ASHEVILLE N.C.— Buncombe County Commission Chair Brownie Newman is asking fellow commissioners to make additional changes to the county’s personnel ordinance. In the wake of the revelation that former County Manager Wanda Greene netted more than $1.6 million over the past four years, Newman wants to put a moratorium on cost-of-living adjustments for department heads and senior leadership, among other proposals.
However, Newman says he is getting pushback and does not have a majority of commissioners in his corner. “I really don’t know. I talked to everybody last week and they seemed to be on board,” says Newman, adding that he’s open to working out the details with other members of the board.
“I thought it was coming forward in unanimous context, but I cannot speak for the other commissioners. At this point, several are objecting to it being discussed,” says Newman.
In the letter, Newman cites “eroding public trust” as a reason to take these steps. When asked what that means, Newman tells Xpress he thinks people are “angry and concerned,” noting he’s received many calls and emails expressing disappointment concerning bonuses and raises doled out by Greene.
Early this year, Xpress looked at how Greene, who is currently under investigation by the FBI, distributed 1.5 percent raises that commissioners had specified should go to the county’s lowest-paid employees. Only 16 percent of that money went to lower-wage workers, with six-figure earners getting 28 percent of the total.
Other aspects of Newman’s proposal include:
- “Commission direction to our county manager to create a plan to reduce the overall cost to taxpayers for compensation of the senior management team through restructuring, adjustments to salary, attrition or other approaches. These adjustments should be sufficient to recover the salary bonuses received by members of senior management.
- “Timely completion of a county employee compensation study for higher- and lower-paid county employees. The manager is instructed to update the commission on the status of the salary study within 90 days. The former manager was instructed to direct the 1.5 percent to the lowest paid employees last year. It is the intent of this board that the plan include consideration of retroactive adjustments to 1.5 percent increases for lower paid employees.
- “The commission has changed the personnel ordinance to remove the discretion of the county manager to award bonuses or incentives except performance bonuses not to exceed $1,000 that will be publicly awarded and recognized.
- “Effective July 1, 2017 the commission directed the county manager to eliminate all supplemental and dual role pay supplements.
- “The commission has directed the county manager to ensure salaries are posted and accessible to the public.
- “The commission will annually review the salaries and performance of all positions that report directly to them and publicly report any contractual changes in regard to these positions.”
Newman also wants commissioners’ salaries lowered to better reflect the county’s population. Buncombe County is the state’s sixth largest, but its pay for commissioners is the fourth highest, according to Newman, who wants a 25 percent reduction in his salary and a 17 percent for the rest of the commission. “I’m simply trying to bring Buncombe County in line with where we should be,” he says.
However, while Newman says he had hoped discussion on his proposals would take place during the commissioners’ official meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 17, he says he is willing to put the proposals on the board’s next formal agenda in November. As chair, Newman can put any issue on the agenda as long as he proposes it a week before the meeting. In this case, he says he submitted the proposal on time, but then made changes based on feedback from staff and other commissioners. At that point, he says, other commissioners considered it a new proposal and therefore not eligible for the Oct. 17 agenda.
“I don’t want to speak for other commissioners, but I can tell you who objects,” he says, noting that only Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara supports the proposal as-is.
“When I talked to everyone, they said it was good. Frankly, people change their minds,” laments Newman.
“All commissioners have expressed concerns about this. The question is what can we do to address it going forward. People want to see us do whatever we can. This is in our control,” says Newman.
However, Commissioner Mike Fryar has another take on the additional personnel ordinance change proposals. “We have a staff working on that stuff and they are doing a great job. It’s not the commissioners’ place to step in,” he tells Xpress. “When you give somebody a job, it’s their job. If you want to make suggestions, fine, but you don’t bring them to an agenda.”
Commissioner Ellen Frost says she has not seen the proposed changes and wants more time to process the information. “I don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction,” she explains. “It’s important that we act responsibly. Wanda Greene did something wrong, not the employees.”
Fryar adds that this is a process that needs room to breathe. “It’s a new day in Buncombe County. Is it going to be easy? No. Will it take awhile? Yes. [County staff] has to get across hurdles,” he said, adding that after staff presents its recommendations, he will add his suggestions. Until then he wants employees doing the heavy lifting.
“It’s not for [Commission Chair Newman] to make that decision. There’s seven of us,” Fryar says.
You can see Newman’s entire proposal here.
Earlier this year, Xpress took an in-depth look at county salaries and benefits and how they match up with other counties across the Tar Heel State. (See “Let’s get personnel: How Buncombe County employee salaries compare to state averages“)
Commissioners will meet on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 5 p.m.