We think that the well has finally run dry.
But we believed that last week, before this newspaper learned of yet another benefit our county commissioners have provided themselves, a deferred-compensation plan that allows them to continue to draw a salary after they leave office. And, yes, your guess is correct: We can find no other county that offers a similar plan.
For those keeping score, here is what we have: The commissioners’ salary and stipend when added together rank the fourth highest in the state; the stipend itself is the highest we can find; the commissioners share access each year to a $320,000 discretionary fund, which is rare if not unique; the commissioners receive free health insurance for themselves and their family, a better deal than employees enjoy; and the commissioners have a retirement plan.
It would have been our pleasure to report all of this in a single story or two, and not have had to give it to you in bites over about two months. But the more we looked, the more we found — and if our question wasn’t posed perfectly, there was what we now know to be a clear dodge.
We were just lucky to stumble upon the deferred-compensation plan, which is the foulest water yet drawn from this well.
County Attorney Hal Kinlaw last week said the plan was drawn up by former County Manager Ken Windley in 2005 and has been modified since then. That being the case, Windley surely was operating at the directive of the commissioners, but even if the plan were his own, it remained for the commissioners to approve it when it was slid into the middle of the budget.
Kinlaw suggested that the plan would be jettisoned after County Manager Ricky Harris returns with information on pay and perks from other counties, including those that share a county line with Robeson. Kinlaw implied the plan wasn’t achieving its goal of saving the county money.
We can manage algebra, and wonder how any calculation could have showed a savings to the county. The plan allows the county to withhold $100 a month from a participating commissioner’s salary, which buys a commissioner a return of about seven to eight times — at the current salary scale, about $800 a month — for up to 15 years after he leaves office. There are commissioners on the board now who would immediately qualify for as much as $140,000 in deferred salary. Since the plan was adopted seven years ago, the most any commissioner could have contributed so far would be about $8,400.
Math is difficult to debate.
When the commissioners are confronted with these facts, there has — to their credit — been little defense. We know some feel like they received bad advice, and we are convinced some didn’t know how extraordinary their pay and compensation are when compared with other counties. Some commissioners pushed hard for these benefits, and others simply benefited.
The news moving forward we believe will be good.
Don’t doubt that County Manager Ricky Harris and his staff will bring reliable information from other counties to the board.
More importantly, we have been told privately by several commissioners that there are enough votes on the board to roll back these benefits so that they don’t tower over what commissioners elsewhere receive. No one is arguing against just compensation, and we know the discretionary fund does have value, but it is too fat and lacks accountability.
For now, we trust there are at least five commissioners who will do the the right thing — and look forward to the opportunity that we can use this space to give credit to the ones who spearheaded that effort, and a more important conversation can begin.