The Wheels of Policy Change

Buncombe County Commissioners


By Leslee Kulba- The Buncombe County Commissioners finally adopted a few ordinances that have been recycling through meetings. Absent existing policies or adherence thereto, Interim County Manager George Wood has been encouraging the commissioners to (1) adopt internal controls to prevent future fraud on the level recently detected, and (2) check the county’s unsustainably widening gap between revenue and expenditures.

Wood emphasized he wanted the policies to be adopted by action by the board of commissioners so they could be changed only by a vote of the same body and, necessarily, before the public. In one order of business, the commissioners nailed the amount of annual leave that county employees could cash out to 40 hours maximum. To collect, employees must retain a balance of at least 40 hours of annual leave and cash out a minimum of eight hours. Accrued annual leave in excess of two years’ worth will be converted to sick leave. To make good on promises, all requests for cashing out existing accrued annual leave submitted by January 18, 2019 will be honored.

Most comparable counties do not even offer the benefit; but in Buncombe County, employees earning 27 days off a year used to be able to cash all those days out – and some employees now under indictment were allegedly falsely claiming to have worked days they should have reported as leave. Wood estimated eliminating the policy would save the county an estimated $1.4 million this year; the commissioners compromised with a cap that would save $370,000. The vote was unanimous.

Only slightly more controversial was the adoption of a revised personnel position classification and pay plan. It was a plan and not merely a schedule because terms, conditions, and exclusive responsibilities for changes were spelled out to prevent future abuses. The schedule was developed as part of an analysis by Evergreen Solutions. Wood counseled county leadership to enter a cycle of evaluating each schedule revision after four years of implementation so an informed revision could go into effect every five years.

Commissioners Ellen Frost and Al Whitesides once again went on the record for objecting to three pay grades being below the living wage. Wood explained the county had contracted for a study of market pay. Addressing living wages was another matter. What’s more, Wood said the county could be accused of paying employees too much with tax dollars. On average, entry-level pay in the county is 9% higher than in comparable markets, after adjusting for the higher cost of living.

Transitioning to the recommended scale, which also was adopted unanimously, 92 employees who were being paid below-market will be moved to higher grades. The adjustment is expected to cost the county $117,450. In addition, since it has taken the county so long to adopt the changes, Wood wanted to make the change retroactive, as if adopted July 1, 2018. The plan was also written with sufficient flexibility for the county to phase-in some degree of merit-based pay should the board, with new management, ever want to adopt the policy Wood has been trying to persuade them to adopt as fiscally responsible.

A third vote, adopting a new procurement manual, was split, with Mike Fryar opposed. In a former presentation, Business Officer Dustin Clark had said so many things that seemed like no-brainers for written policy would be newly-adopted in Buncombe County.

Fryar, however, objected to the manual’s 38 pages of instruction. “In my eyes, this is just overboard,” he said. What looked like a lot of arbitrary thresholds, customized for each type of purchase, held the potential to introduce unnecessary anxiety among employees already on pins and needles from the ongoing federal investigation.

The resolution adopting the manual described it as an attempt to assemble “myriad general statutes on the books” in one place. Wood explained the enhanced controls for higher-ticket purchases were designed to encourage planning.

Whitesides said the commissioners had an obligation to the county’s employees to make crystal clear expectations for their responsibilities. Failure to do so in the past only invited people to, “stretch that rubber band.”

Frost viewed the document as an “employee protection act.” By expressly codifying procedures and limitations, it was intended to prevent superiors from intimidating reports into committing unethical acts, a practice common under the former administration.

Chair Brownie Newman supported the changes because the general statutes set minima. He said the county had been adversely affected by actions of the former administration that were not in violation of any law. “Kickback” contracts had been entered into between the lines of subjective guidelines with neither competitive bid requirements nor limitations on renewal. “Having a detailed policy on which contracts can be approved at the staff level and which ones need to be approved in an open, public meeting makes all the sense in the world,” he said.

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