County Commissioners’ Control Over Local Board of Elections’ Employees

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Kara Millonzi

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A county’s board of commissioners (BOC) has the power and responsibility to “develop() and direct() the fiscal policy of the county government.” G.S. 153A-101. The board adopts the annual county budget ordinance, as well as capital project ordinances, and has much discretion in allocating funds among the various county government activities. There are some limits to this authority, though. This is because county governments are highly decentralized. Although a BOC serves as a county’s general governing body, it shares authority over many governmental functions with other elected county officials and other semi-autonomous boards and agencies. This shared authority gives rise to tensions, and sometimes outright conflict, between county commissioners and other elected officials and boards. And the statutory delineations of authority between and among the various officials and boards are not always clear, which only adds to the confusion.

One area in particular that often leads to disputes between a BOC and other elected officials and boards is control over personnel—both in determining the number of employees that may be employed by a particular department or board and in setting their compensation, other benefits and terms of employment.

A recent North Carolina Court of Appeals opinion highlights this tension in the context of a dispute between the Graham County BOC and the Graham County Board of Elections (BOE) over which body had the authority to set the number (and terms of employment) of board of election employees. In Graham County Board of Elections v. Graham County Board of Commissioners, — S.E.2d —-, 2011 WL 2207576 (N.C. App. June 7, 2011), the court held that a BOC has “no authority to determine the number of county board of elections employees if those employees can be compensated within the budget established by the county commissioners.” This post takes a closer look at the implications of the court’s decision. 

Facts of Graham County Case

In its FY 09-10 budget ordinance, the Graham County BOC apparently appropriated funds for two full-time employees of the local BOE. The BOC subsequently amended the budget ordinance to eliminate one of the full-time positions, replacing it with a part-time position. Despite the budget amendment, the BOE employed one full-time employee (the director of elections) and hired two part-time employees. Graham County’s finance officer informed the BOE that it could only hire one part-time employee, pursuant to the amended budget ordinance, and the county refused to pay the second part-time employee. Significantly, although the BOC had amended the budget ordinance to reduce the personnel appropriation to the BOE, the record indicated that there were sufficient funds to pay both part-time employees for the remainder of the budget year. The BOE filed a petition for a writ of mandamus seeking to compel the BOC to pay the second part-time employee her salary and benefits. The superior court issued the writ, and the BOC paid the employee her salary and benefits. The BOC subsequently appealed the superior court’s order.

Court of Appeal’s Analysis

After determining that the case was not moot, and that the BOE was a distinct legal entity from the county with the authority to sue and be sued (a topic for a future post), the court turned to the subject of the writ.

The county argued, among other things, that because the BOE employees are county employees, the BOC is statutorily authorized to determine the number of BOE employees and to set their compensation. (G.S. 163-35(c) specifies that the director of elections is a county employee and the court inferred from this that other BOE staff also are county employees.) The court acknowledged that G.S. 153A-92 delegates to a county’s BOC the authority to “fix or approve the schedule of pay, expense allowances, and other compensation” for all county employees and officials, which, according to the court, supported the county’s argument that its board of commissioners had the “discretion to determine the number and pay of all [BOE] employees.”

The court determined, however, that this broad grant of authority to the BOC is limited by more specific statutory delegations of authority to the BOE, at least with respect to certain personnel matters. Specifically, G.S. 163-33(10) gives a BOE the power to “appoint and remove the board’s clerk, assistant clerks, and other employees . . . .” Furthermore, G.S. 163-32 authorizes a BOE to pay its employees “such compensation as it shall fix within budget appropriations.”

The court thus concluded that “so long as a county board of elections remains within the budget allocated by the local board of county commissioners, the county board of elections has the sole authority to hire and fire elections employees.” The court went even further—stating that “county boards of commissioners have no authority to determine the number of county board of elections employees if those employees can be compensated within the budget established by the county commissioners.”

Implications of Graham County Case

It is important not to read the Graham County Board of Elections opinion too broadly, though. The court’s holding does not suggest that a BOC has no role in determining the number of local board of elections staff or in setting limits on their compensation. A BOE must make its hiring and compensation decisions within the budgetary appropriations adopted by the BOC. A BOC may make its annual budget appropriations by department, function or project. G.S. 159-13(a). If it appropriates funds by function, the BOC may cap the total amount of funds that may be spent by the BOE on salaries and benefits.

In fact, in a footnote, the court acknowledged that a BOC remains “free to fix the overall budget for the county board of elections” as long as the budget complies with the directives in G.S. 163-37 (requiring a BOC to “appropriate reasonable and adequate funds necessary for the legal functions of the county board of elections, including reasonable and just compensation of the director of elections”) and G.S. 163-35(c) (requiring a BOC to compensate the director of elections at a specified minimum salary and to provide the director of elections the same vacation leave, sick leave, and petty leave as granted to all other county employees). Thus, in each fiscal year, the BOC may set the total amount of salary and benefits for the BOE personnel. The BOE then determines how many staff members to hire and how to allocate the salary and benefits among its employees. 

Further, with a few exceptions, a BOC has broad authority to amend its budget ordinance any time after its adoption. (Click here for a discussion of a board’s amendment authority.) The BOC may reduce its appropriation to the BOE at any time during the fiscal year. And, if it appropriates funds by function, it may reduce its BOE’s salary and benefits allocation. Such a budget reduction may force the BOE to make personnel changes. It is up to the BOE to determine how to make the changes, though. The BOC may not dictate how the salary and benefit reductions are applied. (Note that in reducing its appropriations to a BOE, the BOC must continue to comply with the provisions of G.S. 163-37 and G.S. 163-35.)

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