In a curious move, coming as it does with a primary looming and a General Election further down the road, the county Board of Commissioners has decided to hold its three-day retreat in the port city of Wilmington, going out of county for the annual event for the first time since 2010.
Two of the commissioners, Tom Taylor and Lance Herndon, have told The Robesonian they will pay for their own lodging and meals, and if other commissioners do the same and we know about it, we will share their names. We would think that the $700 stipend the commissioners receive monthly for travel and meals — the highest such stipend in the state for county commissioners — would be sufficient to pick up the tab.
The decision will be a PR nightmare, ensuring that the commissioners receive more criticism for the way they spend money on themselves, and make it harder for them to proclaim loudly about their thriftiness and commitment to stretching taxpayer dollars. Couple that with their pending decision to ask county residents to approve an increase in the sales tax to pay for a new jail and perhaps a new technology school, and we won’t be alone in scratching our heads.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way.
This is not a vacation for the commissioners, who are scheduled to spend about 20 hours in session over those three days. Additionally, the expense of the trip — which this newspaper will report when all the bills are paid — will be a pebble on the beach that is the county budget, although some underfunded departments would benefit from those dollars. Holding the retreat two hours away will also require a drive and food reimbursement for department heads and other county staff whose presence will be required.
County Manager Ricky Harris sees utility in having the commissioners huddle out of town, where there are fewer distractions and bonding is facilitated. But the commissioners held the retreat in the county during 2011, 2012 and 2013, so are we to believe that county business didn’t have their full attention during those sessions?
The additional expense of this beach trip is what will anger and inspire conversation, but there is a larger problem here: Holding the three-day retreat two hours down the road puts it out of reach for Robeson County residents and taxpayers who might want to drop in and see what their elected officials are up to.
The agenda for the three-day retreat includes plenty of items of public interest, but perhaps nothing of more import than discussion of the possibility of building a new jail at a cost that has been projected at $40 million. That Robeson County residents can’t easily hear that conversation is at best disappointing, and at worst something else.
We will be there to inform our readers, both in our print edition and at robesonian.com.