LUMBERTON — The county commissioners tonight get their first look at a proposed budget by County Manager Ricky Harris as they begin work on the document that takes effect July 1.
The work session, which begins at 6:30 p.m., is at the Emergency Operations Center beside the Robeson County jail. The public is welcome to attend. Harris said a reporter for The Robesonian would be provided a copy of what he calls a “working document” for the meeting.
Harris did not want to provide details of his plan in advance of the commissioners seeing it, but did call it “no frills.”
The county tax rate for the current fiscal year is 77 cents for every $100 of property, which is the 17th highest property tax rate in the state.
Chairman Noah Woods has said commissioners would take a look at their pay, benefits and discretionary fund while preparing the 2013-14 budget. The Robesonian during the last 10 months has reported that the commissioners’ pay and a $700 a month stipend add up to the fourth highest compensation for commissioners across the state.
Additionally, the commissioners receive free health insurance for themselves and their families, a perk The Robesonian newspaper could find nowhere else. The individual health insurance follows commissioners when they leave the board if they have enough service.
The commissioners had a deferred compensation plan that allowed them to continue to draw a salary after they left the board, but they scuttled it after The Robesonian reported that it existed. The Robesonian could not find another board of commissioners whose members have a retirement plan supported by taxpayer dollars.
The commissioners also each have a $40,000-a-year discretionary fund with money they can distribute as they wish without a vote of the board. Unspent money rolls over to the next year. The Robesonian could not find another county with a discretionary fund, but the Lumberton City Council has one that provides $4,000 a year to each member. The council’s policy is that money can only be distributed by a unanimous vote.
The commissioners last fall directed Harris to have his staff conduct a study of pay and benefits that other North Carolina county commissioners receive, which was completed and given to them in November. It has not been made public, but Harris said it doesn’t differ greatly from what The Robesonian reported. Harris said his budget proposal makes no recommendations concerning the commissioners’ pay, benefits and discretionary funds.
More recently, the commissioners informally enlisted Tony Normand, an Alabama resident who was once executive director of COMtech, to gather information they might consider regarding their compensation and discretionary funds. Normand told this newspaper he was speaking with people in the community, and considering factors such as the size of the county and population in putting together his recommendations.
Harris said Normand’s recommendations were communicated to the commissioners “verbally” so it was unclear if the media will have access to them.
The commissioners have built their pay and benefits through the budget process, without public discussion. After the commissioners came under fire, Woods, the chairman, said that would change this time.
“I know that in the future we are going to make sure that the people know what is going on,” Woods said last fall. “From now on, everything will be out on the table.”
Plans are for no more than two budget work sessions, but Harris said that depends on how quickly the document comes together. A second workshop has not yet been scheduled.