Pay to stay

Cause for concern: Commissioner Holly Jones said she doesn’t think many of the county’s personnel policies are fair, including making new employees wait six months for health-insurance benefits. Photo by Bill Rhodes
Cause for concern: Commissioner Holly Jones said she doesn’t think many of the county’s personnel policies are fair, including making new employees wait six months for health-insurance benefits. Photo by Bill Rhodes

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Jan. 10, 2012 meeting

  • Jones questions two-tiered benefits
  • Emotional meeting abruptly concluded


Tensions ran high as the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners met Jan. 10 to consider employee-compensation policy.

In a memo to the commissioners and the county manager last month, as well as an email newsletter to supporters, Commissioner Holly Jones criticized the county's two-tiered system of health-insurance benefits and longevity pay, which gives employees hired before certain dates more extensive coverage and bigger bonuses.

And though she didn't mention County Manager Wanda Greene by name, Jones did allude to problems with her leadership, condemning a lack of transparency in the county's budget process and the decision to increase longevity pay. "Sadly," wrote Jones, “a major new ($540,000) personnel expense, which requires full public vetting during the budget process, was neither disclosed in any budget documents or hearing nor was it even mentioned to me prior to our budgetary vote.”

Jones also maintained that since last February, when she learned that she and her fellow commissioners were among the highest paid in the state, she’d felt a need to be more vigilant in scrutinizing personnel policy. (After the news broke, they slashed their own pay and stipends and allocated $150,000 for an extensive compensation study.)

On Jan. 10, consultant Drake Maynard, Human Resources Manager Lisa Eby and Social Services Director Mandy Stone, reported on the study’s initial phase, which focused on the Health and Human Services Department. Efforts to improve worker recruitment and retention have mostly been successful, they said: Since initiating a new recruitment-and-retention plan in 2005, the county has saved money by attracting more experienced applicants and reducing turnover. This has been achieved by bringing compensation in line with what the state's other more populous counties offer, noted Stone.

In 2006, she said, just 31 percent of social worker applicants had prior experience in the field; last year, 100 percent did. Experienced workers are cheaper and easier to train and tend to have higher retention rates, Stone explained, resulting in better service and savings of roughly $1.28 million over five years.

Challenges remain in other divisions, however. For nutritionists in the Women, Infants and Children program, "The turnover rate is 40 to 60 percent. It's unacceptable," noted Eby.

Jones called the report "fantastic," peppering staff with questions about how to address the challenges and make further progress. "I'm wide open to thinking through how we develop a menu that meets those different needs, not one-size-fits-all," she said.

“A bad, bad message”

But when Greene later asked the commissioners how they'd like to proceed with compensation studies for other departments, Jones appeared frustrated.

"I hope we will fix our policy. … When you have a six-month waiting period for health insurance, it's wrong," she asserted. "We're going to be forced to go to three months, thank gosh, because the federal government tells us to. … But that's not a recruitment tool: That's pitiful."

Jones also second-guessed the commissioners' unanimous decision last year freezing entry-level pay.

"I didn't ask enough questions about that," she said. "I didn't understand … what that meant to attract EMS workers, the skilled people in public health that we need. … I now know that that was a bad, bad message; I hope we can undo that as a board."

In addition, Jones said the county's two-tiered system of health-insurance benefits and longevity pay "doesn't seem fair; that doesn't seem like a very good recruitment tool. We have to protect our taxpayers and our investments, but let's do it right."

Tension mounted as Jones asserted that her asking questions is being interpreted as a threat.

"It makes me so irritated to feel like asking questions somehow means I'm going to try to destroy a system, or undermine employees. I'm asking questions, and I'm going to keep on asking questions. That's what I was elected to do, in my humble opinion," she declared. "Let's celebrate the milestones we've reached, but what about going forward?"

Workers with benefits

Greene, however, defended the personnel policies, many of which she’s orchestrated.

"Most counties have gone to a two-tiered system, whether it’s longevity or vacations," she said. "We have 1,400 employees, and they do feel like their benefits are being threatened. It makes it hard to keep morale up and keep them working and focused. … They love the work they do … and I'm proud of them. I'm proud of the packages we put together and how we changed them going forward."

Tearing up as she spoke, Greene added: "This is really emotional for me. But thank you for supporting the work force, and I'd love for them to feel confident that they can depend on the benefit package that they have and can get back completely focused on work."

Commissioner Carol Peterson’s eyes were also wet as she noted that several county department heads were present. "To be hurt in any way by this commissioner — or by the majority of the commissioners sitting here — as far as your compensation package, your work conditions, I want you to leave here today and spread the word that in this commissioner's opinion, that's not going to happen," she proclaimed. "I want each of you to know how much we appreciate you."

Over the objections of Jones and board Chair David Gantt, Vice Chair Bill Stanley then made a motion to adjourn that was supported by Peterson and Commissioner K. Ray Bailey.

Technically, the meeting was a continuation of the Jan. 3 session, so the commissioners chose not to include a public-comment period. The compensation report wasn’t on the Jan. 3 agenda, and there was no agenda for the Jan. 10 continuation.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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