JLF Memo
Mar. 24th, 2011: - johnlocke.org

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Commissioners get $43K for travel? and COGs Gone Wild?
By Dr. Michael Sanera

Commissioners paid $42,900 for travel expenses

This letter to the Mountain Xpress by Peggy T. Bennett shines a spotlight on the travel expenses incurred by the Buncombe County Commissioners. According to Bennett, commissioners are not paid for the actual miles traveled, but with a flat per-week allowance.

"Their [county commissioners'] travel allowance was just reduced from $650 every two weeks to $320 every two weeks, which is still unacceptable. ...

In the last two years, the commissioners have received a total of $214,500, or $42,900 each in travel and technology allowances! For the next two years, even with the recent reduction in allowances, they will still receive $89,700, or $17,940 each. These are perks, not salaries, and this is still unacceptable."

Reimbursing county commissioners for expenses is appropriate, but they should be reimbursed for actual expenses, not receive flat allowances. It is not rocket science for commissioners to turn in exact mileage and receipts so that taxpayers can audit the expenses of county commissioners. For that matter, the county manager and other county employees should be governed by the same expense reimbursement rules. That's what the employees at the John Locke Foundation and many other organizations are required to do.

One question left unanswered: How long have commissioners collected $42,900 for two years of travel and other expenses? Sounds like a very convenient way to pad their salaries.

How about this radical idea? Once the system is changed to reimbursement for actual expenses, put commissioner expense reports online for all taxpayers to review. See the John Locke Foundation's transparency website, which provides transparency scores for all one hundred counties and 549 cities.

Only two counties received A's: Mecklenburg and Wake. Twenty-five counties earned D's on this evaluation. Only one city, Columbus, earned an A. Two cities earned F's, Longview and Walnut Creek. The vast majority of cities received D's for their lack of transparency.

COGs Gone Wild?

Sam Hieb, my colleague over at the Carolina Journal, writes this article about the role of North Carolina's councils of government (COGs).

North Carolina's 17 regional government councils are supposed to assist local county and city governments' planning efforts. Operations money comes from several sources, including dues paid by the participating cities and counties.

Recent problems have caused some county officials to question the value they are getting for their money. According to Hieb's article, the suggested merger of the Piedmont Triad COG and the Northwest Triad COG has some Guilford commissioners fuming.

"How can you merge and tell me you need more money to operate? In the business world, when you merge, it takes less money to operate," said Commissioner Billy Yow. "To me, this is another nonprofits, if you will, pulling money from the backs of the taxpayers. And it is a burden on taxpayers in all the counties."

And Guilford County commission chairman Skip Alston has a proposal to withdraw from the Piedmont Triad COG.

"It's a serious option," Alston said. "I wouldn't ask for it if I didn't have support."

The situation Down East is even more troublesome. The Eastern Carolina COG made a series of bad loans from its revolving loan program designed to help businesses that could not get bank loans. This COG had to write off more than $650,000, leaving the member counties and cities holding the bag. There were probably very good reasons that the banks turned down these risky ventures. Now some county commissioners are seriously considering dumping the ECCOG.

"I question the necessity of their existence," Pamlico County Commissioner Christine Mele told the Carolina Journal. "We could take [membership dues] and give [them] back to our own people."

As these examples indicate, accountability to the taxpayers is a big problem with COGs. They are funded by federal, state, and local tax money, but taxpayers, if they even know COGs exist, are unable to influence their work or hold them accountable. Their only recourse is to appeal to the locally elected officials to supervise the spending of public money. As the record shows, that is exceedingly difficult.

Click here for the Local Government Update archive.

 

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