Audit shows troubled status

Published 6:42 am Wednesday, October 17, 2007

By Staff
An audit of Albemarle Mental Health Center’s finances should be enough to quiet some critics who maintain that Beaufort County should have remained tied to that organization.
The report, issued last week, lays out in detail areas where the center went over the edge in terms of expenses.
Beaufort County commissioners voted to merge with East Carolina Behavioral Alliance rather than AMHC in January. The county’s mental-health services were previously provided by Tideland Mental Health Center, which was one county shy of meeting state-mandated population requirements for mental-health agencies.
The program director’s $282,663 salary has been a lightning rod for criticism, but it wasn’t the only problem found by State Auditor Leslie Merritt’s office. Charlie Franklin’s salary is just the tip of the iceberg, and Albemarle’s failure to acknowledge that it’s a problem is even more troubling.
The average salary for a mental-health program director in North Carolina is $115,431. Franklin’s salary of $282,663 was more than $100,000 higher than the second-highest such salary which is paid to the director of the Piedmont program. The Piedmont program serves 685,297 people and is the third-largest in the state. The Albemarle program serves 137,000 and ranks 26th out of the 30 programs in the state.
What Franklin earned isn’t anything new, but some of the other findings in the audit are.
In addition to the $23,000 a month Franklin gets as director, he gets $1,000 a month for “auto depreciation.” That’s on top of the travel costs he gets and that are paid based on the IRS mileage rate.
The IRS rate alone should be enough, according to the audit.
So Franklin got $20,677 in mileage reimbursements plus $12,000 in depreciation. For $32,677 a year, Albemarle could buy a nice car, keep it filled with fuel and still be better off.
In its response to the salary expenses, Albemarle used the argument that it paid a higher salary because it wanted to attract and keep the best possible employees and board members.
In that vein, the board members were well taken care of.
One example was the state fall conference held Sept. 18-21, 2005, at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville. The audit identified payments totaling $28,347 for the four-day event, $17,792 of which were tied to the board of directors.
The agency paid $12,476 in hotel costs for board members to stay at the Inn on Biltmore Estates for the period of Sept. 18-22. That wasn’t the official conference hotel of the meeting, and the conference concluded business at noon on Sept. 21.
Albemarle also paid $2,166 in transportation costs to individual board members traveling to and from Asheville.
There was also the $2,302 in costs related to a buffet meal attended by board members, spouses, center employees and consultants (total of 24 persons.) That included an invoice for a service fee for a bartender. At $96 a head, that must have been a pretty nice buffet.
OK, let’s assume that this meeting was so important that board members gathered so much information that they could go back to Elizabeth City and be better at their jobs. But the auditor says the conference focused on technical aspects of mental-health administrative issues and the subjects discussed would have limited benefit to a board member. If it looks like a junket, walks like a junket, it’s a junket.
Beaufort County Commissioner Al Klemm stands by his decision to break the ties with that “team.”