The director of Parks and Recreation for Robeson County stood before the county commissioners during their retreat on Friday and said her department couldn’t manage without the occasional crumb tossed its way from their discretionary funds.
While the commissioners interpreted this as a defense of their discretionary funds, it was a condemnation: What the director was actually saying is that her department is underfunded. If you want some numbers, consider these: The commissioners’ discretionary funds, which add up to $320,000 a year combined, represent about 40 percent of the entire $806,000 budget that the Parks and Recreation Department has this year to provide recreation to 135,000 county residents while also maintaining 27 parks.
Parks and Recreation isn’t the only department starved for funding.
The irony was unseen by most commissioners as they have been blinded by their quest to protect their discretionary funds and their outlandish pay and benefits.
Commissioner Raymond Cummings even announced during the retreat that he has not had a single call from a resident complaining about the discretionary fund. We find that claim incredible, but will offer three theories: Perhaps residents don’t have faith in Cummings to give them a hearing, so why bother? Perhaps the same thing happens to them that happens to us when we call his cell number — (910) 827-4479 — and no one answers. Perhaps Cummings is loose with the truth.
A county commissioner months ago told us privately that he was convinced the commissioners would go to the mat to protect their discretionary funds, saying they are great for buying support for re-election. The average term length of a county commissioner is more than a decade, so the strategy seems to be working.
The appearance by the Parks and Recreation director was part of a choreographed effort by the commissioners to protect their discretionary funds, which included a presentation by the county’s finance director about how tidy it all works. But somehow the state’s other 99 counties are able to direct money to needs through the budgetary process and without the use of discretionary funds.
Let us be clear because some commissioners have purposely muddied the water: This newspaper does not argue that the discretionary money doesn’t do good work in this county. Our complaint is the excessive amount of money in the funds, that they are distributed in the dark — and that their clear intent is to help commissioners curry favor with constituencies.
Cummings chose the retreat to launch an offensive, taking aim at this newspaper by saying that we are trumping up an issue and intentionally being “divisive.” But a poll we conducted showed 85 percent of respondents unifying in their opposition to the discretionary funds.
Cummings did show some moxie by calling out a newspaper that buys ink in 55-gallon drums. But we will make this public offer to provide space on our Opinion page to Cummings and any other or all of the commissioners for a guest column to explain to our readers why commissioners in the poorest county in the state and one of the most heavily taxed should take $320,000 from the General Fund to grease palms as they please, and why they should be compensated in pay and benefits like no commissioners elsewhere in the state.
We aren’t fortified by a river of ink; rather, we have the moral high ground. We know that, you know that, and the commissioners know that, which has left them squirming in an effort to maintain the status quo.
It is an unseemly sight.