Pay dismay

Board games? Buncombe County commissioners came under fire for being among the state's top paid commissioners at a time when the county faces major budget cuts. County Manager Wanda Greene proposed that the county hire a third party to analyze how the pay of Buncombe’s department heads compares to those of the rest of the state. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
Board games? Buncombe County commissioners came under fire for being among the state's top paid commissioners at a time when the county faces major budget cuts. County Manager Wanda Greene proposed that the county hire a third party to analyze how the pay of Buncombe’s department heads compares to those of the rest of the state. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Feb. 15 meeting

  • Three Sheriff’s Office staffers get $12,000 raises
  • Western Highlands Network seeks to expand reach
  • Buncombe leads state in number of adult-care homes

After enduring a week of public criticism over their compensation, the Buncombe County commissioners gave themselves a hefty pay cut. On Feb. 15, they unanimously approved slashing their travel stipends by 50 percent (from $650 to $325 biweekly) and their technology allowances by 85 percent (from $175 to $25 biweekly). All told, each commissioner will receive $12,400 less per year.

County Manager Wanda Greene proposed the measure after a Feb. 6 Asheville Citizen-Times article reported that, including the stipends, Buncombe’s commissioners were among the highest-paid in the state.

The commissioners’ actual salaries haven’t changed. Board Chair David Gantt is paid $26,019 annually, Vice Chair Bill Stanley gets $21,762 and the other three commissioners receive $17,505. Gantt said he believes those numbers are in line with what other Tar Heel commissioners get paid (see sidebar, “How Buncombe’s Salaries Compare”). Greene also recommended hiring a third party to analyze how the commissioners’ and department heads’ salaries compare to those of their counterparts elsewhere in the state. The board agreed and asked staff to report back.

"We want you to know that we understand we're paid well," noted Gantt. "And we want you to understand that we are public servants." He went on to describe the vote as "the first time in known history that Buncombe County officials have reduced their pay."

The commissioners also unanimously agreed to cancel the 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment the county's 1,500 employees were slated to receive in April.

Greene had recommended the move, saying she couldn't justify the routine increase (based on the 2010 inflation rate) at a time when she's asking department heads to slice their budgets by up to 10 percent to address the county's fiscal challenges.

For unstated reasons, the commissioners chose to include both cuts in their consent agenda, which did not allow for immediate public comment. That didn't sit well with many in attendance, who had packed the chamber hoping to speak out about the commissioners' compensation.

Eventually they got their chance, but only after waiting two hours for the commissioners to complete their other business. And when it was finally time for a general public-comment session that Gantt described as an "open mic," they got an earful.

"I'm appalled. This is larceny by pen; this is corruption!" Weaverville resident Dixie Barkdoll declared, adding, "I ask that you all resign."

Hope Garrett of West Asheville echoed that sentiment, telling the commissioners she "didn't think the cut was enough" and likening the board to a "dictatorship."

By the time Candler resident Jerry Rice stood up to speak, some board members appeared frustrated by the continuing verbal assault. Things seemed to reach a boiling point as Rice proclaimed, "Figures don't lie, but liars figure."

"We're not going to do personal attacks," a red-in-the-face Gantt exclaimed before having Rice escorted from the chamber.

That didn't stop the metaphorical beating, however, as Chad Nesbitt, chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party, stood up to demand that Stanley resign, based on his previous comment (reported in the Citizen-Times) that he "wouldn't work for a penny less."

Stanley countered that hoping he would resign was "wishful thinking."

"The majority of people put me in here, and the majority of people will take me out — maybe," he continued.

Stanley also implied that the charges were political in nature, saying, "This salary thing never came up when we had Republicans on this board. Y’all don't want to fuss with nobody but Democrats," he added.

A major pay raise

Complaints about the commissioners’ pay were first raised at the board's Feb. 1 meeting by Mike Fryar, a former Republican candidate for commissioner. And on this day, Fryar told the commissioners that the cuts weren't enough.

“You have reduced yourself down from an E-Class Mercedes to a small Lexus,” he observed.

Fryar also complained about substantial raises for three majors in the Sheriff's Office that had been approved a few days earlier, saying it would cause someone else to lose a job.

Sheriff Van Duncan denied the charge, however, saying no one would be laid off because of the pay increases. In fact, he continued, due to attrition and a reshuffling of positions, the office is in a position to "return savings to the county of $18,000.”

The $12,819 raises will bring the three majors’ annual salaries up to $92,148.

Acknowledging that it "wasn't a good time to do this," Duncan explained that the raises had been in the works for years and were needed to pay these staffers fairly for their work. The sheriff also revealed that he’s considering cutting his own salary, which now stands at $117,448 per year, according to the county’s Human Resources Department. In addition, Duncan gets a biweekly cell-phone allowance of $175, a biweekly travel stipend of $449.62 and a $500 annual clothing allowance.

"As we move forward, I'm considering reducing my pay," he noted, adding, "I think we have to look at some reductions in this climate."

Western Highlands to expand?

In other business, the commissioners:
• Heard an appeal by the Western Highlands Network to approve a “Medicaid waiver” enabling the company to manage and authorize all Medicaid behavioral-health services in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancey counties. According to Western Highlands, the measure would increase local control over $130 million to $150 million in behavioral-health services and create about 50 new jobs. The WNC Health Network, which represents hospitals across the region, has endorsed the measure. For the waiver to take effect, all eight counties would have to approve it. The commissioners scheduled a March 1 public hearing and vote on the matter.
• Heard a report by the N.C. Institute of Medicine's Task Force on the Co-location of Different Populations in Adult Care Homes. According to a study conducted by the group, more than 60 percent of the state’s adult- and family-care home residents have “a mental illness, intellectual or developmental disabilities, or Alzheimer’s disease/dementia.” This can pose "a threat to the health and safety of other residents, especially the frail elderly, other people with disabilities, and staff,” it concludes. The study also notes that Buncombe has more adult-care homes than any other county in the state.
• Unanimously approved construction of a new visitor center with restrooms at Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville, to be paid for by a $500,000 grant from the Tourism Development Authority.

— 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 journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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