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Wednesday, 14 December 2016 15:27

Swain commissioners give little thought to salary

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“You know, I really can’t tell you what we get paid,” Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said when asked about his commissioner salary. “I’ve never done it for that purpose. To me, serving the people in the community is the main benefit of being commissioner.”

Monteith has been a county commissioner in Swain County for nearly 20 years. While every commissioner has a different kind of management style, Monteith is probably the most hands-on elected official and earns every bit of his $6,237 commissioner salary. 

Monteith is retired from a career in management with Ingles Markets but continues to work part-time as a Swain County Schools bus driver. When he completes his route in the morning, he can usually be found at his office in the county administrative building working on county business.

“I put a tremendous amount of time into being commissioner, but I guess all it really requires is to show up at the meetings prepared,” Monteith said. “But I enjoy it — I definitely don’t do it for the money.”

Monteith and other commissioners have made numerous trips to Raleigh and Washington, D.C., to lobby their legislators for funding for Swain County. Trying to get the federal government to pay Swain County for flooding North Shore Road was the issue that spurred Monteith to run for commissioner in the first place — it’s a battle he’s still fighting today. 

“There’s been more people in my lifetime in there for the title instead of serving the people, but people know I’m here to serve them,” he said. “I get an average of two or three people a week that call me with problems and I try to get out and help them — the commissioners are who they count on.”

Between the $12,545 a year paid to the commission chairman and the $6,273 a year for each of the other four commissioners, Swain County spends about $37,637 a year on commissioner salaries plus another $16,900 for mileage reimbursements for the board.

Elise Bryson, human resources director for Swain County, said the commissioners are also offered the same insurance options as any other full-time county employee. 

They are given $10,000 worth of life insurance and $5,000 on spouse and dependents at no cost as long as they are in office. The county pays about $75 a year per employee for that benefit. 

Commissioners are offered dental, vision and any supplemental insurance at the same cost as any county employee. Bryson said the county pays half of the cost of the dental for employees and dependents for all employees. That cost for each employee is about $165 a year.

“They are offered health insurance at the same cost as any employee. When they leave, the coverage ends,” Bryson said. “Currently the county pays $500 per month for each employee. That cost is 6,000 per year.”

Commissioners are also covered under the county’s worker’s compensation policy.

The last time the salary for commissioners was adjusted was in July 2014 when they received a 1 percent cost of living increase. 

Hearing about the benefits that come along with being a public servant was all new to Commissioner Kenneth Parton, who was just elected in November to serve his first term. It’s not something he considered when deciding to run for office. He just wanted to be a voice for the people. 

Finding affordable health insurance is getting harder and harder. Taking on a part-time commissioner job with insurance coverage could be a smart option for someone who is retired or even a small business owner who can’t afford a policy. 

“I was surprised by the benefits they had — I never had any (health) insurance until I took this job,” Parton said. 

While Monteith and Commissioner Ben Bushyhead are both retired, the other three commissioners have full-time jobs — Chairman Phil Carson works with his family-owned plumbing business; Commissioner Danny Burns is a technician for Pepsi Cola; and Parton works in several different aspects of the construction industry. 

Bushyhead and Burns are the only commissioners who have opted out of the county insurance coverage. Parton’s insurance coverage will not be effective until Feb. 1, 2017. 

Parton has positioned himself as a fiscal conservative on a board of Democrats, but he doesn’t have any problem with the compensation offered to commissioners. Now that he’s attended a couple of meetings and is beginning to see what a commissioner’s schedule looks like, he’s thinking it’s a fair pay. 

“It’s going to be more time consuming than I originally thought — like today the commissioners are attending a ground-breaking ceremony and I can’t make it because of work,” he said. “I mean, it’s not going to kill me or take too much from my regular job but I’m definitely going to take a little time to get the hang of it all.”

Compared to other counties in the region, Swain’s chairman salary is a bit less but somewhat in line with Macon and Haywood counties. However, the other commissioners are paid substantially less than their neighbors. Macon County’s population is double that of Swain County, but Swain’s chairman gets paid about $1,000 more a year than Macon’s chairman. Swain also has a larger gap between the chairman and commissioner pay compared to other counties.

Monteith said the money didn’t hold any weight in his decision to run for office and doesn’t think candidates running for office are particularly interested in what benefits the county offers.

Parton agreed. A lack of benefits wouldn’t keep him from running, but spending too much for commissioner benefits would concern him.

“People have joked that I’m making the big bucks now but I have no problem telling them I get $6,000 a year and $3,000 for travel,” he said. “But I’m not for lifetime pay or benefits for someone who chose to do a job.”

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