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People rarely, if ever, get into a career in public service to get rich, according to popular wisdom. As it turns out, some salaries are more generous than others.
Carolina Public Press recently requested records from each of the 19 counties in Western North Carolina to show what top officials make in each county. Comparing these records shows that some county government jobs and elected positions in the region are far more lucrative than others and not every county apportions its resources in a similar fashion.
In 12 of the state’s 19 westernmost counties, for instance, the county manager is the highest-paid public official, with salaries ranging from almost $250,000 per year in Buncombe County, the largest salary for a single public official in the region, to less than $55,000 per year for the county manager in Mitchell County.
Carolina Public Press submitted records requests for a summary of the salaries and benefits of the 10 highest paid employees in each county, as well as the compensation packages for elected officials employed by the counties. An analysis of those documents showed large disparities, in some cases, in how counties compensate their employees.
This article focuses on non-elected positions not connected to education. Upcoming articles will look at pay levels for county commissioners, sheriffs and other elected offices, as well as for school officials.
County managers lead the way
The county manager, whom county commissioners typically hire, is often the highest-profile unelected official in a county’s government. The manager, according to North Carolina law, is responsible for preparing the county budget, hiring and firing county employees, supervising the operation of county departments and implementing the rulings passed down by commissioners. Every county in WNC operates under a “county-manager plan.”
The manager is the highest-paid public employee in 12 of the 19 WNC counties.
However, in Clay, Graham, Haywood and Madison counties, dentists employed by the county health department are the highest paid employees.
Jackson County’s finance director, Cherokee County’s attorney and Mitchell County’s human resources director are the highest paid employees in those counties.
In Buncombe County, County Manager Wanda Greene receives an annual salary of $241,791 per year — the highest salary for any public official in the region. Greene became the manager of Buncombe County, the region’s most populous, in 1997.
Steve Wyatt, the manager of neighboring Henderson County, holds the second-highest salary for a county manager in the region at $185,000. Wyatt’s compensation package includes a $7,800 car allowance, a $700 phone allowance and more than $70,000 in bonuses.
Burke County Manager Brian Steen receives a $158,100 per year salary and a $5,000 per year travel allowance. Haywood County Manager Ira Dove makes almost $145,000 per year and Jackson County manager Don Adams Jr. makes $125,010 per year. Macon County’s Derek Roland ($120,000), Rutherford County’s Steve Garrison ($105,806), Transylvania County’s Jaime Laughter ($100,023) and Watauga County’s Deron Geouque ($118,213) round out the county managers in the region making more than $100,000 per year.
On the lower end of the spectrum, Mitchell County Manager Charles Vines receives a salary of $54,446 per year, the lowest for a manager in the region and lower than that county’s human resources director, DSS director, finance director and tax assessor. Yancey County Manager Nathan Bennett receives a $65,586 salary per year and Graham County Manager Mike Edwards receives a salary of $67,995 per year.
Several counties have assistant county managers who make almost as much as their bosses.
Talmadge Blevins is the Haywood County assistant manager and director of the Haywood Health and Human Services Agency and receives a yearly salary of $109,240. Henderson County Assistant County Manager Amy Brantley makes $128,750 per year, in addition to a $3,900 car allowance, $772 phone allowance, $9,000 merit bonus and $3,553 retention bonus.
McDowell County Assistant County Manager Ronald Harmon makes $58,902 per year. Transylvania County’s assistant manager, David McNeill, makes $92,199 annually.
Buncombe County’s top-tier employees are, for the most part, the highest paid in the region. County health center physician director, Jennifer Mullendore, makes $195,944 per year. Budget Director Diane Price, Planning Director and Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton and Health and Human Services Director and Assistant County Manager Amanda Stone each make $173,000 per year. Tax Director Gary Roberts and Finance Director Timothy Flora make $156,432 per year. All of Buncombe County’s 10 highest-paid employees make more than $145,000 per year.
In Henderson County, the 10 highest-paid public employees all make more than $100,000 per year. County Attorney Charles Burrell receives an annual salary of $152,000 per year and a $10,575 retention bonus. Assistant County Manager Amy Brantley receives $128,750 per year, a $9,000 merit bonus and a $3,500 retention bonus.
WNC’s smallest counties by population, Clay, Graham and Swain, also have some of the lowest salaries in the region. Clay County dentist Ruth Lima ($117,062) and Graham County dentist Rory Frederick ($141,356) are the only public employees in those counties making more than $100,000 per year. Swain County Manager Kevin King receives an annual salary of $96,294, and also receives a $5,850 mileage allowance and has $6,000 worth of insurance paid by the county.
Yancey County, another of WNC’s smaller counties, has four law enforcement officers among its 10 highest-paid public employees. Chief Deputy Shane Hilliard ($54,097 salary per year), Lt. John Robinson ($50,304), Lt. Ryan Higgins ($49,008) and Lt. Daniel Hughes ($49,008) each also have a take-home car, in addition to their annual salaries.
Other counties with law enforcement officers in their list of highest paid employees include Avery County Chief Deputy Troy Cook ($56,890) and Chief Jailer Trina Cook ($54,702), McDowell County Chief Deputy Rick Buchanan ($63,462), Rutherford County chief deputy Jeff Buchanan ($64,394) and Swain County chief deputy Jason Gardner ($47,476).