Council puts Brakes on High-Paid Consultant

Grant D. Bosse

July 14, 2013

As originally published in the Concord Monitor

Attention job seekers: The New Hampshire Department of Education is hiring. It is so desperate for good help that it’s giving out six-figure contracts for part-time work.

The Executive Council last week puts the brakes on a proposed consulting contract to hire Karen Soule at $75 an hour for 30 hours a week to comply with a federal waiver to the No Child Left Behind Act. Soule was the only person who applied for the job.

Soule worked for the state for two years, making just under $78,000 annually. The contract would have increased her salary by more than 50 percent to $117,000 a year. That eye-popping figure caused Councilors Colin Van Ostern and Chris Sununu to take a closer look at the contract.

“Why did we get only one person to apply to this job?” Sununu asks. “There are a number of people in the state who can perform this work, and at that rate of pay, the fact that we only had one person apply is shocking.”

Education Commissioner Virginia Barry insists her department has to offer such generous terms to hire anyone, claiming that state employees leave the department to make more money all the time. She says she’s been trying to fill a Title 1 coordinator position for a year and a half.

But Sununu says Barry should manage her department, rather than throw huge contracts at the problem.

“She stood here and said she had such a hard time filling these roles, and they’re doing everything they can, and that’s just not true,” Sununu adds.

The Department of Education has an “Employment Opportunities” page on its website, which currently has just two openings. Neither the vacant Title 1 position nor the post of chief financial officer are listed.

“How can you go through the budget process in the last year, and not have a chief financial officer?” Sununu wonders.

“I think Commissioner Barry is exceptionally good when it comes to the customer service aspects and external management of her department. It is internal controls that we’re getting very worried about,” he said.

Sununu says Education has an abnormally large number of contractors on the payroll compared with other departments and wants specific data from Barry before the council proceeds with Soule’s contract. State Employees’ Association President Diana Lacey says state agencies are using consultants to get around budget constraints.

“It’s much easier to go forward to defend a budget that has lots of money in contracts line,” Lacey argues. “It’s much easier to get that through a 424-person legislature than creating new positions.”

And state contracts are not subject to the employee hiring freeze, or limits on equipment purchases and out-of-state travel.

The union has pushed for years to stop hiring vendors such as home health care workers as independent contractors, but Lacey is also concerned about high-level state employees retiring, only to come back days or weeks later as consultants.

“It’s demoralizing,” Lacey says. “If they’ve retired from state service, and they’ve got their pension, which they’ve earned, and their health care, and they’re getting $117,000, and working three days a week.”

She says the Legislature wants to use consultants to save money, but it ends up costing taxpayers more. Sununu is also worried about double-dipping; paying consultants who are already collecting on their state pensions.

“I would love to see some type of moratorium, where you can come back as a consultant, but you have to be out of state government for a year, or two years,” says Sununu. “Sometimes there are real specialties, and the best person for the job may be a former state employee. But you can’t just jump over to increase your pay.”

Lacey and Sununu agree that decision-makers need to know more about how much we’re spending on labor hidden in contracts. The state’s financial management software doesn’t break down contract terms in enough detail to know how many consultants are on the state payroll, and how many of them are former state workers back at their old jobs.

Now that a proposed $117,000 part-time job has gotten the council’s attention, let’s hope councilors get some answers on how to slow down the state employee revolving door.