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Wednesday, 14 December 2016 15:30

Carrying commissioner duties a juggling act in Jackson

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When Mark Jones first ran for a seat on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners in 2006, he was the general manager of High Hampton Inn and Country Club in Cashiers, a demanding and well-paid position. But when he won the election, Jones knew he wouldn’t be able to keep the job while also fulfilling his newly acquired civic responsibilities.

Jones stepped down to a morning manager role at High Hampton, a position that is full-time but not year-round. High Hampton is closed for the winter, and unlike the general manager, the morning manager works only during the season. The position paid less than half what Jones had earned as general manager. 

“I don’t, like so many people, live month-to-month, but I truly live April-to-April,” said Jones, who lost his re-election bid in November after 10 years on the board. “Come April I’m ready to work and make some money.”

Commissioners are paid for their service, but the salary is by no means a windfall. In Jackson County, the annual pay is $12,000 for commissioners and $17,000 for the chairman. In addition, commissioners receive a $2,600 travel allowance and access to a county-covered medical and dental plan. They do not, however, get the retirement benefits available to longtime county employees, such as a pension, continued health coverage or a 401k.

Commissioners receive a fee of $75 for each meeting they attend. In the 2015-16 fiscal year, meeting fees for commissioners totaled $8,850, an average of $1,770 per commissioner. 

It’s difficult to calculate exactly how many hours commissioners work in exchange for that salary. The schedule varies with the time of year — duties are minimal in July right after the budget has passed but much heavier during the spring, when the budget is being assembled. Commissioners are often asked to attend events and serve on boards. They receive phone calls and emails, study the issues they’re being asked to address, and find themselves drawn into impromptu political discussions while picking up a gallon of milk at Ingles or picnicking with their families. 

“You could make it as much as you wanted,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “If I was retired and I didn’t have a full-time job, I could literally go down to the county office and sit there all day and find enough stuff to research and enough people to go talk to and engage in as many meetings as I wanted to.”

“Being a commissioner, it will absorb all the time you want to give it,” Jones agreed. “I can truly see why a commissioner would really need to be retired to truly give the time it takes to be a commissioner.”

Jones estimates that being a commissioner occupied 15 to 20 hours of his time on an average week, especially if he included non-paid duties that nevertheless stemmed from the fact that he was a commissioner. Things like riding in the Memorial Day parade or emceeing the welcome back celebration the town of Sylva threw local band Mountain Faith when its members returned from a successful run on the TV show “America’s Got Talent.” Jones also included his drive time in that estimate, as it takes him about 45 minutes to drive from his home in Cashiers to the county building in Sylva. 

On the absolute slowest week — one with no commission meetings and just routine phone calls, emails, one-on-one meetings or committee meetings — the job demands roughly eight to 10 hours, McMahan said. But other weeks, the load can double. It just depends on what’s going on. 

Like Jones, McMahan also had to work some things out with his full-time job when he became a commissioner. Both men expressed gratitude to their employers for being flexible but said that the balancing act could be difficult. McMahan, who is the assistant chief of security at Balsam Mountain Preserve, gets time off for commissioner duties by either using vacation time or rearranging his schedule to work on weekends. Many of his evenings are already spoken for, as he trains with the fire department — he’s been a volunteer there for 20 years — on Monday nights and attends church on Wednesdays and Sundays. He’s also married with two young children. 

“When I’m at a meeting and it runs late into the evening, my family’s the one that misses out the most,” McMahan said. 

Jones and McMahan differ on their assessment of Jackson’s approach to commissioner compensation. McMahan said he felt the pay was adequate, about par for the course when compared to other counties of similar size.

Jones, meanwhile — who is no longer on the board — said he felt the compensation should be higher. 

“I would daresay it should be somewhere between $17,500 and $22,500 is what I think, that time that I put in,” Jones said. “I’m not trying to highball it at all. It could be a little bit more, particularly if you wanted the commissioners to be more public and more visible at certain public events.”

In addition, he said, it would make sense for the county to offer something in the way of retirement or continued health coverage — especially for those commissioners who have invested a substantial number of years in service to the county and perhaps sacrificed other career opportunities to do so. 

The question of commissioner pay can be a balancing act. On the one hand, it can’t be so low that only people of means can afford the time commitment required. On the other hand, being a commissioner is a public service, so the salary can’t be so high that commissioners are seen as profiteering from their positions. A desire to serve the community should be the driving motivation to serve as commissioner — and both Jones and McMahan said that’s what has made the job worthwhile to them. 

“It’s an important job,” McMahan said. “There’s a lot of important issues that we’re dealing with that I’m very passionate about, like for example this issue of homelessness. I hope this becomes a main focus of the board for the next year or two to work toward a permanent solution.”

Seeing needed facilities come to fruition, helping constituents navigate difficulties and working to leave the county in a more secure position than he left it are the reasons that Jones kept coming back for more despite the demands of the job. 

“To a degree there’s a relief,” Jones said of leaving the board, “but the rewards of the job far outweigh the pay. I’ve been involved with it for so long it’s become part of my day-to-day life. For the first time in my life, I don’t have anything to do between now and April.”

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