(Originally published in the Daily Planet – August 2014)
“Public servant: Persons chosen by the people to distribute the graft.”
— Mark Twain
Buncombe County senior officials are exploiting the public trust through an extraordinarily extravagant salary plan. Conducted in open view, their bold cronyism mirrors that of an organized criminal enterprise.
The UNC School of Government’s mission is “to improve the lives of North Carolinians by engaging in practical scholarship that helps public officials and citizens understand and improve state and local government.” Noting this tax funded agency has tracked county government salaries for sixty-five years, we wanted to test the sincerity of their assignment. What follows is a factual summary of specific data presented by Buncombe and other NC counties to the School of Government for the 2013-15 budget years. Our “to catch a thief” research can be duplicated on the UNC SOG’s website – www.sog.unc.edu/node/518
According to reports submitted to the School of Government, Buncombe County Commission Chairman David Gantt’s salary is higher than that of any other similarly serving elected official in the State. A highly marketed attorney, Gantt is paid $36,000 a year for his part-time public service function.
Under this gentleman’s leadership, Buncombe chooses not to inform the School of Government on salaries, travel expenses and extra compensations for Commission members. Buncombe is also one of only two reporting counties not providing population numbers – information key to
tracking bureaucratic efficiency and costs.
Buncombe’s leaders do share their 401K compensation plan for elected officials. At 8 percent it is by far the highest of any county in the state. Mecklenburg and Wake, the two most populated and economically advantaged counties, contribute 5 percent to their leadership’s retirement security.
County Manager Wanda Greene is paid $219 thousand a year. Mecklenburg and Wake counties pay their managers $228 and $239 respectively. Those wages make Wanda look a little better until one ponders the reality these two communities are four times larger than our own.
In their report to the SOG report, Buncombe identified Kathy Hughes as the Clerk to the Board at $106 thousand a year. For that position that is the highest compensation in the state – double and triple what Gaston and Cabarrus counties (similarly populated to Buncombe) pay their clerks.
With two exceptions, Buncombe County’s Elections Director, Trena Parker, is paid more than anyone in the state in a similar position – also $106 thousand. Those exceptions are, again, Mecklenburg and Wake Counties with four times the voting populace found in our part of NC’s 100 piece puzzle.
Buncombe’s Human Resource Director, Rob Thornberry , makes $141,000 a year. That’s more – far more – than any of his peers in reporting counties with the exception of two – Mecklenburg and Durham. Any bets on the pressures of managing human resources in those two large high tech super-hubs versus keeping up with things here in Buncombe?
Mandy Stone makes $158,000 as our Social Service Director. Although the County’s website lists her as the Health and Human Services Director/Assistant County Manager, per the North Carolina Division of Social Services, Director of Social Work is her role. That is also the title Buncombe reported to the SOG – and, again, at a reported $158,000. No county social services director comes anywhere close to her salary. Looking out for the welfare of others – clearly a fulltime responsibility unto itself – evidently includes covering your own welfare.
It was good to learn our Register of Deeds, Drew Reisinger, is paid $80,000 – slightly below the average for the top 10 counties in NC. Unfortunately those same counties employ an average of seven Assistant and Deputy Register of Deeds – Buncombe County employees 20. Wake County has 29, but again, their population is, yep, four times greater than ours.
The Emergency Services Director, Republican Jerry Vehaun, is paid $135,000 a year. That’s more than any other similarly employed public official in the state – by a long shot. Raleigh and Wake County pay their guy $82,000.
With the exception of Mecklenburg County, our Library Director, Ed Sheary, is paid more than his peers in any reporting county in NC. There must be a whole lot of reading going on for $135,000 a year.
Our Public Health Director’s salary is $136,000 a year. Alma Harris’s peer in Mecklenburg – repeat the number 4 for clarity – makes $138,000. That’s a healthy deal for Ms. Harris – not so much for us.
Buncombe County’s chief tax collector Gary Roberts is paid $141,000 a year – once again, the highest in the state. We hope he’s good at his job. The millions going to support this team of political cronies requires an enthusiastic reach into taxpayer pockets.
A point of light is found in Sheriff Van Duncan’s salary. At $117,000, his place in the top 10 biggest counties is about average. He is well paid for his public service commitment, but the fact our chief law enforcement officer makes only 8 percent more than our chief clerk and 20 percent less than our chief librarian reveals troubling county priorities. Next time you see Sheriff Duncan, thank him for serving and not taking advantage.
As for the rest, with the money they are drawing from public service, no wonder they are sporting big smiles. Behind a facade of virtue and self-sacrifice, these folks are getting away with taxpayer murder.
Masking benefits and perks, playing loose with job titles, omitting key information and shifting budget categories are effective ways public officials conceal monkey business. Savvy manipulators know it is harder to hit a moving target.
A big part of the government salary game is the pretense that public officials must be paid more to compete with the private sector. That myth is most often sold by those who have never worked in the private sector. Witness that in spite of the economic collapse of 2008, the argument threatening the imminent “loss of good people” to the private sector has remained persistently in place.
Money is a weak long-term motivator, yet in today’s America government officials are routinely paid more than their private sector peers. It has little to do with performance, much to do with access to the public trough. Self-preservation reliably stands as the first priority of government.
In the Buncombe County budget of 2013-14 the cost of General Government was identified as 9.8 percent – high by any standards. In 2014-15 that figure fell to 4.25 percent – an impressive improvement except the difference is based on cost shifting maneuvers. Buncombe County’s governance costs are impossible to track – conveniently or otherwise.
County Manager Wanda Green said it well in her 2014 budget presentation, “As always Buncombe County government is here to SERVE.” Serve who?
Certainly it is coincidental that with the one identified exception, all of the officials noted are Democrats. Surely a party promoting itself as caretakers of the poor, minorities and the otherwise disadvantaged would not intentionally abuse the public trust.
For further insight into why good people go bad in politics, look to the uncomplicated equation of reward and punishment. Those who go along with the power flow are validated with praise, opportunity and the satisfaction of being a member of the in-crowd. Those who dissent are punished with a reverse formula.
To the extent that all government newbies are uncomfortable and herding is an instinctive response to insecurity, most are unable to resist being seduced into the fold. That is why we have so many self-congratulating political opportunists in office versus principled public servants. Behind it all is a corrupt click operating on a familiar principle – you scratch my back and I will scratch yours.
You may have noticed that print media investigative journalism is a thing of the past. Most outlets are too busy painting a happy face on liberalism to generate the time and resources necessary to searching out bad guys. Cheerleading is not compatible with truth seeking.
That so many county leaders have taken advantage of their seats of power for so long says as much about us as it does about them. Bad things grow in the dark and complacency is the blackest of curtains.
Then there is the attention whistle blowers attract. Seldom is one endorsed for disturbing tranquility. There was a reason it took a child’s uninformed courage to expose the sham of the Emperor’s new clothes.
Private sector incomes in Buncombe County run 25 percent lower than those of Wake and Mecklenburg counties. Yet our leader’s salaries match or exceed their peers in these much bigger than us communities. When compared to the norm across the state, Buncombe government’s executive salaries simply slaughter the competition. Our leaders are living infinitely better than we are.
For the past decade tax rates have remained stable for one reason – growth. Though individual financial security has stagnated or regressed during this period, local government has expanded – dynamically. An exceptional influx of new residents and businesses has funded the party and the partiers. When the celebration ends – and it always does – the bill will arrive with a vengeance.
Expanded government, salaries, debt and expenses is the legacy of this group of overpaid happy faces. We will inherit the consequences – they will press on with taxpayer funded healthcare, eight percent retirement contributions and the inoculating indifference of denial.
We can start by discarding the pretense virtue is affirmed by a smile. Likeability is not the same thing as sincerity.
It is also important to remember that actions, good or bad, generally follow an easy path. That which is rewarded is repeated.
We call senior public officials “leaders” for a reason. At the apex of this pyramid scheme are two people – the Chairman of the Commission and the County Manager. Accountability begins at the top.
Forest Gump’s mom offered an excellent lesson in dealing with unprincipled people. Her “Stupid is as stupid does” assertion was correct. What these public officials are doing is stupid, amoral and a bunch of other things meriting scrutiny, challenge and accountability.
A commanding framework for confronting evasive charlatans came to us 25 years ago. Christian psychiatrist Scott Peck, of The Road Less Traveled fame, produced another thought provoking work – People of the Lie. Therein this gentleman suggested America was busy mass producing a generation of con artists in business, industry, government, religion, and education that would one day take the heart out of our country. He was eerily correct.
Those wishing to challenge people of the lie can find traction in a dependable truism – the best deceivers deceive themselves first. Buncombe County’s governing elite are clearly not an exception…
Carl Mumpower, a former member of Asheville City Council, may be contacted at email@example.com.