ROCKINGHAM — Former County Manager Rick Sago has denounced accusations made last week by Commissioners Don Bryant and Herb Long as “spineless” and “slander.” He also said Tuesday that he planned to attend a Tuesday evening forum at which the two would be present but went instead to visit a grandson in the hospital.
During a public candidates’ forum last Thursday, Bryant and Long referred multiple times to Sago after being asked to justify budget cuts to the Sheriff’s Office in light of the county’s high crime rate. Bryant said current County Manager Bryan Land “inherited a mess” from Sago, later adding that the board was “falsified” to believe it was in better financial standing than it was, which led to budget cuts across all departments.
Long made the most damning statement, claiming that he confronted Sago about the merits of a particular revenue projection and said Sago responded with, “Let me do some research on that, and I’ll get back with you.” Long suggested that Sago retired as a way to avoid responsibility.
The state of the county’s finances has been publicly acknowledged as poor going into budget negotiations for the current fiscal year, but the claim that Sago “falsified” — implying that he intentionally misled the board — and the suggestion that he retired in response to being confronted has not been independently verified by the Daily Journal.
In an interview after the forum, Bryant clarified that he meant that Sago had done “a lot of good” for the county but “really overshot” the revenue projections for fiscal year 2016-17.
Both commissioners made statements in support of Sago’s character at other points in the forum.
Sago said in an email Tuesday that he informed the board of his plans to retire in a closed session of an April 2017 planning meeting. He submitted his resignation at the August 2017 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, officially leaving the position on Aug. 31. Land — then assistant county manager — served in the interim until November, when he officially took over the position.
“The only thing I am going to say is that I did not ‘falsify’ any numbers, and I in no way ‘abruptly’ retired,” Sago said in an email Monday, responding to initial reports on the candidates’ forum. “I am not sure why (Bryant and Long) decided to slander me at the forum, since I haven’t talked to either one.”
Sago provided the Daily Journal with a screenshot of a Facebook post apparently from Bryant’s personal page dated June 25, in which Bryant thanked “Rick Seago” for building business relationships in the county. The post is marked “public” in the screenshot but was no longer on Bryant’s page Tuesday.
“Does that sound like a Commissioner that didn’t like me or that I had given ‘falsified’ numbers to?” Sago said in the email Tuesday. “Another thing I want to point out is that I worked with Don Bryant from the beginning of his tenure as a Commissioner, and look how he spelled my name; my name is Sago not ‘Seago,’ and you think after so many years of working together he would know my name.”
Sago continued, saying the insinuations from the two commissioners had upset his family.
“Why two people would slander a citizen for political gain is beyond my comprehension,” he said. “Leaders do not spend their time looking backward and pointing fingers to deflect attention from themselves; they provide a vision then move forward to make that vision happen. … Finger-pointing and deflection does not make a person a leader.”
Long doubles down
In an interview Tuesday and at the Pints and Politics candidate forum Tuesday evening, Long doubled down on his statements from the previous forum, saying that both Sago and county Tax Administrator Vagas Jackson provided no answers when asked why projected revenue from vehicles taxes for fiscal 2017-18 was $828,000 higher than the previous year’s projections.
“I looked at it and said there is no way … Are cars going to take in taxes sitting in the lot?” Long said, adding that there was plenty of time to correct any mistakes. “If it was wrong, why didn’t he change it?”
On his statement that Sago retired before providing answers, Long backed off slightly on the implication that Sago was running away, but followed with more specifics that supported his overall point: Sago retired with very short notice at a crucial time for the county.
Long said his jaw dropped when Sago told the board on April 17, 2017 that he wanted to retire by Aug. 1 of that year, roughly 12 weeks later. Long said Sago worked for the county for about 20 years and to expect them to find a replacement in that time span put the board in a tough position.
“For a position that important, in charge of $58 million in taxpayer money, 46,000 people, and you only give 12 weeks’ notice — does that not toss caution to the wind?” Long said.
Sago planned to go to the Pints and Politics event Tuesday night but went to visit his grandson in the hospital, according to Tim Hayden, a friend and co-worker of Sago who spoke at the event.
Hayden directed a question at Bryant during the question-and-answer portion of the event Tuesday evening, citing the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government which outlines the responsibilities of county commissioners in regard to the budget.
Referring to Bryant’s statement to the Daily Journal on Friday that he was “not someone who goes through the books because I’m not even sure what I would be looking for,” Hayden asked how Bryant could fulfill his duty to the county if he does not understand budgets and further how he could hold public trust when makes what Hayden called unfounded public attacks on someone like Sago.
Bryant apologized for any offense Sago took from his statement that Sago had “falsified” budget projections to the board.
“I apologize. I worked with Rick Sago for seven years, (and) I have no problem with him whatsoever, and I like the guy,” Bryant said. “The problem was about a year ago, we all met on the budget, everything was looking rosy … so the commissioners decided to cut the taxes by 2 cents.”
Bryant and Commissioner Ben Moss — who was not present Tuesday — voted against the cut for the 17-18 fiscal year but it ultimately passed.
Moderator David Stogner later asked the commissioners if they received training on managing a budget when elected, to which Bryant responded that there is a five-day program in Chapel Hill that they attend but that his training did not involve budget management.
When further asked if he would support that kind of training, Bryant said he would rely on others with more expertise — like Long, the county finance officer, and the county manager — to scrutinize the budget.
“That’s their job … then (commissioners) try to make it work,” Bryant said. “I’m not for micro-management. We have people on the board like Mr. Long that’s very good at that, I am not.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]