To serve, Haywood Commissioners leave money on the table
At just 22 years of age, Kevin Ensley became one of the youngest licensed land surveyors in the entire state after earning an associate’s degree in civil engineering from Asheville-Buncombe Technical College.
Since then, surveying has been his primary occupation; although industry estimates vary widely, the average professional surveyor can expect to make more than $60,000 a year.
But in 2002, Ensley won a seat on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners, ceding some of his professional time to the people of the county where he was born.
“I would say, with emails, responding to different things, I spend about 10 to 15 hours per week on it,” he said of his duties as a commissioner.
Those 10 to 15 hours are hours that Ensley could be spending surveying; instead, he shows up to twice-monthly county board meetings that can run two hours or more, receives and addresses constituent concerns, attends other associated board meetings — he’s the county’s representative on the Affordable Housing Task Force — and conducts his own research into the myriad issues brought before the commission each month.
His compensation? $12,952.04 per year.
“It’s not worth the money,” he said.
County Board Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick receives slightly more on account of his slightly greater duties — $14,802.79 — but as an attorney, Kirkpatrick is also almost certainly leaving billable hours and money on the table.
Ensley says he could certainly make more if he were to concentrate on his own business instead of that of the people. He also says that his other source of income, real estate investing, has been curtailed by ethics guidelines that prevent him from being involved in some transactions that involve the county.
So why do they do it?
“I always felt I had a good perspective on county issues, land, property, all that,” he said, adding that he continues to serve as commissioner so he can give back to the community.
“If you’re a public servant, you’re also like a volunteer,” he said.
At 15 hours a week, or 780 hours a year, a Haywood County Commissioner’s salary comes out to about $16.60 an hour, gross. Extrapolated out to a typical 2,040-hour year of work, that translates to just under $34,000 per year.
Commissioner Michael Sorrells is in a similar situation to Ensley. He said he spends at least 10 hours a week on county business, whether it’s reading up on issues, communicating with county employees or administrators, or just chewing the fat with locals at the Marathon service station he owns on Jonathan Creek Road.
“It’s not a great amount of money,” Sorrells said. “But that’s not why I did it.”
Indeed, Sorrells probably loses money on the deal. He said he has to pay someone to fill in for him when he can’t attend to his own business.
Few would argue that the effort made by elected officials across the country doesn’t deserve compensation. In some municipalities, aldermen and commissioners work on government business full-time, and can make salaries in the six-figure range.
But neither Sorrells nor Ensley thinks the salary should be raised. Or lowered.
On one hand, raising the salary substantially would theoretically help attract and retain competent public servants; many working-class folk simply can’t afford to give up a quarter of their working hours for a job that doesn’t pay all that much.
Additionally, the scheduling flexibility demanded by the job — meetings can take place during regular 9-to-5 hours when the vast majority of workers simply can’t leave their jobs for several hours in the middle of a work day — also prevents the majority of people from deciding to stand for office.
This often leaves town and county boards stocked with wealthier professionals like attorneys, businesspeople and retirees who have the money and the flexibility to serve.
On the other hand, lowering the salary for what is essentially a “volunteer” position could save taxpayers money, but would further prohibit all but the most financially secure from serving in elected local government positions.
Most governments — like Haywood County’s — walk a fine line between issuing just compensation and delivering value to taxpayers. Both Ensley and Sorrells think the salary is just about right.
Salary, however, isn’t the only form of compensation given to commissioners in Haywood County.
A $200 travel allowance and a $108.28 technology allowance are both paid monthly, which brings total gross compensation for commissioners to $1,387.62 per month.
The county also spends $1.43 bi-weekly on life insurance for each commissioner in addition to offering health insurance.
County Manager Ira Dove said that since the county is self-insured, costs go with claims, but the county budgets $850 per month for each commissioner’s health insurance.
Since 2013, that health insurance benefit has been extended to retired commissioners with at least a decade of service. Former Haywood County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger is the first commissioner to receive this benefit.
But the action resulting in retired commissioners receiving the insurance didn’t originate locally. Session Law 2009-564, titled “An act to authorize counties to provide health insurance benefits to former employees who are not receiving retirement benefits,” made it possible for retired commissioners — like other county employees with at least 10 years of service — to receive the benefit.
Salary, life insurance, travel and technology allowances for the five current Haywood County Commissioners combine to cost the county more than $85,000 each year; adding what’s budgeted for insurance brings that total to more than $136,000.
Considering a year’s worth of budgeted health insurance for one commissioner runs $10,200, offering this benefit to retired commissioners has the potential to bring substantial costs to the county for decades to come, much like states where promised pensions have proven a substantial encumbrance on coffers. Ensley, however, doesn’t see it being a huge issue down the road.
Almost everyone on the commission has some other form of primary health coverage; older members qualify for Medicare, and others, like Sorrells, take advantage of a spouse’s coverage, saving the county money.
Ensley said that until recently it’s been rare to see multi-term commissioners retain their seats for more than a term or two, hinting that in decades to come, there may not be a roster of dozens of retired commissioners continuing to draw lifetime benefits after achieving a decade of service.
“As a commissioner, you have to be elected three times,” he said acknowledging that the benefit may help lure more people to run. “I think that means you’re probably doing a good job.”