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Mayhem in Macon

County Manager Derek Roland was at the podium when Commissioner John Shearl called for his resignation. County Manager Derek Roland was at the podium when Commissioner John Shearl called for his resignation. Bob Scott photo

In a public meeting that lasted more than five hours, Macon County Commissioners approved premium pay for county employees, 3-2. However, the debate was heated, and Commissioner John Shearl called for County Manager Derek Roland’s resignation. 

“It’s my position as County Manager to give these department heads the tools they need to do their job and to stay out of the way,” said County Manager Derek Roland. “In a public sector organization, there is no greater tool than a public servant. And as county manager, if I’m not always advocating for an environment in which they can successfully recruit and retain highly qualified public servants, or the greatest tool that they can possibly have, then I’m failing to do my job as county manager.”

Roland presented the recruitment and retention pay policy during the meeting. The policy is a continuation of the “Premium Pay Policy for Essential Work” which ended in April and would fund three retention pay periods through October of next year, using American Rescue Plan funds totaling almost $7 million.

In May, it was announced that American Rescue Plan funding could no longer be used for premium pay. However, it had been Macon County’s intent all along to use the money for this purpose.

“I’m happy to say that administration, working alongside our finance office, our human resources office, the pay plan committee, the North Carolina School of Government and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, I’m pleased to say that we found a solution and I’m happy to be here presenting that to you tonight,” Roland said.

In October, 2021, commissioners unanimously approved using the $6.9 million of ARPA funds Macon County received for premium pay. The primary purpose was to provide additional compensation for those employees that provided services throughout the pandemic while also leading COVID mitigation efforts. The Board is now having to vote on the measure again because of changes made through the Department of Treasury about how the funds could be expended.

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While the money for premium pay will run out by Dec. 24, Roland said he believes that if the economy continues on its current trajectory, the county will have the increased revenue needed to continue paying its employees at a competitive rate. If, on the other hand, the economy takes a turn for the worse, then competition would level off and “public sector nationally becomes more attractive in a declining economy,” Roland said.  

The county manager emphasized that because the county is able to pay for the pay plan through ARPA funds, the operating budget will not be affected at all.

“Regardless of the future, we can’t lose sight of what is important today,” Roland said. “And as for today, across the board, demand for services in Macon County continues to grow.”

Both Shearl and Commissioner Paul Higdon spoke and voted against the pay plan. Higdon railed against what he sees as the county’s inability to pay employees competitively without the infusion of outside funds after completing a salary study, and said that ARPA money should have been used for capital improvements.

“I’m not saying the county employees don’t deserve this money; if they’re not being paid a competitive salary when we did that salary review study, somebody’s not doing their job, that’s just the bottom line,” said Higdon. “It’s not my responsibility, or this board, to decide what the salaries are, that’s why we have people that do this work.”

Shearl complained about the rules that govern how ARPA funds can be used, claiming that premium pay was not a legal use of the funds. However, funds can be used for revenue replacement, a tactic that has been vetted by the school of government and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.

“That policy was approved, that policy is legal, what we’re doing now with these funds, proposing revenue replacement, we’re not the only county that’s done it,” said Roland. “It’s perfectly legal what we’re doing with these funds.” 

Shearl also disagreed with the fundamentals of the plan that would make county employment competitive saying “the government is being competitive on the taxpayers back,” and complained about the increase in the Macon County budget over the course of the last eight years. Macon County currently maintains the lowest tax rate in the state of North Carolina.

From there, the discussion between Shearl and Roland got personal with Shearl claiming that Roland had previously told him the county was 50% over-staffed, which Roland denied.

“You have called me a liar four times in open session, so tonight, I ask for your resignation,” said Shearl.

Roland denied the accusations and members of the public shouted that Shearl was wrong.

“If you don’t like the job I’m doing, or you think that poorly of who I am, or you question my character and you can get two more commissioners to vote with you, you can have my resignation,” said Roland.

No other commissioners spoke out against Roland or seconded any action against him. The pay plan passed 3-2 with Higdon and Shearl voting against the plan.

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