LUMBERTON — The county commissioners didn’t discuss their pay or benefits during their annual three-day retreat, but on Friday, the last day of the retreat, they did discuss their discretionary funds — and the consensus seemed to be that there is no problem.
One commissioner blamed the media, specifically The Robesonian, for trumping up the issue.
Commissioner Tom Taylor said that he has received two calls from people asking questions about discretionary funds. After explaining his position, both callers were satisfied, Taylor said.
“This is just being used as a divisive issue by the media to divide the community,” Commissioner Raymond Cummings said. “I haven’t had the first call about the funds. The people know that they are helped by these funds.”
Cummings said The Robesonian is to blame for negativity that is now swirling around a practice that has been the norm in Robeson County for years.
“This is just negativity from the newspaper,” Cumming said. “This is not a paper that tries to support unity.”
The Robesonian conducted an unscientific poll at robesonian.com last year, asking readers: “Do you think that each county commissioner should have a $40,000 discretionary fund?” There were 733 responses to the poll, with 85 percent saying no, 11 percent saying yes, and 4 percent saying they don’t know.
Kellie Blue, the county’s finance director, defended the county’s system of administering discretionary funds, saying that to try to create a general account code and budget line item for each group that receives discretionary funds has the “potential to be a nightmare.”
“There are other counties and cities that have discretionary funds, although they may call it something else and do it another way,” she said.
Blue outlined for the commissioners the way that discretionary funds are recorded and distributed. She said the process is the same as with any other check, and those who receive any of the funds have to file a W-9 form.
“We don’t have different books for discretionary funds,” she said.
The commissioners each receive $40,000 a year in a discretionary fund, a bump of $10,000 each for the current fiscal year — $320,000 a year total. The money is disbursed without a vote of the board, often to nonprofits such as fire departments and schools. If a commissioner does not spend all the money during a fiscal year, it rolls over to the next fiscal year.
The Robesonian last year looked at other counties and couldn’t find another with a discretionary fund for its commissioners. The city of Lumberton has a more modest fund, with each council member receiving $4,000 a year, money that can only be distributed with a full vote of the board.
During her presentation to the board on Friday, Wendy Chavis, director of the county’s Parks and Recreation, emphasized the importance of the discretionary funds to her department.
“If I didn’t have discretionary funds, our kids in the county would be without recreation,” Chavis said. “Recreation is a big part of everyday life.”
Chavis said that she uses the discretionary funds, along with whatever financial and labor donations she receives from the community, to provide for programs, equipment, and other expenses that are not covered in her budget. She said her current budget of $806,330 includes $400,000 in salaries for 11 full-time employees and two part-time employees.
Chavis said that her department funds all of the county’s sporting activities and maintains all of the county’s 27 parks.
Blue told the commissioners Friday that the county is in “good fiscal shape.” She said that for the fourth year in a row, the county is receiving a clean audit.
Blue encouraged the commissioners to think “conservatively” as they begin preparing the county’s 2013-14 fiscal budget.
“I know there will be some capital needs to fund, but try to keep the budget about where it is now,” she said.
Blue also told the commissioners to encourage departments to provide realistic budgets during the beginning of the budget process so that when the fiscal budget is adopted, the departments will not have to come back mid-year requesting more money.
“We want to be able to work within our budget with no surprises,” Blue said.
During the last day of the retreat, in the commissioners also heard reports from Jimmy Williamson, the county’s communications director, and Cathy Graham, executive director of the county’s Cooperative Extension Center.
County Manager Ricky Harris and interim Assistant County Manager Charles Britt made presentations.
“This is the only county that I know of that has cut taxes each of the past two years and still given employees a raise,” Harris said.