LUMBERTON — The decision not to offer Tax Administrator Cindy Lowry the two-year contract extension she wanted was apparently based on the county’s tax collection rate, but at least one commissioner believes her hands were tied in that pursuit.
Still, the rate has climbed steadily in the 10 years she has led the office.
It was announced during Monday’s commissioners meeting that Lowry, who has been the tax administrator since 2008 and was being paid $111,954.77 a year, said no to an extension through November. Lowry, whose last day on the job is Friday, refused the offer and Assistant County Manager Kellie Blue was appointed interim tax administrator. Lowry has not responded to requests by The Robesonian for an interview.
“They wanted the tax collection rate to go up,” Commissioner Tom Taylor said.
Commissioner David Edge said that was his understanding as well.
The collection rate was 86.57 percent in 2008 when Lowry began the job, and it was 93.72 in 2017. Only twice during Lowry’s tenure did the collection rate decline from one year to the next.
Edge said the commissioners should blame themselves for the poor rate.
“They had no foreclosure policy when I came on the board,” said Edge, who joined the board in 2010.
After he was placed in the board’s Budget and Finance Committee, he made a motion to enact a policy stating the county could start foreclosure action after taxes on a property were one year overdue, Edge said. The commissioners rejected that policy.
“The commissioners refused to do that until the taxes were at least five years overdue,” Edge said.
Currently two relatives of county commissioners are five years delinquent in paying.
Edge said that during the debate about Lowry’s contract one commissioner asked County Manager Ricky Harris the policy, and Harris told him the policy is to not initiate aggressive collection actions until the taxes have been overdue for at least five years.
Commissioner Roger Oxendine, however, said the contract issue isn’t about with Lowry’s performance.
“Cindy done good,” Oxendine said. “Robeson County is a poor county, and it’s tough to collect taxes.”
Oxendine didn’t provide a reason why the board didn’t offer Lowry a longer contract extension, but said, “Cindy has done a great job. I hope she doesn’t leave bitter.”
Harris has told The Robesonian the county ranks last in the state in tax collections.
As to the length of the contract extension offered Lowry, various commissioners had different ideas, but Harris confirmed it was until Nov. 30.
Edge speculated it was because of the elections in November. Historically, the commissioners have postponed certain actions and votes until after November elections, he said.
Edge is the only commissioner on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Board Chairman Raymond Cummings has said he will file as a candidate for Lumbee tribal chairman in the Nov. 13 election.
A decision also must be made on when Lowry’s replacement will be chosen. Faline Locklear Dial will replace Noah Woods on the board as the District 4 representative when she is sworn in during the board’s first meeting in December.
Oxendine said the contract extension’s length was to keep Lowry on the job until a new county manager could be hired. Harris will vacate his office at the end of the year. The commissioners felt the new manager should have input on the selection of a new tax administrator, Oxendine said.
The search for a new tax administrator already has begun. The job description is being reviewed to ensure the most updated and accurate description is placed in the advertisement for the position. Blue is eager for the job to be filled quickly.
“I have no desire to be the tax administrator,” Blue said.
The tax administrator job comes with a salary range of $69,847.73 to $108,263.98, she said. The new tax administrator will be offered a two-year contract, as mandated by state law.
“You cannot give them (a new hire) any more than that in the beginning,” Blue said.
Subsequent contracts can be longer, she said. Lowry’s last contract was for four years.
The county will be looking inside and outside the county for a new administrator, Blue said.
Board Chairman Raymond Cummings’ wife, Betsy, works at the Tax Office as the Personal Property Division manager. Her annual salary is 61,657.83.
As for Cummings’ wife getting the job, Taylor said, “I’ve heard rumors, but we have not discussed it.”
Commissioner Jerry Stephens seemed to imply it was a possibility while being interviewed last week by WAGR.
“Listen, don’t fool yourself, we’re all like that brother,” he said. “Listen. His wife is in there, if she can do the job, if your wife was in there and was going to make $100,000 would you be voting for them? … If she can do the job, would you tell her, you know, I’m a commissioner you ought not to have that job. One hundred grand, let me tell you.”
When the chairman was called Friday seeking comment, the call was disconnected quickly.
The situation with Cindy Lowry isn’t the only taxes-related situation to flare this year.
The county this year did not publish the delinquent tax notices in The Robesonian, but put them in a weekly newspaper with a fraction of the circulation and no website.
An effort to get them published again in The Robesonian failed in a 4-3 vote on June 11. Edge subsequently used his discretionary money to publish them in The Robesonian.
It was learned after the Robeson Journal published the names that the brother of Commissioner Oxendine and the father of Commissioner Herndon had been omitted. Their names were included when the list was republished in The Robesonian.
Cummings and Commissioner Oxendine also paid their taxes late this year, about a month past deadline. The Robesonian learned of their tardiness and instead of doing a story contacted Harris and said the paper would delay any story a week to give them time to pay.
Both did, but it was learned in June that Cummings still had not paid on a piece of rental property he owned with others in Lumberton. The Robesonian published a story on that and the taxes were paid soon afterward.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at [email protected]