Wood: Auditors leaving government for higher pay elsewhere

State Auditor Beth Wood said young auditors are leaving her staff in favor of jobs that pay more. She wants permission to tap a special fund for boosting state worker salaries.

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State Auditor Beth Wood
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — State Auditor Beth Wood says she has been losing staff this summer because state government salaries can't keep pace with what private accounting firms offer.

"I can't meet the market salary," Wood, a Democrat, told Gov. Pat McCrory during Tuesday morning's Council of State meeting.

McCrory, a Republican, said that other state agencies were having similar problems and noted that the state budget set aside a $7.5 million salary adjustment fund to boost salaries where needed.

"We have some flexibility," McCrory said, offering to speak with Wood later.

McCrory oversees the budget, although Wood is elected separately.

Salaries and benefits for state workers and teachers use up much of the state's $20.6 billion budget. This year, lawmakers did not give either state workers or teachers a pay raise, and stagnant salaries have been a point of contention in state government for years.

Earlier this year, McCrory earned some criticism for raising the salaries for his cabinet secretaries, saying the boost was needed to attract good executives to his cabinet.

In some ways, the auditor's problem is the same as other state agencies with specialized workers might face. Lawyers in the Department of Justice or engineers working for the environment and transportation departments might find fatter paychecks in the private market. 

"This has long been a problem since some large law firms offer new law school graduates higher starting salaries than we can pay senior attorneys," said Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Justice and Attorney General Roy Cooper. "The university system and large cities and counties also routinely recruit our attorneys with higher salaries as does the federal government."

Talley said the Department of Justice also has a problem hanging on to technical workers in its crime labs as well.

"They have agents and forensic scientists recruited away by private sector, federal and local governments who can afford to pay more than the state," Talley said. "For example, some toxicologists leave the State Crime Lab because they can make 20 percent more elsewhere for a county or private lab."

Those remarks echoed what Wood said Tuesday morning. In a follow-up email, a spokesman for her agency said it has lost 12 employees over the past 60 days.

"We're pretty competitive on the entry salary," Wood said. "But once we train them, spend a couple-plus years with them, my staff is leaving for jobs in the private sector."

Particularly troubling, she said, was that the people who are leaving are either supervisors or have sufficient experience where they can take on supervisory roles. 

"I've lost at least three supervisors over the last 30 days," she said. "You can't just go out on the street and pick up a supervisor." 

Those private-sector jobs, she said, are paying 20 percent more and are luring auditors and accountants away from her office at the rate of about two a week for the past two months. Of the auditor's office roughly 150 positions, 130 are filled with such professionals. They are responsible for ensuring that state government funds are spent as the legislature intended and investigating reports of misappropriated and wasted money. 

"When somebody's being offered 20 percent more than what they can make in my office, that's a hard thing to turn down," Wood said. "If I train them well, and they're as good or better than any CPA in the state of North Carolina, they should be making what's in the market."

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