County strikes take-home vehicle policy resolution; keeps plan in place

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Four county department heads begin receiving commuting stipend

By Caroline Curran, Reporter

BOLIVIA—Brunswick County Commissioners last week revoked a resolution that enacted the county’s take-home vehicle policy.

But county commissioners chairman Bill Sue and county commissioner Marty Cooke said the plan remains intact.

Cooke said commissioners nixed the resolution, which they approved March 16, because the language of the resolution was in violation of state law. Cooke said the “spirit of the policy” has not changed, including approving five county department heads to receive a $4,000 annual commuting stipend in lieu of commuting in county vehicles.

County manager Marty Lawing, assistant county manager Steve Stone, public utilities director Jerry Pierce and parks and recreation director Jim Pryor each received their first $153.85 installment of their stipend on their last paycheck, county finance director Ann Hardy said.

The resolution also approved the same payout to county health director Don Yousey, but left the decision as to whether or not he would receive it up to the county health board.

Hardy said the $4,000 stipend would be paid out in 26 installments of $153.85. While the $153.85 is subject to state and federal withholding and Social Security and Medicare, the money is not eligible for retirement contributions. The county pays $11.77 for Social Security and Medicare for each $153.85 payment, Hardy said.

Those department heads will also keep their county vehicles to drive while on county business, Lawing told commissioners when the policy was approved in March.

Lawing said the vehicles were part of their compensation package, and therefore they would be paid a stipend for not commuting in county vehicles.

A Beacon reporter obtained copies of Lawing’s and Stone’s employment contracts, neither of which mentions a vehicle for commuting, only for county business.

According to Lawing’s contract, “Lawing’s duties require that he shall have and operate a vehicle while performing the duties required pursuant to this agreement and county shall provide an adequate vehicle of its choosing to Lawing in the conduct of his employment, and should Lawing choose to use his own vehicle, county will pay Lawing for his mileage at the then current rate of compensation as for other county employees.”

When asked about the discrepancy between the employment contracts and what was presented to commissioners for their approval—that vehicles were part of their compensation package—Lawing said the wording in the contract was wrong.

“We had a clear understanding when we came on board that we’d be commuting in those vehicles,” Lawing said.

Sue said he hadn’t read Lawing’s contract, but said Lawing had been commuting in his county vehicle since being hired by the county in 2001.

“At the time we hired Marty it was the intent of the commissioners to allow him to commute with it. All these years he has been using it to commute,” Sue said.

Sue said Lawing and Stone are also on call as part of their job responsibilities.

“[Lawing’s] on call anytime day or night. He is responsible for half of the departments out there, and Steve’s responsible for the other half,” Sue said. “What we’ve tried to do is not take anything away from anybody when they’ve been enjoying that benefit if there’s been a legitimate [reason].”

In an Aug. 5, 2008, letter from Stone to Pryor, in which Pryor was offered the position of parks and recreation director, it states Pryor was to receive a county vehicle for business use.

“This vehicle is being provided to address a business need of Brunswick County and should not be considered a personal fringe benefit. The vehicle is not for your personal use,” the letter states.

“All I know is I was told that he would have use of a car. All I can tell you from that standpoint, a lot of activities take place at night. A lot of times his presence is required,” Sue said about Pryor commuting.

In a 2005 letter from Lawing to Pierce, it states Pierce would receive a county vehicle, but makes no mention of commuting or personal use.

Sue said Pierce is also on call, and must respond to any utilities emergency.

“Jerry is the same way. If anything happens from a utility perspective, you can’t wait to respond to things like that. You’ve got to respond.”

Cooke and Sue said they did not read the employment contracts or letters before approving the vehicle policy.

County attorney Huey Marshall said even if commissioners didn’t read the contracts, they had access to them.

“I had them. They had access to the records. I thought they had seen them. They were available to them,” Marshall said.

Before approving any policy, “Certainly, I would advise you get everything in writing,” Marshall said.

Take-home vehicle plan

Even with the changes to the resolution, Cooke maintains the plan was well thought out and remains intact.

“Those vehicles are not going home. It’s done. It’s toast. I’m over it. If it comes down to if anything’s changed, no, nothing’s changed. The proclamation didn’t mirror general statute. The only thing we’ve really changed is the proclamation. As far as the policy, none of that’s changing at all.”

Cooke said the resolution was struck only because of the language.

“We struck language that goes against the way the law was written. The policy still stands,” Cooke said. “We’re not going back to the days of these folks driving vehicles home any more. As far as the spirit of what we’ve done, it still stands: No vehicles are going home.”

Sue agreed.

“Too many people were driving home. Some people need access to the vehicle, especially in emergency and utilities [departments] because they’re on call,” Sue said.

The previously approved resolution states, “Employees and officials of Brunswick County are prohibited from using county owned vehicles for personal use, except for commuting when authorized to do so by the county manager,” a violation of North Carolina Law.

According to N.C. General Statute 14-247, “It shall be unlawful for any officer, agent or employee of the state of North Carolina, or of any county or of any institution or agency of the state, to use for any private purpose whatsoever any motor vehicle of any type or description whatsoever belonging to the state, or to any county, or to any institution of the state.”

The statute provides for certain state employees to commute in state-owned vehicles, but makes no provisions for county employees who drive county-owned vehicles.

“My understanding of commuting is that it is not personal use. We have to look at the reasonableness [as it pertains] to public safety as paramount,” Cooke said.

The policy, which excludes all sheriff’s deputies, was approved after a committee made the vehicle policy recommendations to commissioners.

Cooke, who sat on the committee, said the committee met several times over several months to develop the best policy to save the county money and for the county to come into IRS compliance.

For some county employees, including emergency services director Randy Thompson and his deputy directors, they can continue to commute in their county vehicles, but are subject to the IRS $3-per-day commuting rule.

“Five employees that would take an assigned vehicle home on a daily basis. These employees may qualify for a commuting rule citing a bona fide business use,” Lawing said. “They must keep a log of business and personal use and must be responsible for a fringe benefit liability.”

The IRS fringe benefit liability is $780 per year, he said.

“We met back in November, and we came up with a policy then. Then what we did was we re-visited it, then we had another one. We went back and revisited it again. I think, honestly, we tried to do everything we could. We really did,” Cooke said.

“We try to do everything in a fair, open and equitable basis.”

With the exception of a few on-call county employees, no county employee can commute in county vehicles.