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State public safety chief gets 15 percent raise, spurs wave of criticism

May 15th, 2019

— The head of the state Department of Public Safety, charged with overseeing everything from prisons to the state’s disaster response, quietly received a $23,000 pay bump in April as the legislature geared up to debate the future of the state’s largest agency.

Erik Hooks, appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper when he took office in January 2017, will now earn $179,403 a year, making him the fifth-highest paid member of Cooper’s cabinet. His new salary earns him $41,000 more than when he took the post just over two years ago.

The raise – and its timing – have rankled some who have pushed for salary increases for the more than 20,000 employees of DPS, including correctional officers in the state’s more than 50 prisons.

DPS forwarded an inquiry Monday about the raise to the Office of State Human Resources, whose spokesperson, Jill Lucas, explained that Hooks’ compensation was increased “to reflect his 24/7 management responsibilities” at the multifaceted agency. She pointed to his oversight of efforts to improve safety in prisons, raise the age necessary to try juveniles as adults for nonviolent crimes and build out a new Office of Recovery and Resiliency to respond to natural disasters.

Lucas said the salaries for cabinet secretaries are periodically reviewed to consider “scope of duties, equity and other factors.”

“Specific reasons for this increase include Sec. Hooks’ increased responsibilities due to the state being hit by Hurricane Florence and other natural disasters and additional demands in his role as Homeland Security Advisor,” Lucas said in an email.

The raise was reviewed by her office and approved by the governor’s office.

A spokesman for Cooper, who oversees DPS as one of the state’s dozen executive agencies, did not directly respond to questions posed Monday afternoon about how the raise was initiated or approved. But in a written statement, Ford Porter said “we must continue to work to improve safety and pay in state prisons,” citing the governor’s own budget proposals.

Hooks is a longtime state employee, first hired as an agent of the State Bureau of Investigation in August 1989.

Cooper cabinet salaries

Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet comprises more than a dozen positions. Salary data from the State Controller’s Office and employees counts from the Office of State Budget and Management are current as of April 2019.

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DPS has been struggling in recent years to recruit and retain correctional officers for state prisons, creating conditions officers say are unsafe for both guards and inmates. Correctional officers received a 4 percent raise in the last budget cycle, but low pay has remained a recurring issue after years of stagnant wages. The average pay for correctional officers now ranges from about $35,000 to $40,000, depending on the security level of the facility.

“Of all that’s going on at the Department of Corrections, you’d think they’d be more focused on giving raises to some of the rank-and-file employees who are risking their lives every day,” said John Midgette, executive director of the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association.

If nothing else, Midgette said, the move is “a very disappointing error in judgment.”

Prison safety has become a particular focus of the state legislature, which formed a Senate committee to examine the issue after a number of correctional officers were killed and assaulted on the job.

Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, who chairs the Select Committee on Prison Safety, said he was “flabbergasted” by the salary increase. The timing was particularly inappropriate, he said, given a Senate proposal to move the Division of Adult Corrections out from under DPS as a potential fix for an agency in “absolute chaos.”

“I wouldn’t think, until the dust all settles, that the governor should be giving any raises,” Steinburg said. “It’s not quite clear what the road map is moving forward with this agency.”

While the Senate is still mulling how to sort out pay raises for state workers in its own budget bill, the governor’s proposal called for an extra $500 raise specifically for prison guards and other law enforcement officers employed by the state. The House, meanwhile opted for a 5 percent bump for correctional officers on top of last year’s increases.

“There are changes in the wind, and I think for whoever to receive this kind of raise when the governor’s budget only included a $500-a-year raise for correctional officers is really sending a bad message to the rank and file,” Steinburg said.

His Democratic counterpart on the prison safety committee, Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said the optics were an important consideration, given the number of positions at the Division of Adult Corrections that have remained unfilled.

“The concern we should all have is making certain that, when we are looking at pay increases for senior management, that we are also thoughtful for compensation we’re providing for employees,” McKissick said.

Aside from the legislative increases for all state employees, state records show Hooks also received a salary adjustment of about $14,000 in January 2018.

He wasn’t alone among agency leaders who serve under Cooper, all of whom received raises of 10 percent or more that January. The pay bump brought Hooks’ salary at the time in line with the secretaries of the Department of Commerce and the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, both much smaller agencies with more limited purviews.

None of the other secretaries has received discretionary raises since then, according to state payroll data, although they did receive legislative increases along with other state employees on July 1.

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