New governors generally hire new transportation secretaries. So Gene Conti doesn’t have much reason to expect that Gov. Bev Perdue’s successor will ask him to continue running the state Department of Transportation.
And if Conti were to receive that invitation after the November election from an incoming Gov. Pat McCrory or Gov. Walter Dalton, he doesn’t know whether he would want to stay.
The job just doesn’t pay all that well, he says.
Conti and seven other non-elected agency heads receive the same salary, as set by the legislature in this year’s state budget: $121,807. That’s about $18,000 less than the governor’s pay.
And it’s not chicken feed. But if you want to hire the best person to manage an agency with a $4 billion budget, Conti says, you ought to think about paying more.
“I think state government in particular has a challenge in terms of their compensation levels, compared to what people have earned in the private sector – and in this industry, particularly,” Conti said Thursday in a meeting with The News & Observer’s editorial board.
Conti, 66, has moved in and out of state and federal government during his career. Before Perdue tapped him for DOT in early 2009, he was vice president of a private engineering consulting firm.
“I’m not trying to be a hero, but I took a substantial pay cut to do this job,” Conti said. “I think most people who would be up to the job probably would be facing that same situation. So I think the state needs to look at how do we make it easier, in terms of financial compensation, to have people make that public service contribution.”
Down in the Lone Star state, they do it differently. The Texas DOT is about the same size as North Carolina’s: Each has about 12,000 employees and responsibility for almost 80,000 miles of state-maintained roads.
Last year the Texas legislature decided that big pay raises were in order at TxDOT. The agency’s new executive director is paid $292,500 – that’s $100,000 more than his predecessor – and his top deputies make around $250,000, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
“Some of us marvel at what Texas recently did,” Conti said. “That has changed the whole character of the kinds of people they can attract to those jobs.”
While the North Carolina legislature has kept control over department heads’ salaries, there are plenty of state workers who earn more than their bosses – and more than the governor – according to the State Personnel Salary Database. They include the people who run the state art museum and the state lottery, and a number of physicians who work as public health administrators.
Conti oversees 22 men and women with salaries higher than his own. Four DOT officials are paid more than $150,000 apiece, including David Joyner, the Turnpike Authority director, and Tom Bradshaw, newly named state logistics director and state ports director. That's a lot more than Bradshaw made during his own stint as state DOT secretary from 1977 to 1981, before he went into banking.
Conti served North Carolina’s DOT a decade ago as an assistant secretary. When he left that job in 2003 he making about $126,000 a year – more than he is paid now as the DOT boss. No wonder he likes the way they do things in Texas.
As it turns out, North Carolina legislators have started thinking about this issue, too. Chris Hayes, who works for House Speaker Thom Tillis, points to new language in the state budget. Starting next year, each non-elected department head's salary will be decided by the governor.
"So the freedom is there for the governor to set that salary," Hayes said. "That addresses some of Conti's concerns."