LUMBERTON — Robeson County commissioners have a total of $320,000 a year in discretionary funds that they can allocate to organizations and special projects that they wish to help, giving them a bank account the commissioners in neighboring counties don’t enjoy.
Each commissioner this fiscal year has $40,000 to give, and the money does not have to go to registered non-profits. The entire board does not have to approve how any individual commissioner chooses to use the money.
Because the money can roll over from year to year if not spent, the eight commissioners currently have a total of $389,773 in their funds.
“We prefer that those allocated discretionary funds are 501 (c) non-profits,” said Kellie Blue, the county’s finance director. “The funds must be given to groups. They cannot be given to individuals.”
Blue said that the discretionary funds are used for a variety of purposes. As examples, she said that individual commissioners have used the money to support local fire departments, rescue squads, youth sports teams and recreation programs, and education. Some commissioners have donated money to The Robesonian’s Empty Stocking Fund, which helps needy families at Christmas, as well as the newspaper’s annual golf tournament, which raises money for local charities.
Ricky Harris, Robeson County’s manager, said that during fiscal year 2009-10, each commissioner received $44,000 in discretionary funds.
“For the next two fiscal years the commissioners voluntarily reduced that amount to $30,000,” Harris said. “Then this fiscal year (beginning July 1) the amount was raised to $40,000.”
A spokesman for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners said that although Robeson County’s practice of providing commissioners discretionary funds to use as they wish is “not unique,” it is uncommon.
A random survey conducted by The Robesonian of nine counties — Bladen, Scotland, Hoke, Columbus, Cumberland, New Hanover, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Wake — found no county providing their commissioners with discretionary funds. Most counties provide funding for selected nonprofits and other organizations by including them in individual line items in their budgets.
In Robeson County, no other elected municipal officials except those in Lumberton have funds to allocate at their discretion. According to City Manager Wayne Horne, each Lumberton council member has $4,000 a year to use at his discretion. However, any use of discretionary funds has to be approved by the entire council, Horne said, and cannot be awarded by a single councilman.
No one is certain when the practice of providing commissioners with discretionary funds became common in Robeson County.
“It was done before I ever became a board member,” said Noah Woods, a board member for more than 20 years and the board’s current chairman. “It works well, but you have to look at the budget and economy and be careful how the funds are used.”
Currently, the commissioners have discretionary fund balances ranging from a low of $28,035 in the District 7, which is represented by Tom Taylor, to a high of $79,151 in District 7, which is represented by Hubert Sealey. The money does not have to stay within a commissioner’s district when distributed.
Commissioner David Edge said that the discretionary funds do serve a good purpose, but questioned the amount.
“I don’t know if we need to have so much,” he said.
County administrators and commissioners say they like the system because it is a time saver. They say if the system were not in place, commissioners meetings would be bogged down with a large number of organizations coming before the board requesting funds to support their programs.
“You would have maybe 700 or 800 groups coming before the board asking for funds,” said Commissioner Raymond Cummings. “Discretionary funds are designed to help non-profits, athletic groups, and expedite the funding process. The system has worked well over the years … I am usually out of my funds by February.”
The commissioners commenting for this story all said that the county’s system of allocating discretionary funds gives support to organizations — such as recreation and school-related — that otherwise may not have funds to operate.
“I try to be judicious with the funds,” Commissioner Lance Herndon said. “A lot of good comes from these funds because they can be spread around among groups that need them.”
Commissioner Roger Oxendine said he is planning to use some of his discretionary funds to help build a boat ramp and picnic area on Chicken Road property abutting the Lumbee River. Some of the money will also be used to support the creation of a recreational park on U.S. 301 near Hilly Branch, he said.
“I’ve promised to do these two projects,” Oxendine said. “I plan to use some money this year for one project and some discretionary money for the other project next year.”
Woods said that the bulk of his money will go to school organizations that need the money to operate.
“I was a school principal for 20-some years and I saw how much is needed to fund school activities,” he said. “When funds are made available, the schools really appreciate it.”
Commissioners Jerry Stephens, Sealey and Taylor did not return a reporter’s phone call.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.