payroll of $3.8 million.

From May 2009 to December 2010, the number of positions funded by the governor's office's budget declined from 61 to 52, a 15 percent cut, according to records provided by the governor's office. The cost of those salaries declined from $4.1 million to $3.7 million, a 10 percent cut.

But the governor's office has not shrunk when positions that are funded by the federal government, by nonprofit organizations or by other Cabinet agencies are included. The total number of positions has remained static from May 2009 to December 2010, and the payroll has increased from $4.8 million to $5 million for a 4.6 percent increase during that same period.

Fairly small staff

A 2006 study by the National Governor's Association found that the average governor's staff had 65 people. North Carolina is the 10th most populous state.

Nearly all Perdue's staff have seen their salaries frozen as the state has dealt with its budget crisis.

But there has been a churn, with staffers coming and going.

One chief of staff, Zach Ambrose ($164,572), left, and another chief of staff, Britt Cobb, was hired as his replacement at the same salary.

In December, Perdue hired retired Marine Col. John Nicholson as her military affairs adviser at $90,000 per year.

Perdue has expanded her office so that she now has a half-million-dollar operation to help improve her image with the public (Easley's communications operation had a payroll of $427,756 in December 2008.)

Throughout her first two years, Perdue has endured low poll numbers as she faced a bad economy, an ongoing budget crisis and difficult decisions including a tax hike, program cuts, and state employee furloughs and hiring freezes. Her 2008 campaign has also been the subject of investigations regarding her failure to report private campaign flights.

In September 2009, she hired Pearse Edwards, a North Carolina native, from the staff of Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire, to be a special adviser for communications and policy at $136,000 a year.

In May 2010, she hired Chris Mackey, who had worked in state government, to be her press secretary at $78,000 per year.

In June 2010, she hired Mark Johnson, a political reporter for The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer, as her deputy communications director at $81,000 per year. In September, Perdue hired Ben Niolet, a reporter for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, as an assistant press secretary for $60,000 to focus on new media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

In November, she hired Thomas Walsh, a former aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, to be a speechwriter, at $45,000 per year.

Some of the new Perdue communications aides replaced departing press aides such as David Kochman ($115,200), Tim Crowley ($81,000) and Justin Guillory ($44,800).

Brian Balfour, a policy analyst with the conservative Civitas Institute, questioned the hirings in her communications staff.

"It almost seems she hurriedly got busy with her re-election campaign by spending more on public relations," Balfour said. "It makes you wonder why she needs such a big staff to communicate her message and her vision for the state of North Carolina."

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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