Holding steady

Getting personnel: Commissioners Carol Peterson (right) and Holly Jones clashed over personnel issues; Peterson led a successful effort to delay any reductions to commissioner compensation. photo by Max Cooper

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners June 5, 2012 meeting

  • Commissioner candidates slam budget
  • Waste Pro gets 4 percent rate increase

Although a public hearing on the budget was on the June 5 agenda, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners didn't wait for residents to weigh in before diving into some of its most rancorous issues.

On a 3-2 vote, board members approved a motion by Commissioner Carol Peterson to maintain their compensation at existing levels at least through the November elections. Vice Chair Bill Stanley seconded the motion, and Commissioner K. Ray Bailey joined them in support. Board Chair David Gantt and Commissioner Holly Jones opposed it.

Despite reductions last year, the commissioners are still among the highest paid in the state, making $26,605 per year (including travel stipends and technology allowances). In February 2011, Fairview resident Mike Fryar — a frequent critic of the board’s spending who’s now a Republican candidate for the board in District 2 — raised the issue, sparking heavy public criticism. The commissioners quickly moved to slash their total compensation by $12,400.

At the board's May 20 meeting, however, Jones said they should go further, cutting their pay package to $22,000 per year, though she stopped short of making a formal motion. And on June 5, Peterson pre-emptively raised the issue, reading from a prepared statement.

"I've been reflecting on all the input and the questions on commissioner compensation," said Peterson, proposing that any decision about further changes be postponed until December, when the new board is sworn in.

"At that time, it's going to be a new ball game, a new day in Buncombe County,” she observed, adding, “The new board can adopt a new compensation structure.”

Stanley agreed, arguing, "They ought to have that opportunity." The longtime commissioner, who's planning to retire when his current term expires after 23 years on the job, added: "They may want to cut the salaries way down. … After they've been here a couple months, they may want to move them up. I think I've earned my money; I feel pretty strongly about that."

Jones, however, said she thought any such changes should be made as part of the budget process. And she urged Peterson to wait until after the public hearing to force a vote.

"I'd love to hear the public's input about it," she said. "That's part of how I process." But when Peterson refused, Jones added: "I was hoping to have this discussion two weeks from now [when commissioners are scheduled to vote on the budget]. … This sets it where we are, and I think that's excessive for our community."

Peterson then urged Jones to decide whether she was formally going to make a motion on another personnel measure she's been floating in recent weeks: Capping employee longevity bonuses at $3,000 per year. The cap would primarily affect the county's highest-paid and longest-working employees, whose bonuses amount to between 3 percent and 7 percent of their salaries, depending on when they were hired.

"I think we need to keep our word with these employees that they will be able to continue with this longevity package," Peterson asserted. "There's been a lot of unrest among county employees, and I would just like to put that to rest today. … The idea … is just not a good way to treat the people of Buncombe County."

Once again, however, Jones wanted to wait until the board's June 19 meeting to decide.

"I think it's a pretty good idea, but I'd like to hear from the public," she said, promising to come to that meeting armed with more data. "The ultimate tension we have in this office is trying to reward good performance but also be good stewards of the dollars of the people that put us in this office. It is never easy."

Jones added: "I will absolutely push back on this idea that having this conversation and putting forth this concern somehow should be translated as me not supporting employees. … We've got to get to a place where it's OK to have ideas, share ideas and talk honestly about our resources and what our citizens are facing."

But she was prepared to act on another issue: reducing how long new county employees must wait before receiving health insurance. The current budget proposal calls for cutting the waiting time from 180 days to 90 starting Jan. 1 — a year before federal law will require the county to do so.

Jones, however, proposed slashing the waiting period to just 30 days. "As a public-health-directed entity, we need to be modeling getting folks health insurance and coverage sooner rather than later," she maintained. No one seconded Jones' motion, however, so there was no vote.

Dollar holler

Jones found no support for the idea from the residents who spoke during the public hearing either.

"We do not need to give anyone insurance in 30 days. … Half of them can't find the bathroom in 30 days," Fryar declared. He also revisited the salary issue, calling the commissioners’ pay "wrong" and saying that if they’re doing it for the money, they "need to leave."

Meanwhile, Candler resident Linda Southard, a former Republican candidate for commissioner who lost in the May 8 primary, said the budget was irresponsible.

The $337.7 million proposal for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which begins July 1, holds the line on property taxes, using $8.3 million in reserve funds and projected economic growth to cover a 1 percent increase in spending.

Southard questioned the logic of relying on reserve funds, urging the commissioners to rethink staff salaries and benefits. Noting that the average county employee makes more than the average county resident, she observed, "I don't see how that is a sustainable situation."

Candler resident Jerry Rice echoed the call for fiscal restraint, urging the commissioners to cut property taxes. "This budget needs to go to revenue-neutral," he maintained.

Rice also expressed frustration with the commissioners' focus on personnel and political concerns. "These issues that have been brought up today are just a smoke screen for the real issue, which is Buncombe County has been spending money, and plenty of it, for year after year after year," he charged.

Trash talk

On a 3-2 vote, the commissioners approved a 4 percent rate increase for Waste Pro, a private contractor providing trash and recycling pickup in unincorporated areas of the county. Peterson and Gantt cast votes against the measure; Peterson said she thought it would place an undue burden on residents. The change will increase the basic monthly rate from $14.20 to $14.77.

Bob Christy, Waste Pro's municipal marketing director, was pushing for an 8 percent increase, which he said was needed to offset the rising price of fuel and other costs. The new rate will probably take effect this fall.

The board also unanimously approved three other measures:
• selling a building and 0.49 acres of adjacent county-owned property at 34 Compton Drive to Eliada Homes for $279,650;
• accepting a $5 million state grant to help fund a wastewater pre-treatment system and an additional bioreactor at the county landfill;
• applying for roughly $333,000 in state Rural Operating Assistance Program grants for Mountain Mobility, the county's transit system.

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

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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