We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office — Aesop.
This newspaper on Saturday published a story on our county commissioners’ post-meeting meals — not with eagerness and glee, but with reluctance and only after careful consideration.
We knew that doing so would feed the perception that some commissioners are trying to paint that The Robesonian is being purposely divisive — an offering that implodes easily enough because the great majority of people in this county agree with us, and not the commissioners. Residents aren’t fracturing over this matter, they are joining hands.
We have known for months that the commissioners and county staff routinely leave their meetings for some of the county’s nicest dining establishments and then stick the state’s poorest and highest-taxed residents with the bill. But we balked at doing a story, not because the public doesn’t have a right to know, but because we had assurances from four county commissioners that they understood that their pay, benefits and discretionary funds were exorbitant, and that they would work to make the necessary changes.
The post-meeting meals are more offensive when lined up beside this pilfering of the public treasury, and the promised corrections would have made the $5,600 spent on food during the past year less worrisome. But nothing has been done, despite the assurances and Commission Chairman Noah Woods’ promise of an open discussion.
We asked the few commissioners who still return our phone calls why they don’t use their stipend — at $700 a month, the highest in the state — to pay for their meals. They said, and we will paraphrase, that that’s how it’s always been done. Has anyone ever campaigned for public office with the promise to follow, and not to lead?
The reality is that the stipend, which is awarded without a commissioner producing a single receipt, isn’t for travel, food and expenses incurred while working as a commissioner, but is simply salary that has been cleverly camouflaged. The county cannot even produce a policy on the stipend, so $67,200 is distributed each year to our commissioners without any strings attached.
The current commissioners want you to believe they inherited this atrocity, but it’s not true.
Our county commissioners have not always had salaries that rank among the highest in the state.
Our county commissioners have not always had the highest stipend in the state.
Our county commissioners have not always had free health insurance for themselves and their families.
Our county commissioners have not always had a retirement plan that you fund.
And our county commissioners did not always have a plan that allowed them to continue to draw a salary after they left office, a scheme they sprinted from the moment it was exposed.
The truth is, the pay, benefits and discretionary funds have been stacked up during the past 15 years or so. Look no further to the past than the current fiscal year, when the commissioners’ pay was increased and $80,000 of discretionary money was added.
If you want to assign blame proportionately, this should help: Woods has been a commissioner for 23 years; Raymond Cummings, 17 years; Tom Taylor, 13 years; Hubert Sealey, 11 years; Roger Oxendine, seven years; Jerry Stephens, six years; Lance Herndon, four years; and David Edge, three years.
We began today’s Our View with a quote from Aesop that is incriminating, so allow us to retreat from it slightly: We don’t believe that all our county commissioners have chosen public service as a path to enrich themselves. But we continue to wait for those who did not do so to identify themselves.