Buncombe considers a pay raise for elections director

PAY RAISE: Buncombe County Board of Elections Chair Jake Quinn petitioned the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Jan. 2 to give Director of Elections Corinne Duncan a raise after the Elections Board approved one for her last June. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County

The Buncombe County Board of Elections thinks Director of Elections Corinne Duncan deserves a pay raise, but county staff isn’t so sure.

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners said it needs more time to consider the request for a less than $6,000 raise — about 5% — and put it off until its Jan. 16 meeting.

In a presentation to commissioners Jan. 2, county Human Resources Director Sharon Burke argued that Duncan’s salary falls within a range of similarly situated counties based on population and amount of registered voters, and therefore the county complies with state law.

Duncan makes about $109,222 annually. The Board of Elections is requesting she make $115,000, retroactive to July 1, 2023. The Elections Board passed a resolution asking for the director’s raise in June. A staff survey of comparative counties wasn’t completed until November, leading to the resolution coming before commissioners now, said Buncombe spokesperson Lillian Govus.

Unlike all other county department directors, whose salary is set by the county manager, the election director’s salary is recommended by the county board of elections and approved by the county commission, per state statute. The director’s salary “shall be commensurate with the salary paid to directors in counties similarly situated and similar in population and number of registered voters,” according to state law.

“Our director, who has been in the job now for four years, has stepped up to every single challenge that has come before her and has dealt with it in a highly effective fashion. She has a very smooth running operation,” said Board of Elections Chair Jake Quinn.

The county does not have a pay-for-performance program, meaning no bonus or salary increase is given to any employee based on superior performance, Burke said.

Quinn argued that when compared to the four North Carolina counties within 25% of Buncombe in both population and number of registered voters, Duncan’s salary falls below the average, which is roughly $125,000.

Quinn used New Hanover, Cumberland, Union and Durham counties in his comparison. Burke also included Johnston County, which is within 25% of Buncombe in population and just outside in number of registered voters, according to data collected from each county. Burke said that when outliers are removed from the compared group, Buncombe is right at the average. Pulling up the average is Durham’s director, who makes more than $182,000 annually.

Quinn said that when considering what counties constitute “similarly situated,” other factors such as number of ballot styles — determined by the complexity of overlapping districts within a county for a given election — or percentage of the population registered to vote also should be considered.

Quinn cited a lawsuit against Guilford County in 2014 in which a court ruled that its former elections director, George Gilbert, was not fairly compensated according to the law.

In that case, an appeals court defined “similarly situated” to include factors beyond population and registered voters, including “the percentage of population registered, the unusual degree of transience of population, the relative strength of political parties and the level of [dissension] between or among them and the complexity of the electoral districts for state, county and municipal offices.”

The court also said that the “comparable sophistication, politically and otherwise, of population and the degree of experience, effectiveness of work, and level of dedication exhibited” by the director should factor into their salary.

Quinn said Buncombe would qualify as sophisticated and complex for several reasons.

“I would speculate that Buncombe is going to have a more challenging environment than most because we seem to get targeted fairly regularly with changes in districts or changes in the way we are supposed to elect officials.”

County Attorney Michael Frue advised that the board stay within the confines of what constitutes similarly situated when setting salary, for which there is little guidance from the Court of Appeals.

“I am in no way prepared this evening to make a decision on this because we’ve raised even more questions than I think we have coming into this evening,” said Commissioner Amanda Edwards.

That sentiment was echoed by other commissioners, who requested that staff provide data beyond population and number of registered voters — such as number of ballot styles and voter turnout data — to help them decide at the Jan. 16 meeting.

Commissioner Martin Moore also requested a summary of the Guilford County case to review before making a decision.

In other news

WastePro is increasing its rates for residential trash and recycling pickup in Buncombe County.

Due to a $4.25 hike in Buncombe County’s landfill tipping fees and a 3.1% consumer price index increase for solid waste collection, each residential customer will pay $1.11 — 4.9% — more per month to have trash and recycling picked up this year.

Customers’ bill will be $23.66 a month starting Jan. 1, according to Chip Gingles, regional vice president of WastePro. According to its current contract with the county, tipping fees and consumer price index increases are the only justifications for a price increase year to year.

In November, WastePro proposed an 11% increase for its next contract, which would begin in 2025. The increase prompted the county to seek bids on the open market rather than renewing WastePro’s contract. The proposed increase amounted to a $3 monthly increase on each customer’s bill through 2028 to make up for labor costs and supply chain shortages, Gingles said at the time.

Commissioners also voted 6-0 to join a North Carolina investment pool that provides daily compounding interest for the county’s idle funds with no minimum investment and no transaction fees. Commission Chair Brownie Newman was absent.

The N.C. Cooperative Liquid Assets Securities System, or CLASS, local government investment pool was established in 2023 and includes five counties and 10 municipalities or special districts in its membership — including Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County — according to a presentation from Mason Scott, finance officer for Buncombe County.

Scott said he values the pool’s convenience, flexibility and competitive returns as an additional option for the county to increase its investment holdings.


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