May 10, 2012What's good for Wall Street and the CEOs of giant financial firms is apparently also good for West Market Street and county managers.
Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox announced on Thursday, May 3, that she's retiring on Feb. 1, 2013, and, thanks to an unpublicized modification in county policy that Fox orchestrated in March, Fox will, in her last paycheck from the county, get a lump sum payout from Guilford County taxpayers of over $61,000.
Until two months ago, there was a cap on payouts that employees could get under the voluntary retirement program the county put in place about two years ago. However, thanks to a change in county policy that was buried in the county commissioners' documentation for the Thursday, March 1 commissioners meeting, Fox will get a $61,000 lump sum payout upon her departure instead of $16,500 – the amount Fox would have gotten if the cap on the payout hadn't been removed at the March 1 meeting.
Under the current plan, county employees with 20 to 24 years of service get a payout, upon retiring, of two months pay, not to exceed $8,500; while employees with 25 to 29 years in the retirement program get a lump sum payout of three months pay, up to a cap of $12,500.
Under that same plan, which has been in place for the last two years, Fox would have received a maximum of $16,500 – and there's still a misconception among many people that that's the amount Fox is going to receive upon retirement next year.
The $61,000 Fox will get equals four months pay of her $183,200 annual salary.
The change, which has never been called to the attention of the Board of Commissioners, or ever been discussed by them, was on the consent agenda at the commissioners' March 1 meeting, and was adopted by the board along with a long list of other items of county business.
The only change in the retirement policy that night was that county employees who put in for retirement by May 1 and leave the county by Feb. 1, 2013, will get four months salary with no cap; and that's only for employees who have been with the county 30 years or more, as Fox has been. With the change, those employees and those alone were no longer subject to a cap of $16,500 as the highest amount any employee could receive as a lump sum payout upon retirement.
The "consent agenda" for the Board of Commissioners is generally used for the board to quickly approve routine housekeeping matters without having to vote on each individual item. The board's consent agenda is a list that typically includes things such as accepting a $5,000 grant to hold a 4-H event, approving new licenses for those who put on fireworks displays, or to approve the purchase of new copiers for the health department.
Items on the consent agenda aren't discussed at meetings unless a commissioner specifically requests an item be pulled from that agenda and discussed by the board.
Here, in its entirety, from the March 1 meeting, is item number 5 under the third section of the consent agenda titled "Miscellaneous": "Retiree Health Insurance Resolution amendment to allow covered eligible dependents of deceased plan members to receive County contribution at the same level as previously afforded to the deceased. Approve continuation of Reduction in Force Resolution for fiscal year 2012/2013. Modify fiscal year 2012/2013 Voluntary Enhanced Retirement Resolution (previously approved) to offer incentive for 30-year employees to provide early notification of intent to retire."
The "incentive" reference was to another document in the commissioners' information packets. In that document – the third of four documents related to the county's retirement policy in the commissioners' meeting packet – on the second page of a graph listing benefits for 30-year employees who retire, is this sentence: "The employee will be paid an amount equal to four months of pay."
That meant that the $16,500 cap was removed for employees who have been with the county for over 30 years. Caps remain in place for all employees at other levels of service: for 29-year employees, the lump sum exit pay is still capped at $12,500 and for 20-year employees, the payout is still capped at $8,500.
On Friday, March 30, Guilford County Benefits Manager Carol Campbell sent a letter to all county employees with 30 years of service. The letter, which had the subject line "Retiree Insurance Benefit Enhancement and Modified VER for 2013," informed employees of the change and said that, in order to qualify, they had to notify the county by May 1 of their intent to retire by Feb. 1.
Campbell's letter stated, "I am writing to let you know about changes to the FY 2013 Voluntary Enhanced Retirement Plan and the Retiree Insurance Benefit that were approved by the Board of Commissioners on March 1, 2012 … Our records indicate that you currently qualify as a 30-year employee, or that you may reach the 30-year mark with combined sick and service time projected through February 1, 2013. Enclosed is a copy of the modified Voluntary Enhanced Retirement Plan. The only change from the previous plan is in the 'Additional Pay' section. The Plan authorizes a payment of four months of salary at the employee's regular rate of pay to 30-year employees who meet the following."
The letter lists two requirements necessary for retiring employees to avoid having the lump sum pay capped at $16,500. The first was that they notify the Human Resources Department of their intent to retire by May 1, 2012. The second criteria was that they retire with an effective date of between Aug. 1, 2012 and Feb. 1, 2013.
As soon as the March 30 letter went out alerting county employees of the change, rumors began swirling that Fox was on the verge of announcing her retirement, because when they saw the removal of the lump sum cap for a short window of time – a cap that was removed only for 30-year employees – they figured it was Fox's way of quietly packing her golden parachute with taxpayer money on her way out of county government.
There was no discussion of the move at any public meeting, and even after Fox announced her retirement many commissioners and others were under the mistaken impression that Fox would receive a maximum of $16,500 as a payout from the plan.
For instance, when Commissioner Linda Shaw was asked about Fox's motivation this week for retiring, Shaw said, "Brenda's getting $16,500 – that's a pretty sweet deal."
The News & Record also reported in error this week that Fox would get $16,500 in her retirement package. However, the truth is Fox will get almost four times that amount.
When asked this week, Guilford County Assistant Manager Sharisse Fuller confirmed that, based on the March 1 change in county policy, Fox will receive a full four months pay.
Of the county's roughly 2,500 employees, about 86 percent, or 2,150, make less in an entire year than Fox will get in one lump sum thanks to the modification of retirement terms made two months ago. That amount, $61,000, could pay for a nurse specialist or a child services manager in the Department of Social Services for a year or a teacher or sheriff's deputy along with all his or her required gear. It could also fund the combined annual salaries of two social services eligibility caseworkers.
In addition to the $61,000 Fox will get with her last paycheck, she will also get the many other benefits, including excellent health care and dental insurance that are part of what is a very attractive retirement package provided to all qualifying county retirees. Guilford County is part of North Carolina's local government and state government retirement plan.
In recent years, Fox and Fuller have worked together closely on the county's voluntary retirement initiative. When Fuller was asked whose idea it was to remove the $16,500 cap for 30-year employees and above, Fuller said it was difficult to say.
"I'm not sure you could say it was one person's idea," Fuller said, adding that there was simply a feeling among county administration that the county needed to do more than it had for 30-year employees to encourage them to retire. Fuller also has more than 30 years of service to the county and will be entitled to four months pay upon retirement if she submitted her name before May 1. It is not known whether or not Fuller intends on stepping down as well, but there are many indications that Fuller intends to stick around for a while. Fuller stated that she has a child in dental school and that that's just one expense that needs taking care of before she's ready to retire.
Fox, who is 69, came to work for Guilford County on July 1, 1971, and, by the time she retires early next year, she will have been with the county for almost 42 years. Fox was made interim Guilford County manager in December 2008 when the Board of Commissioners – led by a coalition of Chairman of the Board Skip Alston and former Commissioner Steve Arnold, who was then vice chairman of the board – forced former County Manager David McNeill to resign and made Fox interim county manager. A few months later, in 2009, Fox was made manager.
Fox served as the county's finance director for most of her years with Guilford County, and she also had a short stint as county manager in the '90s, when Arnold, her close personal friend, was chairman of the Board of Commissioners.
The county's voluntary retirement plan, put into effect a couple of years ago, was meant to encourage retirement of long-time county employees so that those positions could be filled by less senior employees, providing savings to Guilford County in coming years.
However, in Fox's case, there is a wide deal of agreement that, as soon as the new Board of Commissioners was in place on Monday, Dec. 3 of this year, Fox was going to get all the encouragement she needed to leave.
For about two-and-a-half years, there's been an effort by some commissioners to get rid of Fox – either by finding six votes to fire her or allowing her to resign. However, despite scandal after scandal, the Board of Commissioners has kept Fox on, largely because she had the avid support of Alston and Arnold. Arnold left the board in December 2010 after not seeking reelection, and Alston is stepping down from his seat in December, also after not having sought reelection.
Many of those candidates running to fill seats on the Board of Commissioners have expressed their dismay with Fox and her actions over the last several years, and some sitting commissioners, including Commissioners Paul Gibson and Bill Bencini, will likely be on the board after December 2012. Bencini has two more years on his term and Gibson is running for the new District 5 seat.
Commissioner Billy Yow will no longer be a county commissioner, but Yow has been a constant and vocal critic of Fox, and he said he thinks it's likely that the next board would have forced Fox out if she hadn't announced her retirement.
Yow said, "I can't speak for the next board, but my hunch is that, with all the controversy over the last few years they will want a new manager."
In recent years, Fox has been at the center of multiple scandals, including a real estate deal Fox entered the county into without informing the board – a deal which, if not discovered, could have cost the county millions of dollars since it would have paid large sums for services the county already had an entire department to perform.
It was also revealed early in 2011 that Fox, three years before, had let Wachovia bank raise the interest rate on a loan to the county after the bid process was supposedly closed – costing the county an additional $200,000 with no benefit to the county in return.
There were also major questions surrounding Guilford County's purchase of the building at 325 E. Russell St. in High Point from a friend and business associate of Arnold. That sale was, by all accounts, the first time that the county bought a building without getting an appraisal first, or without even attempting to negotiate the asking price.
Fox had employee-related scandals as well. She issued a "code of conduct" that outraged many county employees and commissioners. It stated that employees should air any complaints to the county manager's office rather than to the Board of Commissioners.
At the commissioners May 3 meeting, the board held a closed session that lasted about 40 minutes. According to several sources in the closed session, most of that time was taken up dealing with another personnel matter.
One commissioner who was in the session said that after Fox told the board she was retiring, Fox asked the board if they felt she should make a public announcement at that time.
Fox reportedly said in that closed session that she would do whatever was the will of the board.
A commissioner said something along the lines of, by informing the commissioners of her decision, Fox had already essentially told the world because there was no question that news like that would leak, spread quickly and be in the media in no time.
The discussion with Fox was brief, with her informing the commissioners of her retirement and then deciding to make a public announcement – which she did at about 9:30 p.m. that night after the board came out of the closed session and went back into open session.
By that point – the very end of the meeting – the large meeting room on the second floor of the Old Guilford County Court House was virtually empty. Alston said the manager had an announcement to make.
Fox kept it short.
"I respectfully would like to announce tonight that I will be retiring Feb. 1, 2013," Fox said. "I guess I'll have a chance to say more later. I've really enjoyed my years with Guilford County. It's been great."
Fox added that she was looking forward to her remaining months of employment with Guilford County.
Commissioner Kirk Perkins thanked Fox for her service.
"I don't know anybody who works harder for Guilford County," Perkins said at the end of the meeting.
When asked why she announced her retirement now, eight months before her last day, Fox said there was a feeling that the information would get out soon even if she didn't announce it.
Days before the announcement, in fact, The Rhino Times, in an attempt to see if Fox had submitted her name, made a public records request asking for the names of all county employees who had notified the county of their intent to retire. Yow had also made a similar request.
Last week, the Guilford County attorneys office informed Yow that he was not entitled to the information – even though he was a commissioner – because that information pertained to a personnel issue. In fact, employees taking early retirement are only required to inform the Human Resources Department and aren't even required to tell their superiors until their last day of employment.
This week county commissioners were praising Fox for her 40 years with the county.
Shaw had a lot of nice things to say about Fox.
"I appreciate all the hard work," Shaw said. "She's done a really good job as finance director. I think, as manager, she's made a couple of mistakes but she's also made cuts and saved the taxpayers money."
Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis wrote in an email, "Although I'm saddened that Guilford will lose an experienced and solid manager, I'm excited for Brenda Jones Fox as she looks forward to her retirement. Her dedication to Guilford County employees, citizens and staff has been exemplary and noteworthy. I hope that we can find another manager with half the knowledge and experience Brenda has brought to the table."
Commissioner Mike Winstead, who was not at the May 3 meeting when Fox made the announcement, shared similar comments after he heard the news.
"I think Brenda should be congratulated and thanked for her many years of service to Guilford County," Winstead said. "I think she has done a good job as our manager, especially given that her service as manager was during one of the worst economic cycles in history. There is no one in our county government that has the knowledge of fiscal operations any better than Brenda."
Alston, in particular, praised Fox profusely.
"Regardless of what some might say, Brenda Jones-Fox [sic] will go down in the history of Guilford County as the best county manager that this county has ever had," Alston stated in an email. "She took over the leadership of this county in a time of crisis, a time when the bottom had fallen out of the economy. With her leadership and guidance, we were able to delay a tax increase on the citizens of this county for two years. We cut over $40 million out of the county budget to pay for the bond debt that the voters approved in 2008. We consolidated positions that were not needed on a full-time basis and got rid of the positions that were no longer needed."
Alston went on to state that, under Fox, Guilford County had accomplished something very rare for any government – it had downsized.
"For the first time in over 12 years or more, the county budget decreased by $16.7 million in 2010," he wrote.
Alston added that a lot of the criticism Fox received was because her decisions to cut jobs, benefits and amenities were unpopular with county employees.
"She has taken a lot of heat because she tried to think outside the box to bring creative ways to bring about efficiency and accountability in county government," he said. "She gave this county her best, when we needed it to work through this economic crisis. In doing all of that, we were still able to build schools, build and complete the county jail on time and below budget, continue to fund the arts, the libraries and other community-based organizations."
Alston only made a passing reference to the multiple scandals that have rocked the manager's office for the last two-and-a-half years.
"She has not been a perfect manager, she has made some mistakes, but she has always tried to carry out a perfect mission, which is to serve the citizens of this county in the best way that she could," Alston wrote.
Gibson was much less glowing in his comments regarding Fox. He said that Fox's exit from county government, along with the departure of Alston from the board in December, would mean "profound" and "positive" change for Guilford County.
Gibson said he recently had the chance to work with Harry Jones, the county manager in Mecklenburg County, and see Jones in action, and Gibson said he was greatly impressed with the way Jones openly engaged the commissioners in a forthright and honest matter. He said it was a far cry from the lack of communication the Guilford County board gets from Fox.
"At meetings he speaks as much as the commissioners do," Gibson said of Jones, adding that Jones' openness with his board was eye opening.
Gibson said the new board that will be in place after December will have the final say in who is the new county manager.
"I think the next board should do it," Gibson said. "The next board needs to pick the next manager."
Gibson also said, "If I had my druthers, we'd get a professional search firm – we need to hire a professional group."
Winstead and several other commissioners said that, while the next board would be the one to pick the manager, the search process needs to start soon since a new board comes in in December, not much gets done around Christmas and Fox is leaving at the start of February.
Winstead said the current board will no doubt get started in a matter of months.
"I would assume the process to hire the next manager would need to start soon after a budget is passed," Winstead said. "The position is the top position in the county, so it may take some time to hire a replacement given that the selection will need a majority approval of the board."