07/09/09 — Manager to county: Freeze my salary, too

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Manager to county: Freeze my salary, too

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 9, 2009 1:46 PM

When County Manager Lee Smith compiled the 2009-10 budget that was approved last month he did not include any salary increases for county employees or for himself, even though his contact with the county provides for an annual increase of 5 percent.

Smith's salary is $160,416 and he receives $12,000 annually for travel. According to data compiled by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, Smith is among 14 managers statewide who are paid a base salary of between $150,000 to $175,000.

Smith oversees a $157.6 million budget and more than 800 full-time employees and a total workforce of close to 1,000 when part-time help is included.

In a letter dated May 1, Smith wrote to commission Chairman Bud Gray that, "Due to economic and budget conditions, I am hereby requesting the clause within the employment agreement between me and the County of Wayne determining an annual increase for my position be halted for fiscal year 2009/2010. Due to the fact the county will be unable to give raises to county employees; I feel strongly that I should fall under the same guidelines/restrictions. I appreciate your support and look forward to a time when Wayne County can continue to grow."

Smith said he only decided to publicly comment on the letter after rumors surfaced that he had received a raise.

"Otherwise I would have said nothing because I did not think it was deemed worthy," he said. "I just wanted it to be quiet. I did not want to come across like I was trying to be a martyr.

"I asked a couple of board members about it and they said that is 'your call, we have a legal binding contract with you,' a five-year agreement."

Another rumor, he said, was that the agreement provided for a five-year severance package.

"It is a one-year severance deal," he said. "If I am fired for something criminal, or for negligence, I don't get paid anything. I am not a county employee. I work by statute at the pleasure of the board of county commissioners. I can be fired for parting my hair wrong.

"The board gave me a contract, they came in here and renewed my contract at their behest. They said, 'It makes us feel better and we want you to feel good about the job and not feel politically pressured every single day.' That gives you at least a feeling that your board is supportive."

County employees have policy and law behind them, Smith said.

"The rights given to a county employee, I do not enjoy," he said. "They are by statute at the pleasure of the board. But they (employees) have forewarning and all of these other policies that we create. I don't. So the board was kind enough to do that and put it (a contract) together."

The contract spells out the travel allowance and insurance.

Smith receives all benefits provided full-time employees. The county provides at no cost medical and dental insurance for Smith and his family and at least a 5 percent annual contribution to Smith's 401K plan.

Smith said he had received a call from the county's human resources department that someone wanted a copy of the contract.

"I told them to tell the person to call up (to his office) and that (a copy) is 10 cents a page," he said. "It is pretty easy. It is not a secret. There is nothing to hide. The rumor is that it has been asked for and that we have refused to provide a copy.

"I have asked the clerk to the board of commissioners and my assistant if there has ever been a request in my eight years for my agreement. No. It has never been asked for."

Smith provided a copy of the two-page contract dated Jan. 1, 2008.

In the contract Smith waives his rights of confidentiality concerning the agreement and notes that "to that end authorizes the disclosure of this agreement and its entry upon the board's minutes."

The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners recently released data it collected from the state's 100 counties concerning salaries.

According to the data Wayne County has a population of 114,000 and approximate valuation (2007-08) in millions of $5,603.

The commission chairman receives $11,838 annually and board members $9,613.

Commissioner Jack Best does not accept any of the pay or benefits, Smith said.

"If there are other things that we attend or go to, if there is a cost associated with it, he reimburses us," Smith said. "He tries to pay in advance if he can, but sometimes that is hard to do.

"He is in a position to do that and does not fault others who don't. He looks at it as he is serving the public and he wants to do that and that is pretty admirable. Not everybody can do that. He has done it since the day he got on."

Information was unavailable for eight counties in the data compiled by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. An-other, Onslow, had a vacant manager's office when the information was gathered.

Managers' salaries range from a low of $30,384 in coastal Tyrell County to $215,656, plus another $12,149 in travel in Mecklen-burg County. Wake County is a close second at $214,127 plus $6,000 in travel.

Commissioners' salaries range from lows of $450 per meeting for the chairman and $150 for members in Tyrell County to a high of $27,962 plus $3,528 in travel for the chairman and $22,370 plus $3,528 in travel for members in Mecklenburg County.