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Raises, large bonuses under Greene prompt leaders to address breach in public trust
Wednesday, 01 November 2017 21:48

Officials admit they lack signed incentive deal for ex-county manager

From Staff Reports 

Under new County Manager Mandy Stone, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has had a lot of housekeeping to do.

At first, items of business were presented as routine updates and nothing major. At some point, the dam broke, and leadership began talking about recovering from a breach in public trust.

 A few months ago, Wanda Greene, who had been serving as county manager for 20 years, announced she would retire early. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Greene was under federal investigation, but details have yet to be made public. Local news media then shifted into investigative mode, with county salaries the target.

Greene’s son, Michael, resigned the day the federal investigation was confirmed. He had been collecting $120,350 as the county’s business intelligence manager, a position that existed only as long as he filled it.

Then, Greene’s sister, Irene Wolfe, who had been collecting $106,051 as county financial services manager, downgraded herself to “accountant” with a salary of $76,650.

In the latest twist, Buncombe officials’ reactions ranged from tempered to furious after learning in early October that Greene received her $241,792 retention incentive despite not staying until the end of the year, as stipulated in an unsigned written agreement. 

Buncombe Clerk of the Court Drew Reisigner said he was “appalled” by Greene’s recently revealed range of actions, asserting that “awarding raises to the county’s highest earners (including her) is an insult and a disgrace, especially in addition to other bonuses and incentives reported here.”

County Attorney Michael Frue described the Sept. 2, 2016 copy of Greene’s retention incentive agreement in her personnel file as a draft. It has neither her signature, nor the signature of Curt Euler, former human resources director, who now is a senior attorney.

Greene used her discretion in deciding who received the inventive. She gave it to herself, county officials said in late October, a move that would have been signed off by David Gantt, former commissioners chairman.

In the aftermath of Greene’s son’s resignation and sister’s job shift for lower pay , the county’s nepotism policy was revised, with a request from commissioners’ Chairman Brownie Newman that all county employee salaries be posted in real time, online.

In addition, the county capped employee bonuses at $1,000 and required them to be recorded as salary and reported to the commissioners within 60 days. Newman asked that any bonuses be made public, as a way, he said, of celebrating the recipients. 

Then, reporters uncovered lavish incentives programs.

During the recession, when the county was trying to scale-down, like many local governments, the county offered early retirement incentives. Stone said the program worked well, saving the county $1.6 million, but after 170 top-tier managers left, taking thousands of years of institutional knowledge with them, the county began offering an incentive for top management to stay.

The retention bonus worked like the early retirement benefit, but it was paid immediately instead of upon retirement. Stone said that also saved the county considerable sums. 

Reporters also discovered allegedly excessive pay for certain employees. 

Moreover, records show the incentives were not paid out over a three-year period. Instead, they began in 2016 and were paid out in full this year — and according to Sheriff Van Duncan, one of the recipients, they did not benefit their state pensions as promised.

Stone countered that with two part-time assistant managers, the county’s management office was actually the leanest of any municipal county in the state.

She and Jon Creighton were both working as part-time assistant managers as well as serving as department heads. For their work as assistant county managers, they received an extra $30,000 each.

As for Greene, she collected more than $500,000 in six months this year. This included a retention bonus, valued at $241,791, even though she retired before her appointed time.

After that, reporters unveiled the distribution of proceeds from a budget ordinance passed to benefit the lowest-paid county employees. 

Instead, of 123 recipients, 15 earned more than $100,000, and three went to members of the Greene family.

Before Stone took the helm, county management undertook a number of big-ticket actions — quickly and with little public explanation. 

Among these are the $8 million wrongful imprisonment settlement attributed to unjust interrogation techniques used by former Sheriff Bobby Medford; and multiple real estate shell games, such as those played out with Linamar and the failed Deschutes bid. 

In an Oct. 26 email  to the Daily Planet in answer to some questions, Stone said that Greene, while still at the helm, had reported a savings of $1.6 million from the early retirement program. Positions were frozen, or vacancies were advertised offering a lower rate of compensation, she said.

The savings were calculated as the sum of what would have been paid had vacancies not been frozen, Stone said. If departments chose to fill a vacancy, they were required to realize savings elsewhere in their budgets to offset the benefit offered the early retiree.

After 170 key staff members opted for early retirement, the county was faced with new costs of recovering all the institutional knowledge lost with the retirements, Stone said.. Costs might include consulting fees or training expenses. To slow the exodus, Greene offered a retention bonus, and she designated which positions would be eligible for a retention bonus instead of early retirement, Stone noted.

The retention bonus offered employees a sum equal to their 2015 salary immediately in lieu of waiting until they retired and receiving whatever they happened to be earning that year, Stone said. Persons accepting the retention bonus were required to continue working with the county at least until a certain date, and they had to develop a succession plan before they left. 

Stone said estimates show the retention bonuses saved the county $95,000-$96,000, that amount being calculated as the difference between what an employee would receive as an early retirement bonus in some future year and the employee’s 2015 salary.

 Stone added the county’s retirement bonuses are budgeted in accordance with state laws.



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