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Road Worrier: NCDOT workers on Senate hit list

State Sen. Bill Rabon says he didn’t pick the 56 Department of Transportation workers whose jobs are targeted for elimination in the Senate budget, and he doesn’t know them by name.

But he says DOT can do without them. And he wants to make DOT step up its efforts at outsourcing – taking highway design and other work away from government employees and giving it to private contractors.

“We’re not trying to tell the Department of Transportation how to run their department,” Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican who is one of his chamber’s chief transportation budget writers, said Monday. “The thinking is, there’s room to improve. We have instructed you to show us how you can become more efficient, and so far we haven’t gotten results we’re happy with.”

Out of the 56 Senate targets, listed by their 8-digit ID numbers, all but seven are based in Wake County and nearly half have been on the job for 20 years or more. They average more than $83,000 apiece in salaries and benefits.

The Senate hit list includes veteran engineers and two senior managers with salaries above $115,000: Debbie Barbour, who oversees highway design, project development and other services as DOT’s preconstruction director; and Jennifer Brandenburg, who is responsible for highway maintenance and other chores as DOT’s asset management engineer.

“I think both of those (DOT sections) can be improved or consolidated,” Rabon said. “I don’t know those individuals that you mentioned. Who it is is not here or there with me.”

The House is pushing DOT to cut jobs, too, but more gently. The House budget would oust 50 unspecified workers to reduce the payroll by $2.1 million. DOT would decide which employees it can do without.

Transportation Secretary Tony Tata prefers this less prescriptive approach.

“We ask that NCDOT be allowed to scale the organization to accomplish the mission, as opposed to a random list of 56 people,” Tata said Monday.

He said Barbour and Brandenburg were “very, very good team members” and – as female engineers in a male-dominated profession – important role models.

“As senior female engineers, I find it a little troubling that their positions were recommended for elimination,” Tata said. Brandenburg and Barbour did not respond to requests for comment.

Outsourcing has been a sore point between DOT and the legislature, with Rabon in a lead role. Last year’s budget required that DOT shift to private contractors for most of the work, ranging as high as 70 percent, in areas that included drawing plans, buying land and obtaining environmental permits for road and bridge projects.

The Senate complained of foot-dragging and threatened to slash the DOT payroll – originally, in February, by 500 jobs. Rabon scaled that back to 81 jobs in April and then withdrew his legislation after Tata agreed to cut 11 vacant positions and lay off 70 workers, most of whom found other jobs at DOT.

Tata said DOT has exceeded the legislature’s outsourcing mandates for project design and right-of-way acquisition, and is still falling a few percentage points short in areas known as technical services and preconstruction.

“Roadway design is the area we’ve got the most work to do,” Tata said. DOT doesn’t get credit in this case for having increased its design-build projects, in which private firms design and then construct roads and bridges. On standard design work, the outsourced share is 39 percent. That’s up from 27 percent a year ago, Tata said, but well short of the legislature’s mandated 50 percent.

“We’re working hard to get it to 50 percent,” Tata said. “But you can see we’re making progress across the board.”

Legislative leaders have never promised that outsourcing would produce big savings for taxpayers. Eventually, Rabon said, DOT might see a drop in the cost of work shifted away from government employees.

“The private sector is more nimble, is more efficient, and can save us time” on highway projects, Rabon said.

He said most of the jobs to be eliminated were focused in areas that had performed poorly on outsourcing. The biggest group, 14 employees, works on bridge design. Tata said the Senate also would eliminate employees who oversee contracts for outsourced work.

The Senate also would eliminate a few blue-collar workers earning less than $40,000 a year.

Ed Goodwin, the state ferry director, said last week he was “baffled” to discover that the Senate wants to get rid of a worker who moved his family from Ohio to Manns Harbor in 2013, for a job as one of 14 welders in the DOT shipyard.

Rep. John A. Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and one of the House’s transportation budget writers, asked Goodwin why senators had targeted the welder.

“Is there some kind of animosity?” Torbett asked at a House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee meeting. “Is there some kind of vindictiveness or something?”

Goodwin shook his head.

“No problems with the guy, one of the better welders we’ve got,” Goodwin said. “Comes here to work, loves it, the family involved in the community. And he is selected by name. He has no clue, no connections to anybody else in North Carolina.”

Torbett, making mischief, brought up the name of a former Democratic senator who influenced DOT and dominated the coast during a long term as the Senate’s leader.

“He’s not any kin to Marc Basnight, is he?” Torbett asked.

“No,” Goodwin said. “Or to Ed Goodwin or John Torbett.”