Local United Way: We're not Charlotte

Already facing tough fundraising prospects in a sluggish economy, the local United Way agency found more cause for worry this week thanks to its well-heeled colleagues in Charlotte.

News that Charlotte's United Way president earns more than $1.2 million in annual pay has sparked outrage from critics who say it's too much for a nonprofit.

Now, United Way leaders in York County fear perceptions of lavish salaries will dissuade local donors at a time when budgets are already strained. Their concern is that donors will link the two organizations, even though York County operates as a separate body.

"We don't want to disparage what they're doing and talk about them," said board chairman Scott Wells, a developer from Fort Mill. "We just want people to be aware we're not affiliated, other than through the United Way of America. Other than that, everything else is local."

York County President Kim Keel earns a fraction of the salary given to her counterpart in Charlotte, documents reviewed by The Herald show. Keel was paid $65,625 in 2007, according to an audit in November. Retirement benefits added $10,481 to that total.

The six full-time staffers and three part-timers at the York County agency earned a total of $203,110, the audit shows.

Demand on the rise

United Way officials in Charlotte already acknowledge that criticism over King's salary could imperil future fundraising efforts. "This is an insult to everyone who has given even 10 cents to the United Way," one person wrote in a letter printed in Thursday's edition of the Charlotte Observer.

In York County, the news set off a flurry of e-mails between local United Way board members who are worried over their own annual campaign, which starts in September. The board set a goal Thursday of raising $1.9 million -- lower than last year's hopes for $2.1 million, but higher than the $1.86 million actually raised.

"Now's not the time to have any kind of negative impact," said board member David Benjock, a general manager at Caraustar.

This year, organizers say record-high gas prices and a stagnant job market will drive up demands on homeless shelters, food banks and other nonprofits supported by the United Way.

"They're going to need a lot of money this year, with the economy the way it is now," said Fort Mill bank executive Ellen Byrd, chair of the upcoming campaign. "We all know the need is coming. It's here."

Charlotte's United Way backers are scrambling to offer a defense. Board chairman Graham Denton told The Observer that King's retirement benefits should have been spread over eight years. But the agency misunderstood the rules and is being forced to play catch-up to bring her salary in line with comparable executives. As a result, the figure took a drastic jump this year.

Many donors give money through office campaigns. York County residents who work in Charlotte can designate their donations be returned to their home community. It's part of the "Live Here, Give Here" effort started in York County several years ago.