Newton County Commissioner J.C. Henderson was issued a paycheck advance of $4,500 on Aug. 15. He paid everything back by Aug. 25.
On Wednesday, Henderson called it a “county advance loan” on his paycheck as commissioner, to help pay his son Anthony Henderson’s college tuition on extremely short notice.
Commissioner Levie Maddox isn’t happy with it.
“The last board addressed this issue and I believe discontinued the practice; I have asked for clarity from the professionals staff on what specifically happened and how to better checks & balance measures moving forward,” Maddox wrote in an email Tuesday. “In addition, I do believe that the county should have a policy that allows structured cash advances to employees under a documented hardship. Any and all types of loan scenarios are unacceptable.”
Commissioner John Douglas said “there’s something to it,” but wouldn’t elaborate. He referred all questions to Commission Chairman Keith Ellis.
Ellis said the loan was a last-minute attempt to help Henderson’s son attend college.
“It was a short period of time to make a decision. His grant in aid was not available as they had planned for Tuskegee University,” Ellis said. “I tried to contact the county manager, was not able to reach him, we had a couple hours to make the decision. It was short-term loan. I did talk with the county attorney about payroll. I checked; it had been done before on multiple occasions and it’s all been paid back.”
Ellis said no other commissioner was involved, nor did they have “any knowledge or notice of the requested salary advance until after the advance had already been made. I deeply regret and apologize for the embarrassment this matter has caused them.”
Commissioner Nancy Schulz said in an email that she was informed Aug. 15 by a voter that Henderson received the cash advance, and she issued a “call to action” to the commissioners Aug. 19. In that call to action, she wrote that the she hoped the money had been returned to the county general fund (it was by Aug. 25, she said).
Also, she wrote that “it is imperative that the (BOC) take corrective action this evening … to prevent any further incidences of compromising the trust of our constituents who have entrusted us with the fiduciary responsibility of using their tax dollars wisely and putting at risk attracting jobs and industry by showing favoritism to elected officials.”
Maddox said: “Elected officials should serve the public — period. I need to get the facts in front of me, but this does not seem to pass the smell test.”
Commissioners are paid $15,000, with a 5 percent increase allotted after completing training and each additional re-election. Commissioners are not considered county employees.
They “should be held to a higher ethical standard,” Maddox said. “I’d also add that Commissioner Henderson is a good man, trying (with the loan) to put his kids through school and college. We can all relate to this. It is not his burden that mistakes were made in his request for a cash advance.”
Ellis said the timing was key: “I had only two hours within which to decide what to do and I believed a young man’s future hung in the balance. Apparently, tuition financial aid promised to Commissioner Henderson’s son for playing basketball did not come through after the coach who extended the offer left Tuskegee University unexpectedly.
“I received the request for a $4,500 salary advance the day classes were to begin. The family had tried without success, on very short notice, to secure a loan from other sources,” he said. “The payroll department confirmed salary advances had been made to both employees and commissioners in the past. The county clerk searched records and found no board policy to prohibit salary advances. Finally, I contacted the county attorney’s office and asked if there were any legal problems with approving a payroll deduction to repay a loan.
“The attorney thought I was talking about a private loan rather than a county loan, and indicated there was no legal problem using the payroll deduction method to repay a private loan. I then made my decision with my heart rather than my head.
“The bottom line is a kid is in college and the loan has been repaid.”
Similar loans have indeed been made in the past. In October 2011, $300 was issued to Jimmy Aikens of the Public Works Department, according to an open records request made by the Covington News. Similarly, Carlton Patterson of the same department received a $250 advance in June 2010. Still other employees received paycheck advances in earlier years; Henderson himself received $1,000 in October 2007.
The plan was for Henderson to pay back the most recent loan in monthly allocations of $86.54 beginning Aug. 29, but he promised in writing – and delivered on that promised – to pay it back early if possible.
“It was paid back last week,” Henderson said.