While Cleveland County officials froze salaries for local government employees in early 2009 as a cost-saving measure, the county continued to give its county manager five-figure annual bonuses.

Beginning in 2008, County Manager David Dear received four one-time bonuses of $10,068 in an effort by county commissioners to dissuade him from retirement and as a reward for attracting new economic development to Cleveland County, County Commission Chairman Johnny Hutchins said.

“During the time that the salaries were frozen, our county manager was deciding whether to take retirement. This was part of keeping him on. We had some economic development projects going on at the time,” Hutchins said.

When the bonuses were given, the unemployment rate for the county peaked at 16.1 percent as individuals struggled to endure the stagnant economy.

In June, Cleveland County’s unemployment rate (not seasonally adjusted) stood at 12.1 percent, compared with a statewide rate 10.4 percent. The seasonally adjusted figure for North Carolina was 9.9 percent.

“David plays a dual role, that some county managers might or might not do,” Hutchins added. “He puts together our incentives packages and coordinates economic development for us that’s made us successful in attracting some businesses.”

To retain the county manager and avoid the search for a replacement during the stagnant economy, the board of commissioners viewed the bonuses as necessary.

No other county employees have received bonuses, but Cleveland County increased health insurance benefits for employees in lieu of salary increases. In some cases, Hutchins said, the increase in benefits may exceed a cost of living adjustment.

To compensate employees for the pay freeze, the Cleveland County budget for fiscal year 2011-12 included bonus vacation hours based on years of service. Next year, the county commissioners expect to approve “a good cost of living increase,” Hutchins said.

As county manager, Dear played primary roles in attracting economic development projects from companies including Clearwater Paper, Southern Power, and Duke Energy, Hutchins said.

The Clearwater Paper development project is expected to create 260 full-time jobs, according to the minutes from the June 7 commission meeting. The building of a Duke Energy training center is expected to create between 75 and 125 new jobs, reported The Star, a Cleveland County newspaper, in a July article.

Cleveland County is obligated contractually to compensate the county manager at a minimum rate of $135,700. In addition, Dear receives a yearly discretionary allowance of $7,200, increased from $4,800 in 2008 by the board of commissioners. Commissioners don’t monitor the use of the allowance.

Analyzing data on 84 of North Carolina’s 100 counties compiled by the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (complete data were unavailable for some counties), Cleveland County ranks 31st in property valuations, while paying its county manager salary the 16th-highest salary.

Compared with 2007, before the recession began, Cleveland County added 11 public workers to the ranks of those earning $60,000 per year or more, a 52 percent increase.

Anthony Hennen is an editorial intern for Carolina Journal. Associate Editor David N. Bass contributed reporting to this story.