New state environment and health director Catherine Templeton is defending her decision to hire an inner circle of highly paid advisers, saying Thursday that the move already is paying off.
Since taking office last month, one top staff member has identified property the agency may not need, Templeton said during her first public meeting with the Department of Health and Environmental Control board.
That property includes about 120 acres near the port of Charleston, she said. The agency is trying to learn more about the property, which officials said appears to be marsh.
Templeton also noted that DHEC is expected to receive some $450,000 from the sale of state-owned property at Sullivan’s Island that will be used to defray the cost of consolidating some DHEC offices. Templeton said she and her staff have found the agency could save up to $2 million in lease payments by consolidation of several offices.
“That’s why I brought them in,” Templeton said of her new staff members.
Templeton, a Mount Pleasant lawyer, drew fire last month for hiring four new advisers, at salaries totaling about $400,000, to examine how the agency is doing business. Salaries for the advisers range from just over $90,000 to about $120,000, which is more than most DHEC employees make.
DHEC, one of South Carolina’s largest agencies with nearly 4,000 workers, is undergoing changes because of past concerns about the agency. Conservationists have long complained about what they say is an agency failure to be tough on industries seeking major pollution permits. Business groups say DHEC is too slow to process permits.
Gov. Nikki Haley, who chose Templeton, has said she wants DHEC to be more business friendly and less bureaucratic.
Templeton said Thursday her new staff members are looking at numerous ways to make DHEC more efficient. Those include examining whether it is possible to shorten the public notice period for some environmental permits, looking at how to meet specific needs at county health departments and examining travel expenses and membership associations for agency staffers.
The new staffers include Austin Smith and Barbara Derrick, who both formerly worked at the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation when Templeton was director. Smith is looking at real estate issues as a special assistant in her office. Derrick is examining financial matters. Templeton also hired Jamie Shuster, Haley’s former budget director, to look at the health division and former DHEC coastal division lawyer Elizabeth Dieck to examine the environmental division.
Templeton said the $400,000 in salaries will be offset by the retirements and departures of some ranking agency officials. DHEC will actually realize a net savings of about $260,000 when several staff members leave in the next few months and are not replaced, she said. No one is being fired, she said.
Templeton did not name the staff members who are leaving. But The State has learned that Tony Lolas, director of the agency’s bureau of business management, recently announced his departure after 20 years at DHEC. In an email to employees, he suggested he was not ready to leave, but he did not elaborate. Another top DHEC official who has recently left the agency is Carl Roberts, DHEC’s long-time chief legal counsel. Roberts said he was not forced to leave but was taking a job with a large law firm that approached him.