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Reality Check: Were all Buncombe County employees who received a retention bonus eligible?

FILE - Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene announced her retirement in May 2017. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

When Buncombe County gave News 13 updated salary information for some employees, we learned some were getting paid a retirement benefit while still working.

The county previously did not include this money in public information requests, despite state law declaring, "The term 'salary' includes pay, benefits, incentives, bonuses, and deferred and all other forms of compensation paid by the employing entity."

The county has called the retirement benefit for people still working a "retention bonus." In a new page on its website, the county said the retention bonuses did not cost tax payers any extra money. The page also says the county has saved $95,607 from employees who got an early retirement retention bonus. That would be because employees could have received a year's salary paid out at what their salary would be when they retired, which is potentially higher than the salary that's already been paid out.

News 13 has been asking if everyone who received a retention bonus was eligible for it.

The county started an early retirement incentive policy in June 2014.

The idea was to incentivize people to retire, and the county expected to save money from people leaving. By September 2014, former County Manager Wanda Greene told commissioners that 131 employees would be retiring early. The main incentive to retire was a year's salary paid out over three years.

In 2015 the policy was amended in the budget. To be eligible, employees would need to retire before 2022 with 28 years of service. In the budget passed in 2016, the following change was made to the early retirement program:

One year of the employee’s annual salary to be paid out on a bi-weekly basis over three years or may be advanced for retention purposes as approved by the Board Chairman or County Manager.

The county manager or commission chairman could pay out the year's salary while people worked as a retention bonus. It is the same benefit early retirees received, but paid out while people worked. Current County Manager Mandy Stone said this change was meant to retain key people. The county now says 11 people got this retention bonus. Buncombe County provided copies of nine signed contracts for them.

GARY ROBERTS

Although bonuses were approved in the 2016 budget, former Tax Director Gary Roberts began to receive a retention bonus payment in 2014. He signed a contract in February 2016 formalizing the payments. The budget passed later that year retroactively approved any incentive payments:

The County Manager and Chairman for appointed positions have authority to award bonuses and incentive payments to employees subject to availability of funds in the departmental appropriations. This action retroactively approves any incentive payments.

Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes also began to receive a retention bonus in 2015.

DONNA CLARK

Former Finance Director Donna Clark got what the county called an “Incentive and Retention Bonus” in 2014. She received $40,884.95 that year. In March 2015, she was laid off as IT Director as part of a reduction in force. The policy stated employees eliminated due to a reduction in force were eligible for the early retirement benefits in lieu of severance if they were eligible for early retirement, which required 28 years of service. Clark's personnel file shows she was laid off with less than eight years of service, but the county is still paying her a year's salary, bi-weekly, through March 1, 2018, totaling $145,660.06.

When asked specifically if Clark was eligible for early retirement, County Attorney Michael Frue emailed Tuesday, "That specific information is not public record for any particular employee pursuant to GS §153A-98. See GS §153A98(b) for the list of information that is public record with respect to each county employee."

IRENE WOLFE

News 13 also asked if Wanda Greene's sister, Irene Wolfe, was eligible for the retention bonus she received. Wolfe started working for the county in 2000. She signed a contract agreeing to stay through October 24, 2019, in exchange for the county paying her $103,767.80. The retirement date would be 19 years of service, not 28. However, a budget amendment in 2016 may have made her eligible:

Effective July 1, 2016, any employee who files a letter of retirement with the Human Resources Department by September 1, 2016 specifying a specific date of retirement between July 1, 2016 and January 1, 2020 and retires from the County no later than to January 1, 2020, shall only need to complete 18 years of service with Buncombe County and qualify for an unreduced retirement under the Local Government Employee Retirement System (LGERS) on his or her selected date of retirement to be eligible for the early retirement benefits as set forth in Paragraph I of this Policy.

The change approved eligibility for people with 18 years if they retired by the start of 2020. A retirement letter had to be sent to HR by September 1, 2016. News 13 does not know if that happened, but Wolfe's contract to receive the early retirement benefit is dated 14, 2016.

WANDA GREENE

Former County Manager, Wanda Greene, who is under federal investigation, also got a retention bonus. The county only has a draft of her agreement, and it's not signed. The agreement was for her to stay through the end of 2017. She didn't, but still got a full year's salary paid out before retiring.

RETENTION BONUSES

The county says the retention bonuses were completed earlier this year in lump sum payments, despite each contract showing their own and different timeline for payments. The bonuses paid out total about $1.5 million. It's a complex issue, that even some county officials say they're working to understand.

When we asked if everybody was eligible, this was the response we got:

"The County cannot comment on an individual employee’s eligibility or non-eligibility because of N.C. Gen. Stat. 153A-98," said Director of Employee Benefits and Risk Management Curt Euler, who is also the former HR Director.

County Commissioners recently ended the early retirement incentive program.


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