LUMBERTON — County Manager Ricky Harris’ assignment in determining how perks and benefits received by Robeson County commissioners compare with those in other counties grew bigger last week when a look at the discretionary fund and a deferred compensation plan joined his to-do list.
That was done at the request of Noah Woods, chairman of the county’s Board of Commissioners.
“At the request of Mr. Noah, I am now looking into everything,” Harris said.
Harris said Friday that he is already receiving information on how other counties compensate their commissioners. Although he has not yet received replies from individual counties, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners has supplied him with information about the salaries and travel stipends received by commissioners in counties across the state.
The “everything” referred to by Harris as being investigated includes the $40,000 in discretionary funds each commissioner receives annually to hand out as they please without a vote of the board; salaries; travel stipends; health insurance; retirement benefits; and a deferred compensation program that allows commissioners to continue to draw on a percentage of their salaries after they leave office.
Deferred compensation, which Harris said was initiated in 2005, may be eliminated after the study, according to County Attorney Hal Kinlaw. A random survey by The Robesonian of six neighboring counties found no other county paying their commissioners after they leave office.
“If the initial goal of the policy was to postpone or eliminate compensation so as to save taxpayers money, the policy is definitely not working,” Kinlaw said. Kinlaw said that the original plan was put together by former County Manager Ken Windley, and since then it has been modified two or three times.
According to the current policy, the amount a commissioner receives after leaving office in deferred compensation is based on the time he has served. After serving four years on the board, and having $100 a month withheld from his salary until withholdings total at least $6,000, a commissioner can draw 70 percent of his salary at the time he leaves office for a maximum of 15 years.
According to Kellie Blue, the county’s finance director, the only former commissioner drawing deferred compensation — about $779 a month — is Tommy Wellington. Wellington served as a commissioner from 2005 to 2010. Wellington had not reached the $6,000 threshold when he left office, but the county withheld his salary until he reached the threshold and then he began receiving payments.
A random survey conducted by The Robesonian has revealed that the Robeson County commissioners receive perks and benefits far more lucrative than those of commissioners in other counties, including some of the state’s wealthiest.
In addition to the deferred compensation plan, they rank fourth in the state when combining salaries and travel stipends; their travel stipend of $700 a month is the highest in the state; they and their families can receive free health insurance; and they have a retirement plan that includes a county match.
Commissioner Tom Taylor made a motion at a recent board meeting calling for Harris and his staff to study commissioner benefits. It was left unclear at that time if discretionary funds should be included in the study, but Harris said the motion didn’t include the discretionary funds. Woods’ directive last week cleared that confusion up.
Harris said that as part of his investigation, he has had the board’s clerk, Tammy Freeman, start contacting counties surrounding Robeson to obtain information about what benefits their commissioners receive. He also said that he has solicited information on benefits received by commissioners across the state from the North Carolina Association of Commissioners and the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The commissioners have historically approved pay increases and enhancements to their benefits by sticking them in the budget and without discussion in open session. The budget that took effect on July 1 included a $600 a year pay increase for each commissioner and raised the discretionary fund from $240,000 a year to $320,000, giving each commissioner an increase from $30,000 to $40,000.
Several experts on constitutional law have told The Robesonian the process the commissioners use of giving themselves raises and enhancing benefits is probably legal, but is not transparent, and violates the spirit of open government.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or email@example.com