LUMBERTON — The Robeson County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to have staff conduct a study to determine if the compensation members receive is in line with that awarded commissioners in other counties, but at the same meeting overwhelming rejected an attempt to cut their discretionary funds in half.
Commissioner Tom Taylor came through on a recent promise to make the motion that County Manager Ricky Harris and his staff study commissioners’ salaries, their monthly stipend, health insurance, retirement and the amount and use of discretionary funds. The motion was quickly seconded by Commissioner Raymond Cummings.
The items to be studied are all perks that have historically been approved by commissioners without open discussion by being included in new budgets that take effect each July 1, a method that experts on constitutional law have told The Robesonian is legal, but doesn’t pass the test of transparency.
The newspaper has written a series of stories and editorials on the commissioners’ compensation after the newspaper found that they are the fourth-highest paid in the state, their stipend is the highest in the state, and their retirement and health benefits are more generous than those in surrounding counties and the state’s richest counties. The newspaper was unable to find another county with a discretionary fund for commissioners.
Commissioner David Edge, the lone Republican on the eight-member board, made the motion to reduce the amount of each commissioner’s yearly fund from $40,000 to $20,000 to become effective immediately.
“A lot of people have raised concerns to me about the amount of discretionary funds we have,” Edge said. “These funds do serve a good purpose … but they can be reduced. We just can’t give away as much.”
Taylor agreed with Edge.
“There are things we could cut,” he said. “I’d live with it.”
Edge’s motion for less discretionary money for each commissioner was supported only by Taylor. Commissioners Noah Woods, Roger Oxendine, Raymond Cummings, Hubert Sealey, Jerry Stephens and Lance Herndon opposed it.
The commissioners are allowed to roll over any discretionary money unspent during a fiscal year, and The Robesonian found that there was a total of about $380,000 in discretionary funds in early August. The money can be distributed without being voted on and does not have to go to a charity.
The budget that went into effect on July 1 raised each commissioner’s fund from $30,000 to $40,000.
“My district is in the south end of the county. The need is great and I don’t get anything,” Sealey said. “I’d like to get more. I need every nickel of discretionary money I can get.”
When The Robesonian published a story on the discretionary funds on Aug. 5, Sealey had almost $80,000 in his fund, more than any other commissioner, an indication he does not exhaust his fund each year.
Stephens described the need for discretionary money in his district as “overbearing,” and said that he has already allocated much of his yearly allotment of discretionary money.
“I don’t know if I have enough money now to get through the year,” Stephens told the board. “What happens next summer when the ball teams come asking me for money?”
Several residents present at Tuesday’s meeting were not happy with the board’s actions regarding the discretionary money.
“It was all staged,” said Melanie Locklear, who said she was at the meeting representing Friends of Philadelphus, a group that has formed to oppose a sand-mining operation in the Philadelphus community that the commissioners allowed with a special zoning permit. “Discretionary funds are just a way to buy votes using our tax dollars.”
Locklear also cited a 2003 story from the The Robesonian that read as if it were written recently, with the commissioners discussing the amount of money in their discretionary funds.
“This will be a farce just as it was in 2002-03,” she said.
In other business, the commissioners on Tuesday:
— Discussed incentives to be offered a new industry, code named Project Mule, planning to locate within the county. According to Gregg Cummings, the county’s industrial developer, the company will over a five-year period make a $4.5 million investment in equipment and create 121 jobs. The jobs will have a starting wage of $12 per hour.
— Heard brief presentations from state Rep. Charles Graham and Brenda Lynn Hunt, CEO and programs director for the Borderbelt AIDS Resource Team.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles@910-272-6117 or email@example.com.