Since taking office in the past month, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s director has created a new layer of highly paid executive jobs under her plan to make changes at the agency.
Catherine Templeton said her decision is intended to make DHEC more efficient, but the new hires are drawing plenty of skepticism.
Taxpayer and government watchdog groups question whether the new jobs, with salaries as high as $119,119, are the best way for Templeton to improve the much-maligned department. Records show at least four new jobs have been created.
“In this era of limited budgets, you question why do we need to put that much money into the administration over there,’’ said Don Weaver, president of the S.C. Association of Taxpayers. “Let’s look at putting the money into programs. These administrators are not field people.’’
John Crangle, S.C. director of the citizens group Common Cause, and state Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, questioned whether DHEC is adding unnecessary personnel.
“I’m pretty skeptical of the expansion of bureaucracy, unless there is very substantial evidence there is going to be a benefit,’ Crangle said. “Bureaucrats always want assistants. And the assistants want assistants.’’
Templeton, approved by the state Senate as DHEC director Feb. 28, said this week the new employees will provide valuable support as she seeks to improve agency operations. Having new people could help give a fresh look at the agency, she said.
“There is a whole lot to do,’’ Templeton said.
Creating high-paying, high-level jobs at DHEC comes at a time when the department is suffering from a lack of lower-level staffing to protect the environment and public health. DHEC once had about 5,000 workers, but its employment has dipped to under 3,600 in the past three years as the economy has suffered. Many employees have had to take unpaid furlough days in recent years.
State Budget and Control Board records show at least four people, including former agency lawyer Elizabeth Dieck, have been hired and are now working in new adviser positions. Records show they will work directly for Templeton, a one-time state labor department chief who has drawn criticism for laying off employees at that agency.
Templeton said she’d rather have new staff members than consultants examine DHEC’s operations.
“When people heard I might be going to DHEC, everybody hit me with ‘You need to bring a consulting group in’’ to recommend any changes, Templeton said. “I don’t want to bring in a consultant at this point that we pay a bunch of money.’’
An example of how a fresh look at DHEC can help lies in Beaufort County, she said. Templeton said she recently found a way to consolidate DHEC’s coastal management office in Beaufort County with another DHEC office in the area. That should result in long-term savings for the agency, she said. The best way to upgrade DHEC is with top-flight employees, instead of outside consultants, she said.
According to state personnel records, those hired include:
• Former DHEC coastal division lawyer Dieck, who will earn $119,119. Templeton said Dieck will coordinate environmental affairs. Dieck said Wednesday she had a meeting and could not discuss the hiring.
• One-time state labor department deputy director Austin Smith, who will earn $92,917. Templeton said Smith will work in her office, but she did not provide specific duties when asked by The State. Smith could not be reached. Templeton said his salary would be the same as at the labor department.
• Former governor’s office budget director Jamie Shuster, who will earn $92,917. Templeton announced Shuster’s hiring last week to coordinate health programs at DHEC. Shuster could not be reached. Her salary at the governor’s office was about $65,000.
• Longtime labor department deputy director Barbara Derrick, who will earn $92,917. Derrick declined comment when reached Wednesday by The State. Her salary would be about the same as at the labor department, records show. She would help with DHEC’s budget, Templeton said.
The advisers are not replacing existing workers and they are not in supervisory positions over the department’s longtime directors of environment, health and budgets, she said.
Records show that in addition to the top-level jobs being created by Templeton, she also has brought in an executive assistant to work in her Columbia office at a salary of $67,852. And unlike Templeton’s predecessor, Earl Hunter, her part-time Columbia office will be in a historic building on the old state mental health campus.
DHEC, one of the state’s largest agencies, has a wide-ranging mission. Among other things, it approves hospital expansions, regulates tattoo parlors, considers pollution permits for industries, monitors drinking water quality and checks public swimming areas for contamination. The department is sometimes criticized for being inefficient and bureaucratic, and the agency has suffered from a series of missteps through the years that have tarnished its image.