Guilford County commissioners, department heads, employees and residents have so many questions regarding the 15 recent raises secretly granted to Guilford County department heads that the new Board of Commissioners may investigate the way the raises came about and take any appropriate action.
The new nine-member Board of Commissioners, with a Republican majority for the first time in 14 years, holds its first regular meeting on Thursday, Dec. 13, and discussion of the controversial raises which were given out by the county's Human Resources Department after a Thursday, Oct. 18 closed session of the previous Board of Commissioners is expected to be brought up at that meeting.
Newly elected Commissioner Jeff Phillips said the raises and the way they came about cause him concern on several fronts. He said he's disturbed by the secrecy surrounding the raises, the fact that the commissioners never voted on them and the mystery of how Guilford County seems to be able to pull money out of nowhere in the middle of a budget year.
No funds for raises were appropriated in the 2012-2013 county budget that the Board of Commissioners adopted in June.
Phillips said raises such as these should be part of the budget process each year and, furthermore, that they should be done out in the open.
The process was so secret that some department heads said this week they didn't know they had gotten a raise until they saw their name beside the amount of their raise in the Nov. 22 edition of The Rhinoceros Times.
Phillips also said he had no knowledge of the raises until he read about them in The Rhino Times.
He said the new board needs to look into the matter.
"I think we should revisit it; I think we will," Phillips said. "I'm still working to find some answers. We need to understand and consider fully the way that was done. If I have any say in it, we will."
Phillips said the raises and the process by which they were awarded are a perfect example of why he ran for office to make Guilford County government more transparent.
He also said the fact that the legality of some of the raises is in question is troubling.
"That's all the more reason for us to revisit this," Phillips said.
New Commissioner Hank Henning also said the controversy over raises now falls squarely into the lap of the new board.
"At the next meeting or whenever, we're going to have to deal with it," Henning said.
Henning said the previous board should have done the same thing with the directors' raises that it did with a controversial Prison Farm rezoning that's on the horizon. He said they should have left the question for the new board to answer.
"I think they should have let us handle it," he said of the raises. "They should have waited until we got in. They did the right thing with the Prison Farm."
Now, Henning said, the new board will have to deal with the raises as a "residual issue."
He said the raises are just more expenditures to go with the other spending that the new board has been saddled with.
"The bigger picture is that all of these are budget issues it all has to be dealt with," Henning said.
He said another key concern about the raises is the way it was done behind closed doors with zero transparency.
"It's not my money; it's not the county manager's money it's the taxpayers money," Henning said.
He said that, since it's taxpayer money, those taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent, and that certainly includes, he said, a right to be informed when department heads are given raises.
Of Guilford County's 25 department heads, 15 received raises. Seven of the 15 raises awarded, by law, require a vote by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners which never happened.
The lowest raise, $1,947 went to Guilford County Board of Elections Director George Gilbert, whose salary increased from $97,372 to $99,319. The largest, $14,222, was given to Department of Social Services Director Robert Williams, whose salary went from $125,778 to $140,000 a year. County Attorney Mark Payne fell in the middle of the pack, with a raise of $4,400, which moved his salary from $148,600 to $153,000 a year.
Former Commissioners Mike Winstead and Paul Gibson, Sheriff BJ Barnes, Gilbert and many others say they see no rhyme or reason to the amounts of the raises and they say the process that determined who got raises and how much each received is a mystery.
Guilford County Assistant Manager Sharisse Fuller, who's also the county's human resources director, said the raises aren't "raises" but instead are "equity salary adjustments." She said they were determined by looking at what others in comparable jobs in Guilford County government are being paid. She said the salary reviews did not look at pay in other counties or in other local governments.
As a result of the raises, some county employees are now being paid more than the salary set by the Board of Commissioners that is, they are being paid more than they're legally entitled to receive.
In the case of the sheriff and the register of deeds, as well as those who got raises and who work directly for the board the county attorney, the finance director and the clerk to the board their salaries by law are set by a vote of the Board of Commissioners.
The Board of Commissioners also sets the salaries for two other county employees who got raises Gilbert, the director of elections, and Williams, the director of social services.
Though those two department heads are hired and fired by the boards that oversee their departments and those boards also recommend pay increases or decreases for those directors to the county commissioners the salaries of the two directors must be set by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
Since seven county directors are now being paid salaries higher than their salaries approved by the Board of Commissioners, those seven directors are currently getting "gifts," also known as "emoluments." It is illegal for the county to give out taxpayer money as gifts.
Apart from the legal ramifications, there's also the fact that the raises have angered so many. Some county department heads not on the list feel cheated because they didn't get a raise. The county employees who haven't had raises in four years are angry. Taxpayers who have been told time and again that the county's budget was so tight there was no money for raises or anything else aren't pleased. New commissioners who are left to help clean up the mess don't like it. Even some of the department heads who got raises say they're displeased over the move because their employees weren't first in line to get raises. Some of the department heads who got raises said they've requested raises for their employees for years and have been rejected by county administration time and again.
Fuller maintains that these are "equity salary adjustments" and she said that some other employees besides department heads have gotten the adjustments and others will follow. The word "adjustment" suggests that salaries could go either up or down, but, even though Fuller insists on using that word, she admits that the salary changes resulting from the equity studies have been upward adjustments in each and every case.
County staff attempted some damage control. At 4:40 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7, the county sent out an email "on behalf of Sharisse Fuller." It was titled, "To All County Employees."
The email, which Fuller also sent to commissioners and members of the media, stated: "There have been a number of inquiries about 'equity reviews' being completed by Guilford County Human Resources. All County employees are governed by the Fair Pay Act, and most by more than one of the statutes/laws below. All positions are being reviewed to ensure compliance with the following Federal laws."
The email goes on to quote the equal pay provisions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as well as those provisions in the Equal Pay Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The Ledbetter act, passed in 2009, amended the Civil Rights Act to prohibit wage discrimination based on sex, race or national origin for employees who work in "equivalent jobs."
After explaining the reason for the "equity reviews," the email attempts, in a question-and-answer format, to "hopefully help clarify this process." The email states, "All County employee positions are being reviewed in accordance with the Fair Pay Act."
According to Fuller, there is currently one full-time human resources employee assigned to "equity review," and her department is moving "as quickly as possible" through each group of county employees for the most part department by department to adjust salaries.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said, in the Oct. 18 closed session where the raises were discussed, that the county shouldn't increase the directors' salaries until lower-paid county employees got raises. If the county had taken Coleman's advice, it would have mitigated the resulting public relations nightmare to some extent but, for some reason, county staff was determined to get the money into the hands of the department heads.
Last week, Barnes said he was mystified by the raises. He said he didn't know how anyone could compare the sheriff's jobs to any other job in the county, and he said that, if someone had asked him beforehand, he would have told them to give raises to his employees before giving one to him.
This week, Gilbert said he was baffled by the logic behind the amounts of the raises awarded and he also said that under state statute the Board of Elections makes recommendations on salary increases for election directors and the Board of Commissioners has the ultimate say.
Gilbert is retiring in a few months and he said that, with the knowledge that a raise wouldn't really affect him very much, the Board of Elections recommended he be compensated with a lump sum bonus of $8,000. However, he said, the Board of Commissioners never acted on that recommendation. Then, Gilbert said, he found out he had gotten a raise that was never approved by the Board of Commissioners.
Gilbert said that, when he saw the list of directors getting raises and the amounts, none of it made sense to him.
"I wondered why they selected those department directors," Gilbert said.
Gilbert said he is now attempting to discover the rationale behind the pay increases.
"I have requested from Sharisse the information on the equity adjustments," Gilbert said. "I want to see the reasoning behind the adjustments for my position and other positions."
Gilbert said that learning the way raises were calculated might help him understand the disparity that he feels exists between the pay of the employees in the county's elections department, which, he said, seems low compared to the pay in other county departments. He said his staff is highly effective, well-trained, experienced and very well educated, but they never seem to get the same pay consideration that's granted in some other departments.
"That's the battle that I've fought for years," Gilbert said.
He said he would put the education and experience of his department up against any other county departments.
"I've got one, two, three, with master's degrees, and a PhD," he said.
He also said that salaries for some employees such as those in human resources and the Finance Department seem to be higher than the pay of employees in similar positions in other departments.
Gilbert didn't make the point, but Fuller is the head of human resources and Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox was the head of the Finance Department before she was made county manager four years ago.
Fuller said Guilford County is using a point system that provides a fair methodology for examining pay for similar jobs across county departments. She said the equity review calculations take into account employee classification, pay grades, education and experience.
Payne said that in some cases, department employees have had raises before the department head. For instance, he said, the employees in his office had been reviewed for equity pay and had their salaries adjusted before his own salary was studied and his raise granted.
Payne told The Rhinoceros Times last week that, though the Board of Commissioners never voted on the raises, "Approval without formal action is enough." However legal experts at the NC School of Government, the attorney for the NC Press Association, and several other local government attorneys said the Board of Commissioners must take an official public vote to grant pay increases in those cases such as the sheriff, the finance director, the election director, etc. where the board determines the pay of those employees.
When The Rhino Times asked Payne if he had a conflict of interest in this matter, he said it was not a legal conflict of interest for him to be a recipient of a raise and also one of the people making the judgement on the legality of the raises. He said he did not recommend the raises, but merely played his role as county attorney once the process was in motion.
Amanda Martin, an attorney for the NC Press Association, also said Payne did not have a conflict of interest under the law. She said that the role of county attorney sometimes out of necessity means the county attorney will make a judgement that could influence his or her salary. Martin said that in some extreme cases a county might seek outside legal help to decide a debate of this nature but she said she thought those cases would be the exception rather than the rule.
Payne said there was a "consensus" in the Oct. 18 backroom meeting. However, some commissioners who were in that closed session including Commissioners Winstead, Gibson and Coleman say they didn't favor the raises, and another commissioner, John Parks said he remained silent in the discussion.
Commissioners Skip Alston and Billy Yow said they favored the move. Commissioner Bruce Davis said he believed the raises were necessary but he said he thought he remembered the board coming out of the closed session and taking a public vote to grant the raises after the closed session discussion.
Two people in the backroom meeting said that Commissioner Bill Bencini and Payne had a disagreement during the discussion about the meaning of the word "consensus." Bencini told The Rhino Times this week that in the closed session he expressed concern that the discussion was taking place behind closed doors and he also said he questioned the need to do something right away.
"The reason for the urgency was lost on me," Bencini said.
There's also the fact that some commissioners were in favor of increases for some on the list but not for others.
One former commissioner who was in the closed session said, "There wasn't a commissioner in that room who thought Mr. Williams should get a $14,000 raise."
Another commissioner who was in the closed session said Williams should have gotten a large raise since the Board of Social Services had recommended one for years.
Webster's Dictionary defines "consensus" as "an opinion held by all or most."
Even if there had been clear and unanimous consent from each and every commissioners in the back room, none of that would have mattered at all when it came to actually giving the raises: By law, there must be a public vote by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to increase the salaries of the seven department heads whose salaries are determined by the board.
It's unknown how the situation will be resolved.
NC General Statute 143-318.16A offers "remedies for violations" of the open meetings law. It states, "Any person may institute a suit in the superior court requesting the entry of a judgment declaring that any action of a public body was taken, considered, discussed, or deliberated in violation of this Article. Upon such a finding, the court may declare any such action null and void."