Taxpayers spent more than $80,000 swapping out cubicles in the state transportation department last spring, just a few weeks after Gov. Pat McCrory called on agency leaders to tighten their fiscal belts.
The $82,996.36 cubicle renovation project for 23 work stations approved last May dropped the height of most of the cubicles by 10 inches, and created more of a “newsroom” atmosphere for communications staff to work in, according to purchase records and Mike Charbonneau, DOT’s communications director.
“This has been a big help for us,” Charbonneu said, saying that the previous cubicles were mismatched in size, with a handful reaching to the ceiling, creating a confusing maze of hallways and workspace in the agency’s headquarters across from the State Capitol.
The May request for shorter cubicles was made by then-communications director Cris Mulder, who left the agency late last year for a job outside state government, and was approved by DOT Secretary Tony Tata.
“This project will renovate the existing communications space on the first floor to make more efficient use of the multiple work areas and support the strategic departmental goals for integrated, transparent and collaborative communications,” Mulder wrote in a May 22 memorandum for the project obtained through public records request.
But the plea for new communications staff cubicles came just a few weeks over McCrory issued a March memorandum  instructing cabinet secretaries to forgo unnecessary spending in order to cover an expected $262 million shortfall  in the state’s Medicaid program.
“Limit purchases for goods and services to the minimum amounts and inventories required,” McCrory wrote in his March 8 directive . “Cancel unnecessary purchases.”
Charbonneau said the cubicle project was paid for with unused funds from the 2012-13 fiscal year. The old cubicle walls and pieces were put in DOT storage space for future use, according to DOT project documents.
The governor halted plans last fall to renovate the bathrooms in the private residential portion of the Executive Mansion following news reports  and criticism about the $230,000 it would cost for repairs at the historic building.
The March memorandum from McCrory also called for a freeze on salary increases, an issue brought up after reports this summer that two young McCrory campaign staffers received raises of more than $22,000  at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
In the case of the DOT cubicles, Charbonneau said staff were mindful of taxpayers’ money by hiring Michigan-based American Seating precisely so that the agency could reuse existing cubicle materials for the renovations. He estimated half of the materials used were recycled.
The agency did not go through a competitive bidding process for the cubicles, a required step for most government purchases.
Instead, DOT obtaining a waiver from the competitive bidding because the cubicle renovation incorporated cubicle parts the agency had on hand and previously bought, according to Charbonneau and Chris Mears, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Administration.
The new DOT cubicles cost taxpayers approximately $3,600 a cubicle, taking the installation costs of the project into account.
Cubicle costs from other retail outlets vary widely, with the retail chain Staples selling basic configurations for as little as $2,000 a unit  but more elaborate models can cost thousands more. Morrisville-based Carolina Office Exchange sells and installs basic, new 53-inch high cubicles for between $2,000 and $2,500 a unit, according to an emailed pricing quote offered by a salesperson.
Charbonneau said that the agency wouldn’t have gone with the project if it didn’t already have many of the cubicle components on hand.
“We would not have made any changes to our work space,” he said.
The open workspace is now safer for staff, and lends to more collaboration, he said.