County commissioners in North Carolina control some of the most important facets of a community, including the county tax rate, development and rezoning policy, the makeup of county departments, compensation of county employees and, in some cases, large portions of a county’s education funding.
Another thing they control: Their own salaries.
Every commissioner in Western North Carolina receives a salary, the level of which the board of commissioners sets in the county’s budget, according to North Carolina law. Those salaries vary greatly between counties, as do the benefits like health insurance and retirement payments that commissioners receive. Sometimes they vary based on the size or economic prosperity of the county, but not always.
Carolina Public Press requested records detailing the compensation packages for county commissioners from each of the 19 WNC counties. The only county that did not provide those records in a timely manner was Haywood County, though older figures from another source are provided below.
Although counties can have different numbers of commissioners on their board, each of the 19 WNC counties has a five-member board.
Highs and lows
Buncombe County commissioners are, by far, the highest paid in the region. It’s also much more populous than the other counties.
Former Buncombe chairman David Gantt received an annual salary of $37,650. That seat was claimed by Democrat Brownie Newman, the former vice chairman of the board, in November’s election. Newman, as vice chairman, received an annual salary of $31,254. Each of the other commissioners receives $26,475 per year. Commissioners elected Ellen Frost to serve as vice chair at a meeting earlier in December. Records show that, prior to her election as vice chair, Frost was receiving a salary of $28,916 per year, slightly higher than other commissioners.
By comparison, the per capita income in Buncombe County for 2015 was $27,066, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Henderson County, the second largest in the region, with about half of the population of Buncombe County, pays its commissioners an annual salary of $11,917 for regular members and $19,194 for the chairman. Each commissioner receives a travel allowance of $3,649.99. The chairman also receives a $546 mobile-phone allowance. Henderson County commissioners additionally receive $75 for each special called meeting – these are meetings that they commissioners call apart from their regular meeting schedules.
Avery County commissioners are the lowest-paid in the region, with regular members receiving a salary of $5,665 per year. The board’s chair receives $8,755 per year. Mitchell County commissioners are paid $6,300 for regular members and $8,100 for the chairman. Polk County officials range from $6,100 for regular members, $6,822 for the vice chair and $7,534 for the chairman.
In Graham County, WNC’s smallest county by population with 8,600 residents, according to census data, commissioners make $7,040 per year. Clay County, with a slightly larger population than Graham County at 10,700 residents, pays its commissioners $10,452 per year for regular members and $16,066 per year for the chairman. Clay commissioners also receive a $2,400 travel stipend. Swain County, with a population of $14,400, pays its chairman $12,545 per year and a $3,900 mileage allowance. Regular commissioners are paid $6,273 per year and are given a $3,250 mileage allowance.
The following list gives the basic numbers for each county, with the population number in parenthesis next to each county being the July 2015 estimate from the state Office of Budget and Management.
Avery County (pop. 17,816)
Buncombe County (pop. 254,836)
Vice chairman: $31,254
Burke County (pop. 89,114)
Chairman: $9,094.08, $720 (mileage), $480 (cellphone)
Commissioners: $8,074.38, $720 (mileage), $480 (cellphone)
Cherokee County (pop. 27,770)
Clay County (pop. 11,036)
Graham County (pop. 8,761)
Haywood County (pop. 60,631)
Editor’s note: Haywood County responded to CPP’s requests for other county salaries, but so far not those for county commissioners, though no one has said that the county is refusing to provide this information. The figures below are for the 2014-2015 fiscal year and are taken from a report by the University of North Carolina School of Government. This information will be updated if Haywood County provides the requested information.
Henderson County (pop. 112,511)
Chairman: $19,194, $546 (phone), $3,949 (mileage)
Vice chairman/commissioners: $11,917, $3,649 (mileage)
Jackson County (pop. 41,597)
Chairman: $17,096.51, $2,600 (mileage)
Commissioners: $12,164.41, $2,600 (mileage)
Macon County (pop. 34,771)
Chairman: $11,724.63, $4,800 (mileage)
Commissioners: $10,062.70, $4,800 (mileage)
Madison County (pop. 21,663)
Chairman: $7,702, $6,840 (mileage)
Commissioners: $5,269, $3,420 (mileage)
McDowell County (pop. 45,370)
Mitchell County (pop. 15,335)
Polk County (pop. 20,828)
Vice chairman: $6,822.92
Rutherford County (pop. 67,617)
Swain County (pop. 14,953)
Chairman: $12,545, $3,900 (mileage)
Vice chairman/commissioners: $6,273, $3,250 (mileage)
Transylvania County (pop. 33,745)
Watauga County (pop. 53,737)
Chairman: $8,688, $3,325.80 (mileage)
Commissioners: $7,212, $2,426.88 (mileage)
Yancey County (pop. 17,959)