An Embarrassing Evening

The Board of Commissioners had another budget workshop Tuesday night. Three people showed up. Good thing. I would have hated to embarrass ourselves in front of a full house.

I have been on this board for almost three years now. I have covered hundreds of similar meetings as a reporter. Never have I witnessed an elected board display such public disdain for its staff. I don’t think it was intentional, but I was flabbergasted nonetheless and, yes, embarrassed.

Budget discussions can be difficult and contentious. Budgets are really policy statements, reflecting the desires of the ruling body. We have five commissioners and a mayor; some have competing interests and differing views on the role of government. So, discussions can get pointed and sometimes heated.

wordsThis budget is particularly difficult because the town is growing. Capital needs – trucks, machinery, sidewalks and the like – and the demands on a small staff are growing as well. But shortsighted changes forced on us by the state legislature are beginning to affect our bottom line. We can no longer expand our tax base by annexing people who live on our borders, take advantage of the many services the town provides but pay nothing for them. We can no longer charge traditional fees, like franchise taxes. We’re forced to rely more and more on property taxes as our major source of revenue. As a result, all towns are in a tough spot.

Add to all that the irresponsible action the Board of Commissioners took five years ago when it cut the tax rate four cents as a campaign tactic. Since then, it has cost the town almost a $1 million in much needed revenue.

None of that, though, excuses what happened the other night.

It all started with staff requests for additional personnel. They would like to add a permit officer and an assistant finance director. Our public works director currently fills the role of permit officer and building inspector. It’s an untenable situation. If he were to leave, we’d have to hire two people to replace him because we’re not likely to find someone with the necessary training and licenses for both jobs. An assistant would help our finance director meet the burdensome state and federal reporting requirements, as well as perform more mundane but time-consuming tasks.

We didn’t much discuss why new staff were needed. Instead, one board member read payroll numbers from a list of N.C. towns that he said were comparable to Swansboro. Emerald Isle and Wrightsville Beach were also on the list. While their permanent populations are about the same as Swansboro’s, that’s the only thing the towns have in common. I don’t know what other towns were on the list because it wasn’t shared.

It really makes no difference because no two towns are alike. All have different needs and are governed by people with different visions and desires. What they choose to pay their staffs shouldn’t be used as a definitive yardstick to measure our payroll.

The board member reported that Swansboro’s payroll was slightly above the median of these mystery towns. He wanted to know why. It was an impossible question for our manager to answer without knowing what towns we were talking about or their situations. But the message sent to staff was clear: We pay you too much.

Another board member noted that the number of employees has grown too quickly since 2013, ignoring the fact that was the year the Recreation Department started. I guess we should have a nice Rec Building and programs with no one to watch the kids or to unlock the doors. A third board member agreed that this growth was “unsustainable.” The message to staff was clear: There are too many of you.

Instead of adding employees, yet another board member told our finance director, maybe everyone needs to work more efficiently. The department heads sitting in the room that night routinely log 90-100 hours in two-week pay periods without the benefit of overtime. The message to staff was clear: Work harder.

Then it was my turn. You hire good people, I said, and then trust their judgment. When the finance director says she needs help, I can only assume that she’s not trying to pad her department, that she actually needs help. Forced to choose, I’ll hire the help she needs rather than buy another truck for Public Works or lay more unused sidewalks on Corbett Avenue.

I suspect that this assessment will surprise many on the board. All, I think, value the hard work our staff commits every day to the job of running our town. At least, the board members go out of their way to praise staff members at almost every meeting. I don’t think that praise is hollow.

As a writer and journalist for much of life, I also know this: Words matter. They can have powerful negative or positive effects on people, regardless of your intentions. They need to be chosen carefully, especially by elected officials when talking about the people who carry out their policies.

Careless words were used the other night that sent an unintended message. We meet to talk about the budget again on Tuesday.  Maybe we’ll do better.

Author: Frank Tursi

Author, Journalist and mayor pro temp of Swansboro, NC

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