Numbers seem simple. But measuring value is complex. The ideas behind numbers are sometimes abstract. It is why a number is only useful if it answers a question and the process that generated the number is understood. Here’s an example.
County commissioners have been accused of being overpaid. Is this valid? Evidence has been offered that Robeson commissioners are the fourth-highest paid in the state. Actually, including the often-omitted Buncombe County, it could be argued Robeson is fifth. Regardless, it’s pretty high for the poorest county in the state. The comparative analysis is commissioner pay vs. per capita income. It’s a fair argument.
Some commissioners wish to re-frame the argument though. They assert the largest county in the state justifies the $700 per month travel expense. The travel reimbursement is the highest in the state. It’s deceptively fair framed in the context of the county’s 951 square miles.
Using size as a factor against pay is a nice way to reframe the argument. The math works out to $23.16 per square mile (salary plus travel) as opposed to any county half the size, where the math works out to twice as much. It’s a nice numerical twist. Mecklenburg works out to about $48 per square mile, for example, making Robeson seem like a deal. But it causes problems with circular logic, failing sniff and sunlight tests.
If you ask a Mecklenburg commissioner to defend his pay, he’d want to factor by population, not size. Unlike Robeson, population is the biggest number to spin in Mecklenburg’s favor. In that case, Mecklenburg commissioners get paid about 3 cents per person countywide, making Mecklenburg a deal. Robeson commissioners get paid about 16 cents per capita. The point is each county has different self-serving justifications. Since Robeson is size, let’s model that algorithm.
The commissioners are not elected at-large in Robeson. There are eight districts. This means commissioners serve about 118 square miles per district. This raises the salary quotient to $186.67 per square mile a Robeson commissioner serves. At least Mecklenburg could use three countywide at-large seats in apples-to-apples comparisons.
Robeson commissioners are therefore paid $5.93 in monthly travel expense alone per square mile of district they serve. Now car manufacturers claim the average vehicle is designed to get about 300 miles per tank of gas. So for each fill-up, a commissioner should be able to travel every square mile of his district almost three times per tank.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the average vehicle gets 23.1 miles per gallon. If a tank holds at least 13 gallons and utilizing the AAA average cost per gallon at $3.33, it costs around $43.29 on average to fill up.
So a commissioner can fill up about 16 times per month on the $700 per month stipend. With the already calculated ability to travel each square mile of the given district three times with each fill up, the commissioner should be able to travel every square mile of the district 48 times each month dependent on vehicle economy. Sure, we’ve not factored wear and tear, fuel economy or margin of error, but you get the point.
It is just tough to validate the value. There is an average of 16,771 folks in each commissioner district. The commissioners are paid about $1.31 per person per district in salary and travel. Mecklenburg is a better deal at 26 cents per person per district and it ranks as the highest pay in the state. Salaries are pretty reasonable. Travel accountability is simply problematic and inefficient.
The ccommissioners have a tough job and at least four commissioners agree travel justification is weak. Truthfully, lowering the stipend will not impact the county economy. But it will demonstrate the character of our leadership.
Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.