News: CJ Exclusives

Officials: Few Glitches When Attractions Moved To Cultural Resources

Lawmakers informed of reorganization mandated by state budget

A top official at the state Natural and Cultural Resources said that the transfer of state parks and other attractions from the former Department of Environment and Natural Resources came off with few glitches.

“This has been a very big undertaking,” said Karin Cochran, chief deputy secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, on Tuesday to the General Assembly’s oversight committee reviewing agriculture, natural, and economic resources. Cochran said that the transfer doubled the number of employees in the department.

Last year, the General Assembly followed Gov. Pat McCrory’s recommendation to move attractions formerly housed in DENR to what was then called the Department of Cultural Resources, Those included state aquariums, state parks and recreational areas, science and nature museums, and the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund and N.C. Natural Heritage Program also moved. DENR then was renamed the Department of Environmental Quality.

The changes were included in the budget passed by the General Assembly last year and signed into law on Sept. 18, 2015.

By October, state employees had been transferred to the new Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Cochran said. “By Dec. 1, we were fully operational.”

Cochran mentioned one significant transition glitch. There was a problem with employee health insurance benefits during the first week of the transition, she said.

“We were not aware that the state treasurer actually manages the state benefits and they had a third-party vendor that manages the benefits in between us and” Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, Cochran said. “They dropped the ball. So in the first week of the transfer there were quite a few employees that went to the doctor and didn’t think they had health care coverage.”

Cochran said the problem was cleared up and everyone was covered.

She said that the department also looked at the transfer as an opportunity to do housecleaning, similar to a family moving from one house to another. She said that an assistant secretary’s position wasn’t filled and the number of purchasing cards — credit cards issued to employees to pay for department expenses — was reduced by 19 percent.

Matt Dockham, director of legislative affairs for DEQ, presented a chart showing that more than 2,000 employees were involved in the transfer.

“We are in fact a leaner DENR,” Dockham said.

Committee members reacted positively to the transition.

“I think they’ve done a very good job of integrating these departments,” Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said. “Given all the moving parts, I’m amazed that it’s gone as smoothly as it did.”

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.