NCDOT hits the brakes
The Good Roads State, with the second largest state-maintained road network, is in need of some repairs. The N.C. Department of Transportation is requiring its 9,300 employees to take unpaid time off by the end of June because of an expected $300 million budget shortfall. Top leaders will forfeit 30 hours of pay, senior leaders 25 hours and all other employees 20 hours. It’s a $7 million savings as gas tax collections plummet because of minimal travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
The agency’s problems accelerated before the virus outbreak. For months, N.C. State Treasurer Dale Folwell criticized its spending practices and poor transparency, prompting agency leaders to blame a cash crunch on hefty hurricane repairs, costly right-of-way litigation and rising raw material prices. Earlier this year, NCDOT said it was delaying hundreds of projects and laying off about 300 temporary and contract employees.
In February, Gov. Roy Cooper replaced Secretary Jim Trogdon with Eric Boyette, who had led the state’s information technology department. N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood capsulized the department’s problems in a May report showing it overspent its $5.9 billion budget by $742 million, or 12%, in 2019. That left NCDOT in bad financial shape just as the pandemic unfolded, prompting Wood to warn of “devastating” problems for many N.C. contractors. “Had they done what they should have done, managing better and holding people’s feet to the fire, the state of North Carolina could have $700 million more in its coffers right now,” she says.
Boyette told Wood that he accepted her findings and that the department had implemented them with the exception of changing its disaster budget, which would require more money from state lawmakers.
Wood is urging state lawmakers to require the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management to gain authority to oversee NCDOT spending. “[NCDOT] has a budget every year, then they take bond proceeds and they intentionally spend down the cash they have. But nobody at [NCDOT] oversees that spending plan. … And right now, there is nobody to call them on that.”
Wood didn’t view her report as an attack on Cooper, a fellow Democrat. Poor financial controls at the agency extend to the administration of Pat McCrory, a Republican, and predecessors, she says.