LUMBERTON — More than 20 representatives of organizations that benefit from the country’s discretionary funds went to the podium Monday one-by-one to praise the county Board of Commissioners for its support, but they didn’t have anything to say about the commissioners’ pay and benefits.
During public comments at Monday’s meeting, 21 speakers spoke, but only three spoke out strongly against the current policy of each commissioner having $40,000 to distribute to their pet projects without approval from the rest of the board. The commissioners’ benefits package — including a salary and travel stipend that adds up to the fourth highest in the state, free health insurance for family members, and a retirement plan— was only mentioned by a couple of critics who spoke.
About 125 people, many having to stand outside the packed commissioners room of the county administration building on North Elm Street, listened as a majority of the speakers praised the commissioners for using their money to fund everything from recreation programs, school projects and volunteer fire houses, to feeding and housing the county’s poor, and providing Valentine’s Day and Christmas parties for the elderly. Occasionally there were cheers from several in the crowd when a speaker would mention the commissioners’ benefits and challenge the board to bring them in line with those received by commissioners in surrounding counties.
Although some in the crowd wanted the commissioners to respond to comments made during the meeting, the commissioners followed their policy of not directly responding to the public during a monthly meeting. Speakers were told they could address the board for only three minutes, although the rule was not enforced.
“The commissioners will listen and look at your concerns in due course,” County Attorney Hal Kinlaw told the crowd before the parade to the podium began.
While more speakers spoke in favor of the discretionary funds, the greatest number of cheers game when the commissioners were challenged to publicly defend their use of discretionary money and their pay and benefits.
A newly formed group, Citizens for Integrity in Government, had urged those who are frustrated with the way their county government operates to attend Monday’s commissioners meeting. Lynn Locklear, the group’s leader, told the commissioners that the “citizens deserve more respect than the silence from this body concerning its compensation package and discretionary funds process over the past six months.”
“Our commissioners are politicians and not leaders,” he said. “… A simple concept in leadership learned from service in the infantry is that leaders allow all their subordinates to eat first before they themselves share in the meal.”
Locklear called on the commissioners to make changes in their compensation and the way they handle discretionary funds.
“We the citizens, who work and pay taxes to fund this county government, will not let this problem go away until we have answers, until we have change, until it is fixed,” he said. “Therefore, we the citizens will continue with this inquisition into commissioners’ compensation package and discretionary funds … until you take action deemed appropriate by the citizenry and satisfy our desire to see your compensation aligned to match county performance and the discretionary funds process abolished.”
In a statement sent to The Robesonian by Locklear after the meeting, the Citizens for Integrity in Government said that Woods, as the board’s chairman, failed to present a defense for either the compensation or benefits package. The statement said that those defending the use of the discretionary money offered no “credible defense” for a discretionary funds process that “lacks checks and balances.”
The commissioners’ use of discretionary funds and their benefits package have been an issue since The Robesonian reported last year that no other county commissioners in North Carolina have discretionary funds, and that Robeson County’s commissioners have some of the highest pay and best benefits in the state.
The commissioners reacted by asking County Manager Ricky Harris to conduct an independent study, which he presented to them in November. The commissoners have yet to take action or discuss the study publicly, but Harris has said his findings were not significantly different than what The Robesonian reported.
Noah Woods, the board’s chairman, has said that the issues will be addressed before the adoption of the next fiscal budget that goes into effect July 1.
Among those defending the use of discretionary money was the Rev. Kenneth Locklear, chairman of the Robeson County Church and Community Center, and the center’s director Darlene Jacobs. Both told the commissioners that the more than $32,000 in discretionary money the center has received since 2005 has gone a long way in providing food, heat and shelter for many of Robeson County’s poor people.
Ardeen Hunt, a retired administrator from the Public Schools of Robeson County, compared the commissioners’ discretionary funds to funds given to school principals to use for certain purposes.
“It gives you flexibility,” Hunt told the board.
Hunt said that the process of putting discretionary money that goes for uses in specific districts into the county’s budget would ensure the funds don’t get lost in red tape. As an example, he said that if this kind of funding was put in the school district’s $200 million budget, it might take a couple of years to get to its designated recipient.
“You are doing a lot of good things in each district with these funds,” Hunt told the board. “Don’t be willing to give these funds up.”
In another major issue, the commissioners took action that they hope will encourage a large industry to locate in Lumberton.
The board approved offering an incentives package for an industry designated as Project 77. According to the company’s plans, it would make a capital investment in the county of about $5 million and hire 77 people at an average wage of $12.30 an hour.
Kinlaw told The Robesonian after the meeting that the industry qualifies for a level one incentives package, which means the company is given tax relief for five years.
“This is a large industry,” Kinlaw said. “It is one that is receiving a lot of assistance from the state … . The jobs are ones that require training.”
In other business, the county commissioners:
— Heard a brief presentation from Dr. David Brooks about the upcoming semiannual spay/neuter program from March 4 to March 16. The program, which offers reduced spay and neutering services for pets of Robeson County residents, is sponsored by the Robeson County Veterinarian Medical Association.
— Heard a presentation from Jamie Locklear, who is interested in gaining supportfor a First Tee golf program. The program, which teaches character education through life skills to young people who play golf in the program, has been introduced in 20 of the county’s public schools.
— Heard a request for support of a federal grant for the county’s Family Drug Treatment Court.
— Approved a request from Kinlaw that a bond be required from those seeking an appeal of a court ruling last week denying a request that a sand mining conditional-use permit in the Philadelphus community be revoked. The request was made, according to Kinlaw, because such an appeal would be “frivolous.”