LUMBERTON — County Manager Ricky Harris has started his investigation of other North Carolina counties to compare the pay and perks of their commissioners with Robeson County’s, but he will not look at the $320,000 a year this county commissioners receive to dish out as they please.
“But I’m not looking into how the commissioners use discretionary funds,” Harris said Friday. “I’m doing what I was advised to do. I was not instructed to look into discretionary funds.”
Harris said he is interpreting Commissioner Tom Taylor’s motion made at Tuesday’s meeting as not to include a review of discretionary funds. He said that he is looking into the salaries, travel stipends, retirement benefits and health insurance offered to commissioners in other counties.
Taylor, however, told a reporter for The Robesonian at the close of last week’s meeting that he intended to include a review of discretionary funds in his motion Taylor, when reached on Friday, said he knew there was confusion, and that his motion did not specifically include the discretionary fund, but said he would push for that to happen.
On Tuesday, Commissioner David Edge made a motion to immediately cut the annual discretionary fund from $40,000 to $20,000 for each commissioner, but only Taylor voted in support. A substitute motion by Raymond Cummings that the discretionary fund be looked at by Harris didn’t get a second.
Harris said his study will include contacting the N.C.. Association of Commissioners to get the latest information related to salaries, travel stipend, health insurance and retirement. As of Friday, he had emailed the association to obtain information.
According to Harris, a large part of his study will include gathering information from counties surrounding Robeson, as well as counties across the state that are similar to Robeson in size.
“I’ll bring back the the details,” he said.
Harris, who was hired by the county Board of Commissioners early this year after serving as interim manager for more than a year, said that will not affect his approach.
“The study will be done,” he said. “Of course what the commissioners do with it will be their decision.”
He said he didn’t know how long the study would take.
“It will all depend on how quickly the information comes in,” Harris said. “But it won’t be finished by the next commissioners meeting.” The next meeting of the commissioners is Sept. 17.
The commissioners have historically approved pay increases and enhancements to their benefits by sticking them in the budget, and without discussion in open session. The budget that took effect on July 1 included a $600 a year pay increase for each commissioner and raised the discretionary fund from $240,000 a year to $320,000, giving each commissioner an increase from $30,000 to $40,000.
Several experts on constitutional law have told The Robesonian the process the commissioners use of giving themselves raises and enhancing benefits is probably legal, it is not transparent, and violates the spirit of open government.
Kara Millonzi, an instructor on government finance law at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government in Chapel Hill, said a single commissioner being able to distribute taxpayer money without approval of other commissioners does not comply with laws regulating the budget process.
“That’s not the way the process is set up,” she said.
Millonzi said the proper procedure would be for the commissioners to approve a budget amendment to provide money to an organization or project.
A informal study by The Robesonian has shown that the commissioners are the fourth highest paid in the state, their travel stipend of $700 per month is the highest in the state, and their retirement and health benefits are more lucrative than those in surrounding counties and some of the state’s wealthiest counties.
The Robesonian could not find another county in the state that has a discretionary fund for use by their commissioners.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or email@example.com.