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Analysis: Executive office payroll under Deal up 30 percent
Current administration compared to Perdue's final months in office
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Staff payroll in Gov. Nathan Deal's executive office has grown by almost 30 percent compared with salaries under former Gov. Sonny Perdue, according to an analysis of financial records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

There are 10 more employees in Deal's office compared with the final months of Perdue's administration, and top-tier salaries have increased. Eight people in Deal's office are making more than $100,000, compared with three in the previous administration.

Overall payroll in Deal's executive office stands at $3.32 million for 72 employees, compared with the $2.62 million payroll for 62 employees in Perdue's office on Election Day in 2010, records obtained through Georgia's Open Records Act show.

The increase in salaries comes as the state is struggling to cut up to $2 billion from its budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and find additional savings to the current year's spending plan. It has been at least three years since most state employees received cost-of-living pay increases and two years since teachers saw a pay increase.

Amid those cuts, it is "not fiscally responsible" for the governor to boost salaries and grow the staff, said Debbie Dooley, a state organizer for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots and part of a new group focused on boosting ethics legislation in government.

"A lot of people believe there were too many people working in Governor Perdue's office, and it's disappointing Governor Deal would add to that already bloated number," Dooley said.

While staff salaries have increased in Deal's office, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor is cutting his own office budget and will actually return money to the state for the current fiscal year.

In his first budget plan, Deal proposes cutting his overall office budget, which funds his executive office staff as well as attached agencies such as the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, by $1.86 million out of $40.7 million for the current fiscal year. This is the budget he inherited from Perdue. He also is eliminating six positions.

For the 2012 budget year that begins July 1, Deal's office budget would grow by almost $6 million. That's because at least one outside agency would be brought under the governor's office. That consolidation would result in a loss of 43 additional positions, leaving Deal with 259 employees across his entire office. If the consolidation didn't happen, Deal's office would take a 7 percent budget cut in fiscal 2012.

Robinson said the governor's office will come in under budget for 2011 and is absorbing the same cuts as other agencies, and deeper cuts than some.

"We want to make sure we lead by example," Robinson said. "The governor felt that he could not ask agencies to take a 7 percent cut, which is the highest most agencies will see, without showing he could do it with his own staff."

The governor's executive office staff performs a variety of functions, from receptionist to graphic artists to interns and lawyers.

Robinson, whose official title is deputy chief of staff for communications, is being paid $125,000. Perdue's top spokesman, communications director Bert Brantley, was making $83,000, according to state records.

Deal chief of staff Chris Riley is making $130,000 while Perdue's top aide, Ed Holcombe, was paid $130,308.
Deal himself is paid $139,339.

"We have a highly experienced team on the governor's staff who are being paid salaries that are on the same level as similar positions in surrounding states," Robinson said.

Before joining Deal's campaign, both Robinson and Riley worked in Washington - Robinson as deputy chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., and Riley as chief of staff in Deal's congressional office. Robinson was paid $93,000 in that job; Riley was paid $163,000 in 2008, his last year as a full-time congressional employee.

In North Carolina, Gov. Bev Perdue's chief of staff earns about $165,000, her communications director about $115,000. In South Carolina, newly elected Gov. Nikki Haley has been criticized for some high salaries of her staff. Her chief of staff is paid $125,000, and her top communications officer, whose title is deputy chief of staff for communications and legislative affairs, is paid almost $123,000.

In his executive office as governor, Deal has eight employees making more than $100,000, compared with three for Perdue as of Nov. 2.

But Perdue's staff evolved over his eight years in office. In January 2003, shortly after he was sworn in, Perdue was criticized for having seven people on staff with salaries of more than $100,000. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, the man Perdue beat in 2002 and whom Deal defeated last year, had no employees who earned six figures.

Deal also has reduced the total salaries paid to agency and department heads who report to him. Under Perdue, 68 agency heads were paid $8.91 million; Deal has 67 comparable positions with total salaries of $8.76 million.

Eric Tanenblatt, who served as Perdue's first chief of staff - at a salary of $120,000 - said it's difficult to compare salaries of a new administration and one that is wrapping up its work. Perdue was the first Republican governor since Reconstruction and needed extra staff on the front end. The same is true for any new governor, he said.

"They were needed at the outset as we were setting things up because we had so much we needed to get done," said Tanenblatt, managing partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge law firm. "They're getting their administration set up and have things that need to be done. How the staff looks today may not be what it looks like seven years from now."

As Perdue's time in office grew, his staffing plans shifted. Where at first he hired highly experienced - and higher-paid - employees, including retired chairmen of Bank of America and Wachovia, Perdue eventually changed. For example, his first communications director, Erin O'Brien, was paid $95,000. His last one, Brantley, was paid $83,000.

"Governor Perdue's philosophy was to hire young, talented people in important jobs and pay them based on their experience, which was often well under what the market rate for their position should have been," Brantley said.

But Dooley, of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, said Deal should have cut his staff, not added to it.

"They're having to lay off and cut funding in other departments, and yet his payroll is that much higher?" Dooley said. "That should not be of comfort to anyone."

 

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