Thursday, August 11, 2022

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

County government appears broken, mismanaged, extravagant – or all of the above

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Something’s wrong with Alamance County government.

That’s the inescapable conclusion we’ve come to after the latest meeting of the county’s board of commissioners.

We’re not quite sure where to lay most of the blame – for there’s plenty of it to spread around.

Let’s start with the most obvious.

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The meetings are running on far too long.

This week’s was a five-hour marathon, which was at least an improvement over August 2, when the commissioners were in session, literally, all day – from 9:30 in the morning until nearly 5:00 that afternoon (with two intermissions and a lunch break).

Commissioner chairman John Paisley needs to learn to use his gavel – and/or a time clock – to keep his colleagues in check, and, more crucially, to restrain county bureaucrats from dragging out their presentations.

And county manager Bryan Hagood needs to get his top bureaucrats to be more organized, more succinct, and more focused.

Much of that discipline needs to apply to the county manager, himself.

This week’s meeting was a particular fiasco, which we lay at Hagood’s feet because of his own undisciplined behavior in bringing up a topic that wasn’t even on the agenda.

After the commissioners had gotten through their printed agenda for their meeting, Hagood started ruminating on the high turnover that he said is endemic among employees within Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

But Hagood had a ready solution – though it is one that no one had seen, reviewed, or contemplated before he sprung it near the end of the commissioners’ already overly-long meeting: bonuses to convince remaining staff members to take on extra shifts.

Hagood thinks that spending $170,000 to $240,000 is just the fix for what he considers the abnormally high vacancy rate at the department – which currently lacks 19 of its 96 designated staff.

Now, keep in mind, this is not a topic that’s regularly been brought before the commissioners.

In fact, we cannot find that it has ever been brought before them at all.

To make matters both more laughable and deplorable, this item was not even on the agenda. (Hint, hint to commissioners: most responsible governing boards will not allow spontaneous action on items not on the agenda, but will always carry it over to the next meeting.)

Of course, spending more money is almost always the bureaucratic answer for everything.

And just how long has the EMS staffing problem existed?

Why Hagood admitted that he had just learned of it the previous week.

The previous week?

Something’s either broken or mismanaged.

How could a problem this significant – a 20 percent vacancy rate – be unknown to the county’s top administrator.

And, if it was so important, why hadn’t he added it to the agenda?

Suddenly, it became such an emergency that he started to wail that some ambulances are being grounded for lack of a crew.

How could it have escaped his notice during the county’s months-long budget process?

Moreover, this was the third request for more money to placate county employees that the commissioners had received in the six short weeks since a new budget went into effect on July 1 for the fiscal year.

The commissioners have merrily dished out $550,000 for the sheriff to provide raises for 75 of his top officers (see list in this edition).

Then they agreed to spend almost another $400,000 for retention bonuses and other incentives for employees at the Department of Social Services, where, allegedly, higher-than-usual turnover rates have depleted positions in that department.

So this week’s $170,000 to $240,000 for EMS brings the total for after-budget compensation to somewhere between $1.12M to $1.19M.

All of these should have been handled in the context of the annual budget.

If they weren’t important enough to deal with then, they should probably have waited another year – until the next budget cycle.

And, by the way, the school board isn’t beyond similar shenanigans – always at taxpayer expense.

Last week, they adopted special $10,000 signing bonuses to fill nine vacant teaching positions within the Exceptional Children’s Program.

The item was not included on their agenda; the school system’s finance director and school board members merely repeatedly referenced an email the finance director had sent outlining the proposal. Which, by the way, is, itself, a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, which prohibits “acting by reference.”

Also, dear reader, don’t be lulled to sleep by the self-serving misrepresenation that these county commissioner votes (and the school board’s) aren’t “actual” spending just because the budget numbers weren’t being increased.

Both the sheriff and DSS said they were getting all the money from unspent, or lapsed, salaries.

Meanwhile, this week’s bonuses at EMS are coming from federal COVID funds, as though that is, somehow, a pot of free money. And the ABSS bonuses were also from a special pot of federal money.

They seem to think this is manna from heaven.

None of this money is free.

It’s money that could either have been reallocated elsewhere or saved altogether, thereby reducing the tax burden on property owners across the county.

Taxpayers instinctively know that. Why don’t county officials and county commissioners?

But commissioners also had other ways to open the taxpayers’ wallets and pry out still greater sums.

They also said “no problem” this week to give the community college some extra money – i.e., $2.4 million – for the constdruction of the first two projects to be funded by the 2018 bond projects. And let’s be crystal clear: to give $2.4 million of the county’s funds is to take the taxpayers’ money for these projects.

The commissioners were vague about whether this was something akin to an “advance” on the rest of the $39.6 million that was approved by voters for ACC projects in 2018, or whether this will end up being in addition to the face value of the bonds.

If it’s the former, we’re not too concerned. But we can assure the commissioners that ACC officials will, inevitably, bank on the latter; they will come back with request after interminable request, trying to drive up the amount of money they can get to finance their pet projects. Their extravagance knows little restraint.

Contrary to much of the ACC rhetoric, the public did not vote on specific projects that the community college wanted to see built at the school.

The voters merely consented to be taxed an amount necessary to fund $39.6 million in bonds.

We suspect taxpayers will end up being taxed for far more spending than what they agreed to – because, and we hate to say it, the commissioners are just as undisciplined as the county’s top staff.

Most of the items we’ve mentioned here drew unanimous commissioner consent. And in one case when the board wasn’t unanimous (i.e., DSS salaries), it appeared to be because the dissenters wanted to bestow still more largesse.

And those were just the big items.

Since the start of the fiscal year the commissioners have also tripled school board members’ salaries and granted funding for a junket to send one commissioner and some staff to Kansas City.

Historically, Republicans, such as the all-GOP board of commissioners, have run for office assuring voters that they are the fiscally responsible party, but beware those irresponsible, free-spending, high-taxing Democrats.

These days, who can tell the difference?

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