Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 17, 2011

By Emily Ford
Few economic development organizations were as forthcoming with salary information as Robert Van Geons.
For Sunshine Week, the Post requested base salary, total compensation and other financial information from various economic development commissions and corporations in the Charlotte region.
Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development, responded promptly and without complaint.
Only Scott Millar, president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corporation, also replied by deadline with all salary and budget information requested by the Post, plus a photo.
Several area EDC directors said they needed approval from their boards before releasing salary information.
Michael Smith, executive director for the Greater Statesville Development Corp., said his organization is exempt from the request.
“We have been advised that as a nonprofit corporation and not a public body, we are not subject to the N.C. public records request,” Smith said in an e-mail to the Post.
When asked if he would provide his salary and total compensation anyway for comparison, Smith answered simply.
“No,” he wrote.
John Cox, president and CEO for the Cabarrus Regional Partnership, divulged his $163,000 salary even though it’s paid by private funds through the Cabarrus County Chamber of Commerce.
“My salary has been widely publicized already,” Cox said.
The Post used tax returns to discern other salaries, although the 990 forms available online were inconsistent with compensation information. Some years, the organizations listed president or executive director salaries, and other years they didn’t.
The Rowan County EDC hired Van Geons in January 2008 at a salary of at $90,000.
That year, the leader of the Greater Statesville Development Corp. made $100,800, and the leader of the Davidson County EDC made $120,996, up from $116,500 the year before, according to tax returns.
In July 2008, Van Geons’ pay increased to $93,690 after a six-month review. He also earned $7,500 in performance pay, for total compensation in 2008 of $99,345.
In 2009, Van Geons’ base salary continued at $93,690. With performance pay of $13,116, his total compensation that year came to $106,806.
By comparison, the leader of the Union County Partnership for Progress made $106,446 in 2009, and the leader of the Mooresville-South Iredell EDC made $112,750, according to tax returns.
Late in 2009, the Rowan County EDC Board of Directors eliminated performance pay and switched to a straight salary for Van Geons. His salary went up to $108,000 in January 2010.
In 2010, Millar in Catawba County made $118,573, plus a $2,938 bonus, for total compensation of $121,511.
Van Geons’ salary, still $108,000, has increased by $18,000 in two years.
“Since he has been with the EDC, the money he has helped bring to Rowan County in taxes and employment has far exceeded his salary,” said Dianne Greene, chairwoman for the EDC Board of Directors.
Van Geons said the salary increases were due to program changes and results the EDC has generated since he has taken the helm.
“We have become a much more comprehensive economic development agency and have initiated many new programs and services,” he said.
Under his direction, Van Geons said the EDC has recruited $677 million in investment and 2,100 jobs with projects including Altec, Duke Energy, Harmony Labs, Daimler Trucks, Norandal, Magna Composites and more.
The EDC has a house membership to the Salisbury County Club, which costs about $270 per month. The membership does not include golf and is used for business lunches and events, Van Geons said.
“If there were any personal use of the club, it would have to be repaid,” he said.
The EDC also leases a vehicle to transport clients, which costs $644.22 per month.
“I do take it the .6 miles home at night but pay taxes for any personal use,” Van Geons said.
Including Van Geons, four EDC employees receive a 1 percent Christmas bonus.
Members of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners have varied opinions on Van Geons’ salary.
“I think it’s way too high,” Jim Sides said. “I think a lot of these salaries are too high.”
Commenting on other Sunshine Week stories in the Post, Sides said when the governor makes $139,000, no one should make more than $200,000 to run a community college or close to $200,000 to run a school system.
“We’ve lost the worth and value of what people do,” he said.
Sides said he would remove EDC employees from the county’s health insurance plan if he had the votes. EDC employees pay $670 per month to participate in the county plan, Rowan County Finance Director Leslie Heidrick said, while county employees pay nothing.
Sides said the EDC should come under the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce or the Board of Commissioners so the county can exert more control over the $400,000 it contributes to the budget.
Three other commissioners disagreed.
Chad Mitchell, Raymond Coltrain and Jon Barber said Van Geons earns his keep, and the EDC is most effective when it operates as an independent body.
“The EDC needs to stay independent and let that board, with the best business leaders throughout our community, provide guidance,” Coltrain said. “We need to keep politics out of it.”
Barber said he views the EDC and Van Geons’ salary as an investment.
“One of our top priorities has to be job creation,” he said.
Commissioners appoint members to the EDC board and must approve economic incentives offered to companies. “The EDC can’t do a whole lot without the commissioners,” Coltrain said.
Commissioner Carl Ford praised Van Geons.
“He does a fantastic job, and nobody can question his work ethic,” Ford said.
But his salary, and the salaries of some county employees, are too high when compared with the private sector, Ford said.
“I’m not saying they don’t deserve that, but when you compare it to others in our area and what they do, it may be a little high,” he said.
Ford said he knows business recruiters in the private sector who make $20,000 to $30,000 less than Van Geons. He would not name them.
“It wouldn’t hurt if he didn’t see raise for a while,” Ford said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.