Nearly two months after a majority of Macon County commissioners approved a slew of salary raises for all county employees, the nitty-gritty details of the pay hikes have been released.
Macon County government employees will have a fatter paycheck now, thanks to a new pay plan approved last week by commissioners. Three of the five commissioners voted in support of the pay raises.
A study that revealed that most Macon County government employees were underpaid compared to counterparts in other North Carolina counties is catching flack from some critics for alleged design flaws, as well as calling into question the worth of a public servant.
Proposed pay raises for county workers in Macon has prompted skepticism from at least two of the five county commissioners, who are asking if now is the right time for that.
The proposed pay raise would boost the salaries of all county government employees. The total plan would cost the county an estimated $750,000 per year and help all the county’s employees, more than 400 in all.
Western Carolina University has launched a pay study to determine whether male employees are paid more than their female counterparts when doing the same jobs.
The study is expected to take up to two years to complete. It has been some seven years since a formal task force studied salaries at WCU. That was a true labor market study, and not related to gender equity, according to university administrators.
“I think that this is important to do because this type of study has not been conducted in some years,” WCU Chancellor David Belcher wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News. “While one can point to there not having been salary increases in recent years as a reason for not pursuing such a study, I think that, nonetheless, it is important for us to understand our current status and situation, knowledge of which will be important context for us in making decisions when money for salary increases is made available.”
Cash-strapped North Carolina isn’t expected to dole out money for raises anytime soon, regardless of study results. WCU professors and staff last received an increase four years ago.
News of the pay review is triggering intense interest on campus, where many faculty and staff have long suspected, believed or oft speculated whether there are indeed salary gender inequities in play at WCU.
Psychology Professor Hal Herzog said that it is common practice at most universities such as WCU for faculty members with identical qualifications, experience and work loads to make vastly different salaries.
“The role that sex discrimination plays in these differences is complicated by the fact that faculty salaries are closely tied to the field people are in,” Herzog said.
For example, faculty members in accounting, finance, information systems, and economics — mostly men — make more money than those in the English department — mostly women, he said. A comprehensive analysis of sex differences in pay needs to take factors like these into account, Herzog said, adding that he remained “mystified” why it would take WCU two years to conduct such a study.
“After all, salaries of state employees are a matter of public information,” Herzog said. “This is not rocket science.”
Laura Wright, an associate professor in WCU’s English department and president of WCU’s chapter of the American Association of University Women’s Tarheel Branch, said the two-year block of time seems in line with a similar study proposal by the group. The national group focuses on such issues as gender equity, and local members wanted to formally examine WCU’s salaries.
“That’s not any different from our proposed timeline, so I am not comfortable saying that two years is too long,” Wright said. Wright added that she’d like it “put forth,” however, that she is an English professor and not a statistician.
Wright said what does disturb her, on the face of it, is the disparity in the number of full professors and women in leadership positions at the Cullowhee university.
“I know that these discrepancies are not and cannot be the result of women doing less and inferior work,” she said. “They are the product of a university culture that has historically not fostered and supported women’s leadership and advancement.
“The fact that Chancellor Belcher has chosen to explore this issue seems like a good thing to me,” Wright said, adding that she fully supports his efforts to identify and rectify possible inequities.
Cherokee tribal elections are little more than a week away, and with the economy topping the list of major issues, the salaries of tribal officials are raising eyebrows and some ire on the reservation.
Both candidates for principal chief have stumped relentlessly on debt-reduction and spending-control platforms.
Whoever wins, however, will enjoy a sizable paycheck and a generous, lifelong pension, despite enrolled members seeing their per capita checks decline last year because casino profits were down.
Current Principal Chief Michell Hicks enjoys a base salary of $142,458, plus a car and an extra 30 percent of his base pay in fringe benefits, such as health care. That adds up to a total compensation package of about $185,000, not counting the car.
Vice Chief Larry Blythe is paid $129,896, plus given use of a car and 30 percent in fringe benefits, like the chief. Total, the vice chief earns nearly $169,000.
If challenger Patrick Lambert wins the top post, however, he’ll actually be leaving a much more lucrative position.
Lambert is executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission, which makes sure the tribe’s gambling operations, whether in the casino or tribal bingo, are on the up and up.
The TGC regulates gambling licenses, monitors casino payouts to ensure compliance with federal regulations and provides other oversight, such as background checks into managers and internal investigations.
Lambert’s base salary this year was $250,000, according to a gaming commission budget provided to The Smoky Mountain News. When you add in the fringe benefits, bonuses and vacation pay, the total comes to $446,355.
Lambert said that weighing his salary against the pay of public officials isn’t a fair comparison. Elected tribal leaders are public servants, while he is in the gaming industry, he said. It’s business versus government, and the two will never be equal, he argued.
“It’s no secret that I make a substantially larger amount than the chief does, and my salary is graded on a national comparison level with my years of experience and qualifications,” said Lambert.
Lambert believes his opponents are publicizing his pay as a tactic to divert public attention from what he considers the real issues of the campaign.
Lambert’s pay doesn’t come directly from the tribe like the principal and vice chief’s salaries.
The gaming commission gets its money from the businesses it’s regulating: it is funded by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, the management entity that oversees Harrah’s operations. To a lesser extent, the commission is also funded by the Tribal Bingo Enterprise and revenue generators such as background checks and license fees that it charges the gambling operations.
Indirectly, however, both salaries spring from the same fiscal headwaters: gaming revenues.
And both are significantly higher than the average in Cherokee.
In Jackson and Swain counties, which the reservation straddles, the median household income is $36,761. Statewide, it’s $43,754.
Principal Chief Hicks makes more than North Carolina’s governor. Lambert’s base pay surpasses that of the vice president of the United States.
Lambert’s compensation is based on the results of a tribal pay scale study done every few years by an outside firm, which looks at comparable jobs around the country and what people in those posts are paid.
The principal chief’s salary is decided by tribal council. Tribal council also vote on their own salaries ($70,000 a year each), and that of the vice chief.
It’s difficult to gauge whether Hicks’ or Lambert’s incomes match comparable positions elsewhere. Salaries in the private gaming sector aren’t public information, and a good many tribal governments don’t offer that information up, either.
A few tribes do have pay stats out there, mostly as a result of a public row over whether the pay is too high.
The principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma currently makes $122,444, but a committee suggested this spring that the number be raised to $170,697 over the next four years. The Sisseton–Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota pay their top guy $80,000, decreased from $100,000 just this year.
For Lambert’s position, it’s even harder to determine. He maintains that a fair comparison would pit him against people such as Darold Londo, general manager at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Londo’s salary isn’t public, and neither are those of many other top gaming officials, making the suggested comparisons impossible.
Recruiting firm Bristol Associates does an annual survey of gaming executives, and it reports that top spots in gaming can bring from $100,000 to $400,000 on average.
Lambert defended his pay, and said that if he won the chief’s seat, he wouldn’t keep his current job or the salary that comes with it.
“I’m a licensed attorney, I’ve got over 18 years of experience in this field, and we’ve been very successful. And the pay classification study proves that out,” said Lambert. “To me, if a man’s willing to take a cut in pay to do public service, to me I think that’s a good sign.”
Tribal council members also will have to defend their pay to voters. Their $70,000 annual payout far surpasses the $13,951 made yearly by North Carolina state legislators. In fact, only three states pay their lawmakers as much. However, it’s far below the $174,000 paid to members of the U.S. Congress.
Tribal council isn’t allowed to raise the pay of a sitting council; they can only decide what the next council should make. Usually, those raises are given in the October lame-duck council session.
Council Chairman Jim Owle wouldn’t speak directly to whether he thought the council members’ salaries were fair.
“The pay is what it is, it’s set by tribal council. It’s something that’s voted on in council, and if they think that’s what’s right, that’s what’s voted on,” said Owle, noting that any tribal member could bring a resolution to change it if they were unhappy with the pay.
Salaries aren’t the only benefits afforded to tribal officials. Starting at age 50, all former chiefs, vice chiefs and tribal council members are afforded a pension that can be up to half of their in-office salary, depending on how long they served.
Tribal council in a split vote in 2009 made the decision to increase pension benefits, a controversial move in the midst of a recession.
Should Hicks lose the election and leave office, when he hits 50 in three years he’ll start getting a pension that’s worth half of his salary — or $71,229 a year for the rest of his life.
The chief’s spouses is also entitled to a lifelong pension if the chief dies, equal to a quarter of the chief’s last salary for two-term chiefs and an eighth for one-term chiefs.
The vice chief’s retirement plan follows the same rules as principal chief.
Tribal council members don’t get quite as much. When they hit 50, they’ll get between 12 and 75 percent of their salary depending on how many years they served.
Winners of principal and vice chief, the 12 tribal council seats and some school board positions will be decided during the Sept. 1 election.
Principal chief candidate Patrick Lambert is calling foul after refusing to divulge his pay information to the tribe’s internal auditors. Lambert said they were trying to expose his personal information as a political smear.
The tribe’s internal audit office told Lambert it needed to know his salary at the Tribal Gaming Commission to prepare taxes for the Cherokee Youth Center/Boys & Girls Club. Lambert is a board member. The IRS, it claimed, needed the income paid to any board member of the Boys & Girls club by a related entity.
Both the Boys & Girls Club and gaming commission are tribal operations, so that means related, said the auditor.
Lambert, however, said “no.” Of all the people who sit on that board, why, he asked, was he being singled out?
“Nobody else was contacted to my knowledge,” said Lambert. “I refused to give my W2s. There’s often times people on these volunteer charity boards refuse to give these things, and the IRS accepts that fact if the organization has used reasonable effort.”
Auditor Sharon Blankenship, however, wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. She came to the office of the Tribal Gaming Commission, looking for the documents herself.
She was rebuffed there, as well, and asked to leave after Lambert’s staff put in a call to the Cherokee Police Department. Cherokee Code says that no one but a gaming commissioner can access gaming commission files.
Lambert charges that the effort to uncover his salary is politically motivated, an attempt by the current administration to use it as a smear campaign against him. Blankenship contends that she’s just trying to follow the rules set by the IRS.
The issue came up in a special session of tribal council last Wednesday, where Council Member Teresa McCoy asked why the audit office was going after the papers now.
“I was on that board in 2010 and nobody came to my house and said, ‘I want to look at your tax papers,’” said McCoy.
Blankenship, however, defended her actions. They did, she said, get in touch with everyone and the gaming commission is the only one that didn’t provide salary information.
In the end, Lambert’s attorney turned in an IRS form, but maintained that Lambert is in no way obligated to give out his W2s.