LUMBERTON — Four members of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners — Noah Woods, Raymond Cummings, Tom Taylor and Hubert Sealey — were on the board when most of the benefits that board members now enjoy were approved.
A review by The Robesonian of benefits and discretionary funds received by Robeson County commissioners over the past two decades reveals that while benefits increased significantly, the amount of discretionary funds remained fairly steady.
The Robesonian requested benefit and discretionary fund records for the years 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010 to detail the growth of pay and benefits and the amount of discretionary money spent during that time. The county provided all of the requested information except for 1990, which county officials said could not be found.
The Robesonian found that salaries increased from $8,400 to $13,360; travel stipends more than doubled, from $300 to $700 a month; free health insurance for both the commissioners and their families was added; and a 457 retirement plan was introduced. Discretionary funds have toggled up and down between a low of $30,000 to a high of $44,000 a year.
Because the county administrative office was unable to retrieve records in advance of 1995, The Robesonian contacted Sammy Cox Sr., a former commissioner who left the board in 1994. Cox said when he left the board, he remembered the stipend being $100 a month, and said the commissioners did not have a retirement plan. He said that there was health insurance, but only for the commissioner, and not a commissioner’s family. He said the insurance did not follow a commissioner when that person exited the board as it does now.
According to county records, the commissioners in 1998 received a stipend of $300, with that jumping to $400 in 1999. During the fiscal years of 2005-06 and 2010-11, the stipend was $700, the same as the stipend is today.
A review last year by The Robesonian found that out of the state’s 100 counties, Robeson County commissioners are paid the highest stipend. When their salary and stipend is added together, Robeson commissioners are the fourth highest paid in the state.
Salaries for both 1995 and 2000 were $8,400, jumping to $8,650 in 2005. By 2010, the salary paid annually to a commissioner was $13,360.
On July 1, 2006, free health insurance became available for the families of county commissioners.
At the time the free family health insurance was approved, Johnny Hunt, the current superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, chaired the county board. Other commissioners on the board were Woods, Cummings, Taylor, Sealey, Otis Pelham, Tommy Wellington and Luther W. (Bill) Herndon. Pelham and Wellington lost re-election bids, and Herndon died. Herndon’s grandson Lance is now on the board.
Currently, all of the commissioners, except for Taylor and Woods, have opted to have free county paid health coverage for members of their family.
In September 2007, the board voted to allow commissioners to take their county paid health insurance with them when they leave the board. This benefit applies only the commissioners and not family members.
According to the county administrative office, if a commissioner has served four years, he is eligible to have 50 percent of his health insurance paid by the county after he leaves office. After six years of service, 75 percent of health insurance is paid by the county, and after eight years on the board, a commissioner is eligible to have 100 percent of his health insurance expenses picked up by the county.
When it was approved that the commissioners could take their county paid health insurance with them when they left the board, Woods and Cummings were immediately eligible to have 100 percent of their insurance paid for by the county; Taylor and Luther “Bill” Herndon were eligible for 75 percent of their insurance to be paid for by the county, and Sealey was eligible for 50 percent of his health insurance expenses to be picked up by the county.
In August 2008, the commissioners adopted a 457 retirement plan that calls for the county to match 4 percent of their salaries. At that time, all of the current commissioners except Lance Herndon and Edge were on the board. A survey last year by The Robesonian found no other North Carolina counties offering their county commissioners a similar retirement plan.
The commissioners did scrap one benefit in October. After The Robesonian revealed that they had established a deferred compensation plan that allowed them to continue to collect a percentage of their salaries after leaving office, the board voted to drop the plan.
Under the deferred compensation plan, a commissioner could draw 70 percent of their salary at the time they left office for a maximum of 15 years.
According to county records, the discretionary funds allotted to a commissioner each year have remained fairly consistent. From 1995 to 2000, the funds went up and down from a low of $30,000 to $40,000. In 2005, each commissioner had $30,000 in discretionary money, which jumped to $44,000 in 2010.
For the current fiscal year that began July 1, each of the county’s eight commissioners has $40,000 to use without having to get the approval of other board members. A random survey conducted by The Robesonian last year 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 line items in their budgets.
While it is preferred that discretionary funds be used to support registered non-profits, Kellie Blue, the county’s finance director, has said that is not necessary. The funds, however, must go to groups and not an individual.
In Robeson County, no other elected municipal officials except those in Lumberton have funds to allocate at their discretion. Each Lumberton council member has $4,000 a year. However, any use of discretionary funds has to be approved by the entire City Council and cannot be awarded by a single councilman.