LUMBERTON — At least two Robeson County commissioners say they can get enough support from fellow commissioners to call for study on how they are compensated to see if changes need to be made.
Roger Oxendine and Tom Taylor both told The Robesonian last week that they are willing to make motions at the board’s monthly meeting on Sept. 4 asking the county’s administration to investigate to determine if the commissioners’ pay and benefits are “in line” with those received by commissioners in other counties. The chairman of the board, Noah Woods, also appears to be on board with Oxendine and Taylor.
“I’ve talked with several board members and they agree that we need to back up and look at our discretionary funds and other stuff,” said Oxendine, who did not want to identify those commissioners. “They agree that we should let our staff investigate other counties and see if we are in line with them or not.”
The “other stuff” includes salaries, monthly stipend, health insurance and retirement, perks that have historically been approved by commissioners without open discussion by being included in new budgets that take effect on July 1. Government experts interviewed for this story said that placing those items in the budget may be legal, but said that doing so is not transparent.
“I am willing to look at where we are and what we need to do,” Taylor said. “I was going to recommend at our last meeting (Monday) that our manager take a survey of what other counties are doing, but I didn’t have a chance to first talk to all of the other commissioners about it … . We need to look at everyone else and see if we are in line.
“Our No. 1 priority is our taxpayers. Also our employees need to be looked after.”
Robeson County commissioners are currently the fourth highest paid in the state when salaries and their travel stipend — the highest in the state at $700 a month — are combined; each receives $40,000 a year in discretionary funds to allocate to organizations and projects, money that is distributed without a vote by the board; both commissioners and their families can receive free health insurance; and the commissioners have a 457 retirement plan where the county matches 4 percent of their salaries.
A random survey by The Robesonian of surrounding counties has found none that give their commissioners discretionary funds. Most counties provide funding for selected nonprofits and other organizations by including them in individual line items in their budgets.
In regards to health insurance, a check by The Robesonian of several counties found a mixed bag — some provided the commissioners health insurance for free, some for a fee, and in some cases the commissioners were not eligible for the plan. The Robesonian could not find any county that offered a commissioner’s family health insurance for free.
All of the current commissioners receive free health insurance, with all but Woods and Tom Taylor also receiving free insurance for family members. County employees receive free insurance, but to add one child to their coverage costs them $170.62 per month. If more family members are added the cost jumps to $311.20 month.
The benefit follows commissioners when they leave the board, provided for free for any commissioners who served at least eight years, at 25 percent cost for any commissioner who served at least six years and at 50 percent cost for any commissoner who served at least four years.
Robeson was the only county The Robesonian found that provided better health benefits for its commissioners than its employees.
Free insurance has been provided for family members of commissioners since July 1, 2006. Records show that the issue of free health insurance for families was never voted during an open public meeting of the Board of Commissioners, but was simply placed in the budget for approval.
The commissioners on the board when the free family insurance was approved were Chairman Johnny Hunt, Taylor, Woods, Raymond Cummings, Luther Herndon, Otis Pelman, Hubert Sealey and Tommy Wellington. Hunt, Herndon, Pelman and Wellington are now off the board, replaced by Herndon’s son Lance, Roger Oxendine, David Edge and Jerry Stephens.
The Robesonian could find only one other surrounding county, Cumberland, that offers its commissioners a 457 retirement plan. The 457 plan has been available to Robeson County commissioners since 2008, when it was also placed in the budget without discussion in open session.
County employees have a 401-k plan into which the county contributes 4 percent of an employee’s salary.
Jane Pinsky, executive director of the N.C. Coalition for Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said that all of the discussion pertaining to benefits and discretionary funds “absolutely” should have been discussed in open session and voted on in public.
“All of this information should be easily accessible to the public,” she said. “There needs to be transparency. They have the responsibility to make it clear how county money is being spent.”
Jeanette Doran, the executive director and general counsel for the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, said that while there is no constitutional requirement to discuss these issues in public, transparency in dealing with taxpayer money is the best policy. She pointed out that the constitution requires taxpayer money be used in public interest, and questioned whether that was happening.
“There are guidelines for exactly what purposes tax dollars can be used,” she said. “But the definition of public use is quite broad.”
Woods, the chairman of the board, told The Robesonian on Friday that he has “no problem” supporting a request for county staff to review benefits received by the commissioners. He also said that the commissioners are now going to make sure that county business is discussed and acted on more openly in public.
“I know that in the future we (commissioners) are going to make sure that the people know what is going on,” Woods said. “From now on, everything will be out on the table.”
Staff writer Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.