A former assistant manager for the town of Rocky Mount has continued to receive his full salary since turning in his resignation in June.
Payments every two weeks to Matt Hankins of $4,167.86 kept going even after he started work Oct. 19 as assistant county manager for Wythe County at a salary of $98,000.
“Matthew Hankins received payments in 2020 after separation from the Town of Rocky Mount,” wrote Town Manager James Ervin in response to a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request from The Roanoke Times.
According to records, between June 30, his official last day on the job, and Nov. 6, Rocky Mount paid Hankins $42,995.09. That amount includes $1,200 in hazard pay given in September for the months Hankins was on the job after the pandemic began.
Hankins’ replacement as assistant town manager, Mark Moore, began work Oct. 5 at a starting salary of $90,000.
The payments to Hankins are still ongoing, Ervin wrote Tuesday in an e-mail.
Ervin did not provide a reason for the unusual arrangement, and he did not comment as to whether the payments have an end date, describing the matter as a confidential personnel issue. Reached by phone Friday, Hankins declined to comment, citing the same reasons.
Town council member Bobby Moyer said Tuesday that council members have not been given any information about the circumstances and conditions of Hankins’ departure. The other six council members all referred questions to Ervin and longtime Town Attorney John Boitnott.
“Council is not involved in personnel matters whatsoever,” said Vice Mayor Jon Snead.
Roanoke attorney Thomas Strelka, who specializes in employment and civil rights law, said that though he has no familiarity with the Rocky Mount situation, generally in his experience, “I have only ever seen an employer willing to pay an employee over a period time in excess of their actual term of employment when there is some sort of severance signed that is coupled with a release or waiver of liability.
“I’ve seen that happen many times, but it’s only in that context, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is any exposure of liability. It doesn’t even mean that the parties are on bad terms,” Strelka said. “It could just be, this is how we handle things routinely. It could just be, we’re going to be really conservative about our exposure to liability.”
When the town announced Hankins’ resignation in June, he and Ervin both cited a desire to make more time for family as the reason Hankins decided to leave. “It’s been a real treat to serve the people of Rocky Mount this way,” but “I’m working 14 and 16 hour days,” Hankins said in a June interview.
Rocky Mount officials gave Hankins credit for helping to bring in more than $30 million in economic development projects to the 4,700-population town in Franklin County.
Employed by Rocky Mount for 13 years, Hankins was the driving force behind the creation of the Harvester Performance Center, a for-profit music venue that doubles as an economic development tool for the town. Acclaimed in economic development circles for its innovation, the Harvester opened in 2014 with a concert by the Indigo Girls.
In addition to his government role, Hankins served as the Harvester’s CEO.
The post-resignation payments to Hankins first came to light through requests for information made by North Carolina entrepreneur Bryan Hochstein and allies of his in town who are dissatisfied with aspects of how Rocky Mount does business.
Hochstein, 55, was a cofounder of QuickHire, a software company purchased for millions by Monster.com in 2003. He owns a restaurant, Rocky Mount Burger Co., across Franklin Street from the Harvester. He’s also co-owner of the Early Inn at the Grove, a hotel and event venue inside a renovated 7,000-square-foot Greek Revival mansion, first constructed in the 1850s by the brother-in-law of Confederate Gen. Jubal Early.
Hochstein said the creation of the Harvester drew him to invest in the Rocky Mount properties and businesses. On March 1, when the Indigo Girls returned to the Harvester for a sold-out concert, the venue parked a food truck that sold hamburgers directly across from his restaurant, Hochstein said, leaving him incensed.
“It hurt our business and was a violation of the town’s zoning ordinance,” Hochstein wrote in an e-mail.
Ervin said Friday that the truck didn’t violate any ordinances. “The town regrets him feeling as though he was harmed that day,” Ervin said.
Hochstein first filed FOIA requests related to the offending food truck, but what he perceived as a recalcitrant, defensive attitude in response “became a bit of a motivational factor to see what the town manager was hiding,” he wrote. “I’m heavily invested in the town, create jobs, produce local meals and occupancy taxes, pay property and personal taxes, etc. Even before COVID-19, we had a lot of challenges. We don’t need town personnel violating their own rules the rest of us have to follow.”
In a July letter to the editor published in the Franklin News-Post, Hochstein called the food truck “a poke in the eye” and said it was “laughable” that Rocky Mount engaged Roanoke law firm Woods Rogers to respond to his information requests. He shared the discovery that Hankins was still being paid in another letter published Sept. 11.
In the response to The Roanoke Times FOIA request, Ervin shared that the town has spent $5,183 on legal services to assist with responding to FOIA requests.
Hochstein wrote that he has filed about three dozen FOIAs, for which the town has charged him $398.46. “I paid it.”
“I don’t fully understand the offensive when I’m just a phone call away,” Ervin said. The range and complexity of requests Hochstein made required the expertise of the outside firm, he said. “We wanted to make absolutely certain that we complied.”
Hochstein did have words of praise for Cultural and Economic Director Beth Simms for her efforts to direct Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds to small businesses in town. Simms was hired in March at a salary of $55,000.
Tasks that Hankins handled as assistant town manager have been divided among the newer hires. Ervin has said the plan is for the Harvester to change over from a for-profit to a nonprofit venue, with greater self-sufficiency under general manager Gary Jackson, and Simms providing whatever town oversight is still needed.
Promoted to town manager in 2007, Ervin has announced plans to retire in April. In October, the search committee to find Ervin’s replacement held its first meeting.