The highest-paid employee in North Carolina’s state agencies just quit. So who’s the state worker with the biggest salary now?
Hint: It’s a former News & Observer Tar Heel of the Year, from way back in 2000.
But first, the man who’s leaving: Before announcing his retirement last week, Kevin SigRist, the chief investment officer in state Treasurer Dale Folwell’s office, had been earning nearly $400,000 a year to guide the state pension plan’s $94 billion in investments.
The treasurer’s office employs 40 people making at least $120,000 – and 11 people making more than $200,000. Most are money managers who advise the treasurer on how to invest the state’s pension fund.
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Sigrist, hired in 2013 to manage the pension plan, was making an annual salary of $387,081 after getting a $1,000 raise July 1.
The treasurer’s office announced his resignation July 24. He was the second top administrator at the state treasurer’s office to abruptly resign this summer. The head of the state health plan quit in May.
With SigRist leaving, that means someone else gets his or her turn in the spotlight as the highest-paid state employee.
So here’s a list of the top five highest-paid employees at state agencies using salary numbers from a News & Observer database that’s updated monthly.
Some are longtime state employees; others are relatively new. Three are doctors, one has a doctorate and one is an Army veteran.
You won’t find Gov. Roy Cooper on this list; he makes $144,349 a year and isn’t even the highest-paid person in his own office. (Cooper’s chief of staff, Kristi Jones, makes $152,000 a year.)
You also won’t find any employees of K-12 public schools or the UNC system on the list. They were excluded from this analysis; otherwise it would just be a list of football and basketball coaches.
However, the N&O does maintain a database of all UNC System employees’ salaries.
The highest-paid state employees
Replacing SigRist as the new No. 1 is Larry Wheeler, whose job is about as different from an investment manager as possible.
Wheeler is an art historian and the director of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. He started working for the state in 1974, has been the museum’s director for more than two decades and earns $295,788 a year.
The museum has gone through a major expansion under his leadership, hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and has landed some high-profile permanent and temporary exhibits, with pieces from artists like Claude Monet, Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe and Titian. He was the N&O’s Tar Heel of the Year 17 years ago.
Next is George Krebs Jr., a psychiatrist with the Department of Health and Human Services.
He makes $293,243 and has worked for the state since 1988, mostly at Broughton Hospital in Morganton, which serves people in western North Carolina with mental health needs.
It’s crowded; an expansion to add 100 new beds was supposed to have been finished in 2014 but the new Cooper administration fired the contracter in April after learning the work wasn’t on track to be done until 2019.
Including Krebs, three of the five highest paid state agency workers work at psychiatric hospitals.
The others work at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, which recently was the subject of a News & Observer investigation into large raises for the doctors there. Earlier this spring, the hospital was also refusing to admit patients, despite having empty beds, claiming a doctor shortage.
James Mayo, Cherry’s director, earns $288,924 a year. He’s been with the state 34 years. Another psychiatrist there, Paul Kartheiser, makes $275,344 a year. He’s been state employee since 2006.
Jimmie Williamson, the former head of the N.C. community college system, would’ve rounded out this list if he hadn’t resigned this week after barely a year on the job. He was making $286,000.
With him gone, Paul Cozza, who runs the N.C. Port Authority, joins the top five.
A West Point grad, Cozza worked for several large companies before being hired to run the state’s ports in 2014. He makes $275,000.
The ports in Wilmington and Morehead City are among the 100 busiest in the country, and they contribute an estimated $700 million to the state economy each year.
In Wilmington, much of the business revolves around grain, chemicals, lumber and wood chips. In Morehead City much of the business comes from the Aurora Mine in Beaufort County, which is the world’s largest mine and processing plant for potash, a key fertilizer component.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran