WILMINGTON, NC (WSFX) – When a town or county hires a manager, that person's salary is usually reported in the media. After all, that amount is public record, and it's paid for with tax money. But there's often less attention given to how much local governments will have to pay to get rid of a manger.
A Fox Wilmington investigation revealed that about a fourth of the managers in the five-county Wilmington region have contracts, or written employment agreements, that include severance agreements.
Under state law, those contracts can't stop elected officials from firing a manager, but they can make the boards think twice, because there's often a lot of taxpayer money at stake.
Most area managers who are under contract will get three to six months of pay if they're let go without cause.
Leland Town Manager David Hollis has one of the largest severance packages in the region.
If he is terminated due to no fault of his own, he will get $100,000, almost as much as he makes in a year.
"I have a commitment to the town and it shows their commitment to me," Hollis said. "I have a family. I have some responsibilities. I need some certainty that I'm going to be able to provide for them if I was to lose my job today."
Hollis manages day-to-day operations and long-term planning for the growing town. His responsibilities include overseeing an $8 million budget and 65 employees.
"There's a whole list of things that are just outside of the realm of any department," said Hollis, explaining those things fall to him.
Hollis said severance packages are common for private-sector managers with similar responsibilities, a point echoed by Ellis Hankins, executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
"A fair agreement with a reasonable severance period, I don't see that as a golden parachute," said Hankins. "I see that as treating the manager fairly and as a professional."
Severance payments aren't unprecedented in southeastern North Carolina.
After Oak Island Town Council fired Manager Jerry Walters in 2011, he sued when they refused to pay the severance outlined in his contract. The suit was eventually settled out of court.
In 2013, former Bladenboro Town Manager Delane Jackson was entitled to $30,000 after he resigned at the request of his council.
Part of Lake Waccamaw Town Manager Darren Currie's Contract is somewhat unusual – linking severance pay and politics.
If he is let go without cause within six months after a general election, the town has to pay him a year's salary.
Currie said the six months provides new council members with a chance to get to know him and how the town operates.
"There's a lot of dynamics going on at the same time that a new member is coming on and their learning curve is extremely steep," said Currie.
Contracts like Currie's aren't very common, but severance pay is, according to Hankins.
He believes the agreements, as long as they're not excessive, benefit local governments and managers by serving as recruitment tools and helping to set expectations.
"The manager doesn't have to worry every single day about whether he or she is going to keep the job," said Hankins. "They can make the decisions they believes are the right things, the right decisions to make and then see how that works out."
Click below for employment contracts for southeastern North Carolina managers:
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