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Are Mecklenburg commissioners worth twice as much as CMS board members?

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett (left), a former school board member, says dealing with issues like the I-77 toll road controversy makes his current job more time-consuming and challenging.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett (left), a former school board member, says dealing with issues like the I-77 toll road controversy makes his current job more time-consuming and challenging. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Are Mecklenburg County commissioners overpaid or are Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members underpaid?

It sounds like a loaded question or the setup for a punch line. But it’s a serious question for the county’s taxpayers, highlighted by debate over commissioners’ plan to boost their own compensation significantly.

Tallying that increase gets tricky because most of it involves changes in expense allowances. That means the actual increase to taxpayers – and the change in what each commissioner receives – depends on how much they’re spending now and what they spend next year. Depending on how allowances are counted, the bump can range from 18 percent to 43 percent. More about that to come.

But regardless of whether commissioners stick with their straw-poll support for the increases when they take a final budget vote Tuesday, they still make roughly twice as much as their counterparts on the Board of Education.

Both boards have responsibility for North Carolina’s most populous county, spanning 546 square miles and covering more than 1 million residents. Both are considered part-time employees, though responding to constituents, attending events and staying up to speed on public business can prove time consuming in either role.

Commissioners have a much wider range of responsibilities, including health, social services, public safety, parks and libraries, in addition to providing local money for CMS.

School board members oversee a much larger workforce – almost 19,000 employees, more than three times the size of the county roster – and hold responsibility that shapes the county’s economic prospects and quality of life.

Three current commissioners – George Dunlap, Vilma Leake and Jim Puckett – have held both jobs. I tried to reach all three to ask them: Did your workload and/or value to taxpayers double when you switched boards?

I couldn’t immediately get Leake. Dunlap and Puckett both say they work longer and harder as commissioners, though they balked at quantifying the change.

“I believe the school board ought to be compensated more than what they’re paid,” Dunlap said when I pressed. But the amount, he said, is up to the school board, not him.

Puckett talked at length about the duties of a county commissioner and the reasoning behind the changes in expense allowances. But when I pressed him on whether the school board deserves about half of a commissioner’s pay, I got a long “ummmmmmmmmmmmm.”

“I’m not in a position to say because I don’t know what that job entails now,” Pucket finally said. He was a school board member from 1997 to 2000, at a time when the school board was entangled in a court battle and massive reassignment of students.

A bigger allowance

The more common comparison, of course, is to rank-and-file public employees. The commissioners’ budget plan calls for their base salary of $25,932 to increase by only 3 percent, the same as other county employees. That would put them at $26,710 in the next fiscal year.

CMS board members are likely to make a similar adjustment to their $13,298 base pay when they adopt a budget this summer or fall, after the district knows what employee raises will average. Educator raises are determined mostly by the state’s budget, which has not yet been approved.

For commissioners, the big bump is coming from expense allowances, and that’s why it’s tricky to tally the amount.

Under the current system, commissioners get an additional $4,320 a year for general expenses. They can also get reimbursed for up to $6,500 a year for travel and technology, but if they don’t spend the money they don’t get it.

That’s similar to the school board’s system: Members get $4,450 a year for general expenses and can be reimbursed for up to $3,600 for travel, while CMS provides their technology for official work. (On both boards, the chairs get more.)

The county’s plan for 2016-’17, approved last week in a preliminary vote, adds a $4,000-a-year auto allowance for commissioners, raises their general expense allowance to $8,251 and gives them a $4,410 technology allowance that’s automatically paid.

Under the new plan, the county would pay up front for work-related out-of-town travel, with no individual caps.

When the automatic allowances are added to the base salary, compensation goes from $30,252 to $43,371, a 43 percent increase. But the change is that dramatic only if commissioners are currently spending nothing on travel and technology. For someone getting reimbursed at the maximum level now, the increased cost to taxpayers would be 18 percent – but depending on how much they spend in the coming year that percentage could rise again.

Is it too much?

In addition to the complexities of expense allowances, there’s the challenge of making a fair comparison with other public bodies.

County Manager Dena Diorio compared pay for Mecklenburg County commissioners with that of Charlotte City Council members – which, as Dunlap noted, involves a smaller territory. The county includes six smaller towns, and commissioners must work with all seven municipal governments.

The only North Carolina county of similar size is Wake, which has a slightly smaller population and a slightly larger school system than Mecklenburg.

Members of the two school boards make virtually the same amount (see accompanying chart).

Wake County commissioners make more than members of either school board but less than Mecklenburg counterparts. Wake Communications Director Dara Demi said commissioners there don’t get automatic allowances but “are reimbursed for approved expenses just like traditional county employees when they request it.”

Not surprisingly, Mecklenburg commissioners are taking heat about their proposed increase. Dunlap said that’s one reason the CMS board may hesitate to adjust its own pay upward: “People feel pressured by the fact that you guys write stories about their compensation.”

School board members joined in the chorus of questions about the commissioners’ boost.

Rhonda Lennon, who represents the northern suburbs, posted on Facebook that the new plan not only puts commissioners’ part-time pay above the full-time salary for many teachers, but would put them at “3 times more than the School Board” and “about 8 times the town board members in the northern towns.”

With allowances factored in and no increases in CMS pay, commissioners’ total package would be 2.4 times as large as school board members’.

Vice Chair Elyse Dashew posted that the increase represents hubris and misplaced priorities.

“This would bring their pay to triple what school board members are paid for a job that is no more important and no more difficult. And guess what? I don’t even care about that,” she wrote. “What I DO care about is that this is such a slap in the face to the people who work in our schools. How often have commissioners said NO to a cost of living increase for school employees? How many times have they SCOLDED teachers for having the nerve to even ask for a modest raise?”

How compensation compares

Here’s what officials in Mecklenburg and Wake counties reported as compensation for elected officials. “Allowances” include automatic payments to officials but does not include reimbursement paid only if and when expenses are incurred.

Position

Salary

Allowances

Total

Meck commissioner (current)

$25,932

$4,320

$36,752

Meck commissioner (proposed)

$26,710

$16,661

$43,371

Wake commissioner

$21,604

0

$21,604

CMS school board

$13,298

$4,450

$17,748

Wake school board

$14,832

$3,024

$17,856

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