It was an evening of audible scoffs and barely stifled jeers.
About a dozen residents calling themselves “angry Buncombe County taxpayers” brought their concerns to the Aug. 21 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting, the second since a new federal indictment brought charges against three former county officials. The residents carried signs calling for the county to conduct a forensic audit and for citizens to vote for Republicans during the upcoming election.
“End Democrat corruption,” one of the signs read. “Drain the swamp in Buncombe County.”
“We demand a forensic audit,” read another.
While a forensic audit was one of the topics of discussion that evening, commissioners spent a larger chunk of the meeting weighing the merits of several amendments to the county’s personnel policy. Commissioners ultimately shot down half the changes proposed by George Wood, the county’s interim manager.
On the merits
In a memo to commissioners before the meeting, Wood recommended that the county move to a merit-based system of salary adjustments rather than an automatic cost-of-living adjustment for all employees tied to the consumer price index.
Commissioner Ellen Frost argued that doing away with the automatic COLA would hurt county employees. “Employees need security now,” she said. “They were led by a group of thieving schemers. … Buncombe County employees are taxpayers too, and we need to show them that we have their back.”
Wood said the proposed change would not do away with raises. Most local government institutions, he said, make a decision about raises on a yearly basis rather than instituting automatic increases. “I’m not aware of any other places aside from y’all that have a mandatory COLA,” he said, “and that’s what this is. It’s a mandatory COLA.”
Commissioner Mike Fryar said he has been fighting the county on the issue of pay raises for a long time. An across-the-board 2 percent raise, for example, disproportionately helps people in the upper echelons of county government, he said. He said he would like to see a system in which county employees at the lower end of the pay scale receive a higher percentage raise than employees at the top end of the pay scale.
Commissioner Al Whitesides said he would be more likely to remove the COLA if commissioners had something to replace it with immediately. He said he believes the board will have to reckon with the system in the future. “COLA wasn’t set up for all of the employees,” Whitesides said. “It was set up to pad the pockets of the people at the top. … When you look at the way the county has been run in the past, everything was set up for the people making the most money. That’s obvious with what we’re going through. We have to deal with COLA whether we want to or not.”
Despite a 6-1 vote to retain the COLA — with Fryar voting against — the board seemed to agree it would need to reconsider the issue in the future.
The buck stops here
The county finance director now reports jointly to the county manager and the Board of Commissioners; Wood’s proposal would have changed that structure to the manager only.
“I don’t think it’s a good system of government to give so much power to the county manager in lieu of the finance director,” Frost said. “We’ve seen what happens with a county manager that has unbridled power and authority. … I want to keep this from ever happening again.”
Frost argued that having the finance director report to the commissioners gives the finance director more authority and more leeway to respond to wrongdoing.
Commissioner Joe Belcher, however, said the position had become too independent.
“I don’t like the current setup where the finance director appeared to be an island out there by themselves and did not have any discipline that I felt could be delivered under the authority of a good county manager,” he said.
Commissioners ultimately voted against the proposed amendment 4-3. The county’s new finance director, a position the county is still trying to fill, will report jointly to the board and the county manager. Former Finance Director Tim Flora, who worked for the county for 10 years, resigned effective June 15.
Commissioners also voted 6-1 to make it easier for the county manager to fire an employee accused of a severe offense. Under the previous policy, the county could fire an employee only if the staffer had two previous write-ups and a third pending.
“That’s fine on small offenses,” Wood said. “But what if we found that somebody else was stealing from the county? Do you really want my hands tied that I can’t fire them?” Under this change, Wood said, employees would still be notified of the offense and provided with the opportunity to defend themselves.
Frost, who was the only commissioner who voted against the change, said she would like to see a more precise definition of the offenses that would warrant termination upon the first offense. “We just had a manger that did this to people willy-nilly, and that’s what makes me give pause,” Frost said.
Wood said it’s ultimately up to the board to control the manager.
“If you start having problems where the manager is willy-nilly firing people left and right,” he said, “you have a management problem, and that’s your job to fix that. But you don’t tie the hands of your manager and say, ‘You can’t get rid of somebody who’s doing something seriously wrong.’”
An amendment designed to protect the internal audit director from retaliatory action by county officials received the commissioners’ unanimous support. The change transfers the responsibility for disciplining the internal auditor to the county audit committee.
In other business
- Commissioners discussed conducting a forensic audit of the county’s finances following allegations of fraud against former County Manager Wanda Greene and other former county officials. The board did not take any official action, but commissioners seemed to agree that the county should wait until an ongoing federal investigation wraps up before moving forward with an audit of that magnitude. More info here.
- After listening to presentations from the two finalists before the meeting, the board selected executive search firm Slavin Management Consultants to identify candidates and select finalists for the open county manager position.
- Asheville resident Sydney Bach asked board Chair Brownie Newman, who is a partner and founder of Headwaters Solar, to recuse himself from voting on a lease of county-owned land to Duke Energy for the purpose of constructing a solar farm. Newman said he would not benefit financially from the project and voted on the agenda item. The lease passed unanimously.