December 20, 2012
It's the absolute height of irony that, after Republicans waited 14 years to wrest control of the Guilford County
Board of Commissioners from the spend-happy Democrats, the very first substantive act of the new Republican board was to hand out raises to some of the county's highest paid employees. However, that's what happened.
On Thursday, Dec. 13, the board voted 7 to 2 to give raises to five county employees that county staff had already begun paying out illegally last month.
The Republicans who voted for the raises were Chairman Linda Shaw, Vice Chairman Bill Bencini and newly elected Commissioner Hank Henning. They joined the Democratic commissioners who you would expect to vote for raises: Carolyn Coleman, Bruce Davis, Kay Cashion and Ray Trapp.
The good news is that the Board of Commissioners held the discussion in public and voted on it in public – something the previous board didn't do.
In a Thursday, Oct. 18 closed session, Guilford County
staff presented the Board of Commissioners with suggested raises for 15 county department heads – eight of which have salaries controlled by the county manager and seven whose salaries are by law set by the Board of Commissioners.
The board sets the salaries for the clerk to the board, the county attorney, the finance director, the register of deeds, the sheriff, the elections director and the social services director. However, about a month ago, county staff raised the salaries of those seven – that was in addition to raising the salaries of eight department directors the county manager actually has a legal right to give raises to.
At the Dec. 13 meeting, the Commissioners voted to approve the raises for five employees but, while they were attempting to clean up the mess, the board didn't deal with the raises for Board of Elections Director George Gilbert or Social Services Director Robert Williams. So those two department heads, through no fault of their own, continue to receive illegal payouts from Guilford County
Though the four new commissioners had previously played no role in the raise debacle that's dominated county discourse for the last month, they had to take part in fixing things one way or another at the Dec. 13 meeting.Guilford County
Attorney Mark Payne, who was the recipient of one of those raises – $4,400 a year in Payne's case – said, after the raises became public knowledge, that there was a consensus of commissioners in the back room to grant the raises.
Payne also told The Rhinoceros Times last week that there was no legal conflict of interest in ruling that his own raise was legal.
However, despite claims to that effect by Payne and other county staff, to hear the commissioners talk about the raises after they became public knowledge – and became the subject of controversy – there's been scarce little evidence of anything resembling a consensus.
Before the Dec. 13 meeting, several of the new commissioners were complaining that they had to devote much of their first regular meeting to cleaning up a mess left by the previous board. Two nights before the Dec. 13 meeting, one new commissioner in a phone conversation with a former commissioner reportedly said, "I want to thank you for leaving us this s--- to clean up."
At the Dec. 13 meeting, newly elected Commissioner Jeff Phillips brought up the issue of the illegal raises and made a motion to discuss them. Phillips requested that Assistant Manager Sharisse Fuller, who's also the county's human resources director, come forward to a staff microphone to answer some questions. Fuller took a seat next to Payne and County Manager Brenda Jones Fox and, as the commissioners asked their questions of the three, it created the appearance that Fox, Payne and Fuller were defendants on trial rather than county staff at a commissioners meeting.
Phillips had a host of questions. "What prompted these reviews?" he asked. He followed that question quickly by, "How long has this been underway?"
Phillips said he wanted to "get an idea of what brought us to this place."
Fuller said that, in response to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and in an attempt to bring the county in compliance with previous equal pay legislation as well, the county had, since 2009, been working diligently to make sure there was equity in pay for similar positions throughout Guilford County
"All of that's been going on all along," Fuller said.
The Lilly Ledbetter Act passed in 2009, and it merely extended the time period in which workers could sue if they had a complaint based on fair pay. As Trapp pointed out at the meeting, the fair pay laws have been in effect for decades, so Guilford County
's sudden concern over the matter in recent years is somewhat curious.
There are currently about 2,400 county employees, and Fuller said that, since 2009, 407 positions have been checked for equity pay fairness, and 135 county employees have either received pay increases or are set to get them as a result of that study when the money becomes available in their department. At that rate, it will take the county until about 2028 to finish the equity review for all county employees.
Phillips said he wanted to know why the department head salaries were adjusted toward the beginning of the process rather than at the end, after pay increases had been granted to lower paid county employees.
"I did not make that decision," Fuller said.
She said the decision was made by "someone that was above me."
As assistant county manager, the only people above Fuller in Guilford County
government are Fox and the county commissioners.
Fuller explained in a little more detail. She said, "A commissioner made an inquiry as to equity of budget directors."
A moment later Fuller said that "commissioners" directed her to do it, and then, at another point, she said "more than one" commissioner requested her department study the salaries of department directors. Fuller said she didn't want to give the names of the commissioners who made the request since that discussion happened in closed session.
Phillips said it didn't make much sense for the pay increases to be done outside of the budget cycle. He said it would have made a lot more sense if the previous board had budgeted money for the raises in June when the county adopted a budget or had left the raises for the 2013-2014 budget.
Trapp, the board's only new Democratic commissioner, said he wondered why, if the raises were meant to avoid lawsuits, the raises went to department heads rather than to those who seemed more likely to sue the county.
Trapp said Guilford County
's legal exposure, if it was there, had existed for years, yet the county, he said, was giving the raises to those "who probably are the least likely to seek legal action."
During the discussion about the raises, some commissioners also wanted to know where the county was getting the money to pay for all these pay increases – since there was no money in the budget for that purpose....continued on page 2