With discretionary funds, county’s much worse than city’s

Last week the Lumberton City Council without a lot of conversation voted to increase the amount available to spend in their discretionary funds from $4,500 to $6,000 a year, effective July 1, action that was taken during the city’s retreat.

The retreat, we find worth mentioning, was held at City Hall, not out of town, so it was inexpensive to taxpayers and also within easy reach for The Robesonian to cover in order to inform our readers.

The action didn’t merit much of a mention in the newspaper’s coverage, prompting a comment or two about our “double-standard” when it comes to the city’s discretionary dollars and the county’s.

The double-standard, however, is not ours, but is apparent in the approach of the two local governments.

We wish to be clear: We don’t like discretionary funds, large or small, believing they place too much money into a single elected official’s hands, there is a lack of accountability and potential for abuse. Does anyone think this ever happens? A county commissioner or city councilman who is seeking re-election is asked for a donation, makes the gift, and hands over the check with a wink and a request: “Now don’t forget me on Election Day.”

We apparently aren’t alone in our dislike of discretionary money.

A few years back when this newspaper was plowing through and reporting all the perks — pay and benefit wise — that our county commissioners have bestowed upon themselves, we called counties across North Carolina — probably about 25, the larger ones such as Mecklenburg and Wake, our neighbors that touch Robeson, and counties similar in population to ours — to compare notes. We could not find a single county with a discretionary fund, and except for Durham County, we couldn’t find anything approaching the pay and benefits our commissioners receive.

The most glaring difference in the local two governments’ approach is the simple size of the funds. The city’s, after the boost, puts $54,000 into the hands of the eight city council members and the mayor, while the county puts $240,000 into the hands of eight commissioners.

The commissioners, when the heat was the hottest, did reduce the fund from $40,000 to $30,000 a year, but remember, any unspent money rolls over. It can’t be easy dishing out all that money every year, as to empty a $40,000 account requires gifting $109 and some change for each of a year’s 365 days. That burden has been lifted somewhat, as emptying a $30,000 fund requires gifting just $82 and some change for each of those 365 days.

Then there is the significant difference in how the money is allocated. The City Council requires a majority vote for the check to be written, which provides accountability, while the county requires no vote.

The city and the county both roll over any unspent dollars from one year to the next.

County officials, in defending discretionary funds, have said they were needed years ago to ensure dollars flowed into poorer communities of color, and that it was a matter of fairness. Perhaps, but if it were needed then, it isn’t now as all communities are represented on the board, and if a community is being denied, the ballot box can right that wrong.

We aren’t sure why the city established a similar fund, but it did so in September 1992, so it’s been around awhile.

We will say again we don’t like them, believe they are unnecessary, and would encourage that they be eliminated. The commissioners, however, have shown that aren’t receptive to our suggestions, eliminating only the free health insurance for commissioners family members, shortly after we exposed that scam. But that wasn’t to appease us, but to prevent county employees from marching on the administrative office.

But this should be stipulated: If the city’s discretionary funds are an abuse of the public trust, then the county’s is that times five.