Swain leaders take back raise amidst quagmire over policy

After violating their own policy, Swain County commissioners convened a special meeting Wednesday (June 23) for a do-over on a vote that gave Health Director Linda White a $15,000 raise.

In the process, the board’s previous 3-2 vote to grant the raise morphed into a 3-2 vote to rescind it a little more than a week later.

Commissioner Steve Moon was thrown into the spotlight after experiencing a change of heart and casting the deciding vote to take back White’s raise.

Commissioners David Monteith and Phil Carson stuck with their decision to support White’s raise, while Commissioners Glenn Jones and Genevieve Lindsay stood by their votes opposing it.

“I don’t think we should give anybody $15,000 at one lick,” said Jones.

Though the Swain board’s first vote was perfectly legal by state standards, it violated county commissioners’ rules of procedure, which require items up for a vote to be listed as such on their meeting agenda.

This allows board members to prepare themselves with information before voting, and gives the public advance notice whenever the commissioners plan to take action on county business.

However, White’s salary raise was listed on the agenda under “New Business,” implying that no formal action would be taken at the June 14 meeting. That was not the case.

County Manager Kevin King said he was later approached by several department heads who questioned the vote.

“I just wanted to clear the air,” said King, who admitted that he had not noticed the policy violation during the meeting. “We should have caught it there, but we didn’t.”

At the special session, commissioners unanimously voted to keep the policy, but it reared its head again at the very same meeting.

Monteith made a motion to discuss a property tax hiatus at the next regular meeting — even though the agenda had already been published and that subject was not listed. (See “Cashing in the cash settlement.”)

Lindsay mistakenly said commissioners could not discuss anything that was not on the agenda. However, commissioners are free to discuss — but not vote on — items not listed in the agenda.

“It’s funny to sit in there, and they don’t know what they were doing,” said Rebecca Davis, a food service manager at Nantahala Outdoor Center who attended the meeting. Davis had hoped to defend White’s raise before a vote was taken, but no time was set aside for public comment.

Debating the salary hike

White had made a convincing presentation at the June 14 meeting, leading commissioners to vote in favor of raising her salary from $64,000 to about $79,000.

All of a sudden, that raise disappeared into thin air.

“I’m very disappointed,” said White. “I don’t know what happened.”

Moon said he switched his vote after witnessing a backlash from both county employees and citizens since the initial vote. Almost all county employees have gone without salary raises since the recession struck. Moon said White undoubtedly deserves a raise, but so does every other county employee.

“That’s not fair, and I want to be fair,” said Moon. “I regret the fact that we did have to take the raise away. That’s not good, but I felt like it was necessary.”

Earlier this year, however, commissioners voted to approve an $8,000 raise for Tammy Cagle, director of Swain’s Department of Social Services.

Commissioner Jones said Cagle got a raise because she took on a new job component overseeing child support enforcement, which was previously handled by the state.

But White points out that she has taken over the responsibilities of two employees who have left the health department, thereby saving the county $37,000 annually.

About 25 percent of the health department budget comes from the county, according to White. White argued that no county funds would go toward her $15,000 raise. It would come instead from state and federal money.

According to county auditor Eric Bowman, however, any increase in the health department budget, including a salary raise, would have to be supported by county dollars unless there is a specific grant to cover the increase.

White says she’s saved the county $454,000 in the past three years. To put things into perspective, the county provides about $390,000 out of the health department’s $1.7 million budget each year.

Meanwhile, White has the fourth-lowest salary of any health director in the state.

Davis, who has known White professionally for 21 years, said she more than deserves the raise.

“I don’t think that she’s recognized for all that she does do,” said Davis. “I feel that if they had to replace her that it would probably take two people or three to do the job that she does now.”

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