It appears that at least three county commissioners, Roger Oxendine, Tom Taylor and Chairman Noah Woods, get it — and understand there is a problem with the way they and fellow board members are compensated, both in salary and benefits, and that their shared discretionary fund of $320,000 a year is out of whack in size and scandalously administered.
Better yet they have at least two additional votes among the remaining five commissioners needed to ensure an examination of that compensation by the county staff, which presumably would make a recommendation that the commissioners could discuss in the sunlight and then vote upon. That transparency alone would represent a refreshing step in the right direction.
We prefer that an independent consultant be hired for the review, and that it not be conducted by people who work at the pleasure of the board, a process that ensures the public will watch with a jaundiced eye. But we are willing to watch it unfold, trusting — until that generous gesture is no longer deserved — that it will be conducted freely and fairly, and that it will land at about the right spot.
For the relevant information, the staff assigned the review needs to look no farther than to Sampson County, which approximates our size, Orange, Rowan, Randolph, Alamance and Pitt counties, which are closest to our population, and to the counties that are contiguous, Hoke, Scotland, Columbus, Bladen and Cumberland, which mimic our demographics.
That is what this newspaper has done in recent weeks, and the conclusion is undeniable: We can find nowhere in North Carolina that the totality of the pecuniary reward for county commissioners is more rich than right here in Robeson, among the most impoverished counties in the state, one burdened with the 17th highest property tax rate and sixth highest unemployment rate.
We were prepared today to accept a thin slice of the blame for the commissioners’ cash grab, and enter a plea of guilty to not doing our job of paying enough attention. But the process through which the commissioners have increased their pay, piled on the benefits, and fattened their discretionary funds, of hiding their actions by burying them deep in a budget without a word being uttered in public, gives us a solid excuse.
The blame is squarely on all who have taken a seat on the county Board of Commissioners for the last few decades, with the commissioners being assigned a varying degree of culpability based on their years served, and their hand in all this, whether they argued for more and more, or sat silently and did nothing while profiting. They have raided the taxpayers’ treasure chest precisely because they knew they could get away with doing so, taking full advantage of their place on a powerful board in a county with a poor and unsophisticated populace.
But the folks — and this newspaper — are paying attention, anxious to hear who argues for public service and transparency and votes for change, and who kicks and screams while trying to protect the status quo. Our promise is to not look away, even if that means that the conversation continues until May 2014 or two years beyond that.
A little isn’t going to be enough.