It’s been a hard few months for Buncombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger.
His office remains under intense scrutiny following the news that Reisinger, an elected official, closed the Deeds office in February during inclement weather and a governor-declared State of Emergency. No other Buncombe County department closed at the time. Buncombe officials later responded to the apparent inequity by granting other county employees an additional 13 hours vacation leave, roughly equivalent to $480,000 in paid salaries.
That’s the estimate, but county staff say it’s not exactly real money and might not cost taxpayers a dime.
During the Aug. 5 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, county residents got a chance to comment on the situation. Their displeasure was clear, leading commissioners to review the issue.
“It is not right,” said Peggy Bennett on Aug. 5. “It’s not right to expect the taxpayer to pay the [nearly] $500,000. It is up to you all to do what’s right. Set a good example for Mr. Reisinger. Maybe he’ll learn, maybe he won’t. But it’s not right for us as taxpayers to pay that money. We expect you all to take care of it.”
“I read where this year’s budget will make [it up to] the employees of the county … who did not get a free taxpayer-funded playdate,” said Eddie Harwood. “Since Mr. Reisinger is a bonded official, I assume that the more than $500,000 this costs the taxpayers will be recovered, which is the purpose of the bond on an official in case of misconduct or other actions that cause harm to taxpayers.”
After hearing from Bennett and Harwood, Board Chairman David Gantt directed county attorney Robert Deutsch to look into it. On Aug. 19, Deutsch outlined the details and, some of which addressed Harwood’s suggestion.
North Carolina General Statutes require many public officials to carry fidelity bonds, including “any County officer, employee or agent who handles or has in his custody more than one hundred dollars ($100) of county money at any one time,” Deutsch explained in his report. The bonds function as a type of surety or insurance for performance. For the Register of Deeds, the bond is to assure faithful performance of the duties of the office, which is outlined in the N.C. General Statutes, and financial integrity, said Deutsch.
The bond for Reisinger was set at $50,000, the largest amount, by law, that a performance bond for the Register of Deeds can carry.
“Insurance companies write these bonds,” Deutsch later told Xpress. “If I, for example, am a general contractor, I might pull a fidelity bond from the insurance company for the owner of the building I’m working on, so if I don’t perform, the fidelity bond would stand for it.”
Like any insurance company, Deutsch continued, the bond agents “will fight hard not to pay. They interpret these things very technically.”
Deutsch also said that the only people who could call the bond are those who suffered “direct financial damage” from the deeds office closing. “So if I was trying to close my deed and I couldn’t, and it cost me financially, that would be the only time I could assert the bond. I did not think the [office] closing caused anyone financial damage, or violated the duties of the Register of Deeds as outlined in in North Carolina General Statutes.”
As for the cost to taxpayers, that’s uncertain. While the potential cost for paying extra vacation time is about $480,000, Deutsch said that’s a “maximum,” and the final, actual number could vary — a lot.
“It could be zero,” he said.
While vacation time is a liability cost for county government, the cost is theoretical, depending on a variety of circumstances. All Buncombe employees were granted an additional 13 hours vacation time by commissioners, but that compensation will only end up costing taxpayers extra money under specific conditions, Deutsch said.
“Say a department is minimally staffed, and someone takes that 13 hours of vacation, and that department has to bring someone else in to cover [thus paying both the vacation time and the other employee],” said Deutsch. “That’s the only time it would cost taxpayers additional money. Hopefully our departments would be more than minimally staffed anyway.”
Regardless, he said, the county won’t know the exact cost of Reisinger’s decision until June 30, 2015, the end of the current fiscal year.
No matter what the final tally, the issue has generated confusion and anger from the public.
When contacted by the Xpress, Reisinger said that his office was one of several that closed on Feb. 12 and 13 during a state of emergency. According to him, while Buncombe County traditionally keeps offices technically open, even if not operational, there’s no set policy on whether or not an office can be closed during inclement weather or other emergency conditions.
“Based on the combination of written and unwritten policies,” said Reisinger, “it is reasonable for there to be ambiguity and questions on this issue. I did choose to close my office during the state of emergency because I had no staff who felt safe traveling during the snowstorm. [Deed] employees elected to take vacation time or leave without pay on Feb. 12 and 13.”
County Manager Wanda Greene, however, told Xpress: “Our policy is that we do not close, and no other offices have closed in the 20 years I have been with Buncombe County.”
“I have personally expressed to Greene,” said Reisinger, “and every commissioner my regret for any confusion this matter has caused [her], the commissioners and the public.”