Commissioners take pre-primary pass on pay raise

We don’t want an opportunity to pass without commending the Robeson County Board of Commissioners for doing the right thing.

On Monday, the commissioners were unanimous — at least publicly — in their decision not to include themselves in the second phase of a county pay plan that would have meant a 5 percent pay raise for each. Had they accepted County Manager Ricky Harris’ recommendation, the commissioners, already the best compensated in the state when salaries and benefits are lumped together, would have seen their annual salary of $15,237 jump to $15,998, and the chairman’s would have increased from $18,798 to $19,737.

The total annual cost to taxpayers, $6,264, is negligible in the $149 million budget that was adopted Monday night, but as we said in this space on Sunday, this is a matter of principle, and the best compensated commissioners in North Carolina shouldn’t be getting a raise — especially when they govern in one of the poorest counties in the country.

Now some might guess that this newspaper’s position cornered the commissioners, and they were worried about the ink that we would have spent criticizing them had they given themselves a raise. Let us assure you that they are not bothered by our opinion, but they do worry about our microphone — and the potential for a public backlash.

Next May, four commissioners — Jerry Stephens, the District 1 commissioner since 2007, Raymond Cummings, the District 5 commissioner since 1996, Tom Taylor, the District 7 commissioner since 2000, and Lance Herndon, the District 8 commissioner since 2009 — are all up for re-election in the primary. Assigning culpability for the outrage that is their pay, benefits and discretionary money is tricky, but we would suggest that the longer a commissioner has served, the dirtier are his hands.

We are resurrecting this conversation, which began in August 2012, because the pay raise was considered this week. It is also a good time to remind our readers of our effort three years ago to work with the commissioners. We met with Noah Woods, the chairman then and now, and he seemed genuinely concerned that their compensation was out of whack and said, if given time, he would work with other commissioners to roll back the compensation.

The only benefit that was immediately dropped was free insurance for the commissioners’ families, and that was always going to melt under sunlight. Had they not rectified it, there might have been a revolt of county employees.

The ball kept getting kicked down the road, an election was held and Taylor was re-elected, and then we realized we had been had. Nothing else was done beyond a token reduction from $40,000 to $30,000 a year in discretionary money for the budget that took effect on July 1, 2013.

The public spoke during the 2014 election, when Woods, a 24-year-old veteran of the board and a person who had done great good in this community as an educator and a public servant, survived re-election by just two votes over an upstart candidate. Commissioner Hubert Sealey was defeated, and David Edge had to survive a close election despite being a commissioner only since 2010 and not at all part of the money grab.

The other commissioners noticed what happened that day, which explains Monday’s rejection of a pay raise — they didn’t want that anvil they will carry into that election to get any heavier.

The people get to speak again in May.