“Just when you thought you’d seen the last straw, here comes a whole new bale.” the late Ron McTigue, a local political activist
August marks the completion of my first year as a county commissioner. This month did not disappoint for those use to adventures in head banging.
All commissioners were present.
Nominations – rubber stamping instead of serious discussion
As I wrote last month, the commission routinely rubber stamps the nominees with no discussion except from me. It appears to me that if the political machine nominated Lucifer, most commissioners would vote yes without saying a word.
It has been standard practice of the Blount County Board of Commissioners to ignore the order of its own local rules. Rule 3 governs the order of business. Item 6 under Rule 3 is elections, appointments, and confirmations. This is a separate agenda item from the consent calendar which is item 4 on the agenda. The consent calendar is suppose to be noncontroversial items that cost the taxpayers nothing and require little or no discussion.
Most commission meetings have the elections, appointments and confirmation placed on the consent calendar so as to rubber stamp the important appointments without giving the public the opportunity to comment which occurs between these two items as Item 5. See the agenda on page one of this August commission packet to see exactly what I am describing.
Elections, appointments and confirmations are far too important to place under bulk items to be rubber stamped. I intend to stop this practice and hope that the public will provide more input on the nominations and that the commission will take their duty to see quality people serving on important bodies more seriously.
The first term commissioners would do well to look deeper into who they are approving on the consent calendar. It is easy to blame past commissions for our problems, which are plenty, but the situation isn’t going to get any better by rubber stamping the same people already in these positions.
Commissioner Karen Miller and I (Tona Monroe) attended Blount County government meetings for years, prior to becoming commissioners. We have both shaken our heads in disgust over many of the decisions made. Only commissioners Karen Miller and I voted no on rubber stamping the consent calendar which included approving nominations to 3 important bodies.
Board of Construction Appeals
There were two nominees to serve on the Board of Construction Appeals. I asked if one of the nominees, who has worked on a variety of school projects, was involved in any of the many problems that we’ve had with our schools. The Mayor said that he hadn’t received any complaints on one of the nominees and didn’t know if he had done any work on the schools. This was alarming because I had to wonder if the Mayor had read the resume of his nominee because that’s where I read that the nominee had worked on several school projects. See page 21 of the commission packet for the resume. I am not aware of anything that the nominee has done that is cause for concern but wanted to ask since there have been so many problems with school construction projects and designs.
County Purchasing Agent
The Mayor decided to restructure the Purchasing Department eliminating two positions while creating a new assistant position. The current Purchasing Agent was demoted to the assistant position. His pick is the latest in in a series of bizarre choices.
Last year the Finance Director and Mayor were promoting an attorney to head up the Kronos IT project. The Mayor choose someone who repeatedly didn’t pay her taxes on time to sit on the Budget Committee, which oversees spending $175 million of your money. The Mayor recently chose a reporter, with no emergency management experience, to become the Emergency Management Director. Now, the County will have an attorney serving as the Purchasing Agent.
The lady selected, Katie Branham, has little relevant purchasing experience. I suggested a different use for Ms. Branham, since most of her work experience is related to the legal profession.
According to figures from the Mayor’s office, the County spent nearly $100,000, $99,872.59 to be exact, for legal services from attorney Craig Garrett during the last fiscal year. Ms. Branham will be paid $58,000, which is more than the previous Purchasing Agent, but far less than what the County is paying Garrett. While I am not suggesting that Ms. Branham be made the County Attorney, a position which has never been created in Blount County government, it appeared to me that we had an opportunity to reduce our legal expenses. That idea took off like a lead balloon.
Financial advice for debt refinancing
The commission approved spending $9,000 for financial advice regarding nearly $80 million in variable rate debt that will need to be refinanced by the end of 2016. There are several causes for concern about the matter.
The commission will be given a presentation by Public Financial Management Inc. (PFM) in October. The information that PFM will present will likely be outdated by the time that the matter goes to market. There is great uncertainty in the market right now. While waiting until the last minute is not a good idea, the financial advice rendered may not be relevant when the county goes to market.
The letter of engagement from PFM says that there is some subjectivity in choosing the appropriate debt refunding structure. The final deliverable says that PFM will work the Finance Director, Randy Vineyard, to determine the ideal option and prepare a presentation to give to the commission. Because of the subjectivity and saying that these two will determine the ideal option, I tried to amend the resolution to ensure that the commission will be presented with options rather on a single option with subjectivity.
One reason I made the motion is because last year during the previous debt presentation given by PFM, they presented 4 options but gave limited information on the 2 fixed rate options. When I expressed my dissatisfaction with the lack of information provided on fixed rate financing options, the Finance Director told me that he told PFM not to give the information because he didn’t want the commission to have too much information. Yes, he actually said he didn’t want to give the commission to much information.
This previous experience made me question whether the Mayor was promoting staying in variable rate debt. What I was concerned about was confirmed when the Mayor was so hesitant on voting for the fixed rate refinancing last year during a Budget Committee meeting. My amendment didn’t actually go far enough. I should have requested that it included detailed information about multiple options, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Commissioner Farmer was his usual snarky self and the commission didn’t seem too concerned about the matter. Only commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen and I voted to amend the resolution to require multiple options.
The other cause for concern is that PFM will consider extending the length of the debt. I am the youngest commissioner by 5 days. Only commissioners Andy Allen and are below the age of 40. We may be the only two below the age of 50. Some of the commissioners will never live see the debt paid off and I will be an old woman by the time this debt is paid off. It’s disheartening that the Finance Director would even propose consideration of kicking the can further down the road.
Only commissioners Karen Miller and I voted no to financing the possibility of extending the length of the debt.
Airshow donation with your tax dollars
The commission chose to return to the practice of using your tax dollars to fund charitable purposes. Several years ago the commission chose to discontinue donation to charitable organizations, with the exception of the Heritage Center.
An airshow which will come to the airport next year, requested a $10,000 sponsorship from the county. Since this was promoted as bringing tourism to the area, with the proceeds going to a charity, I moved to refer the matter to the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority (SMTDA). The motion failed. Commissioners Akard, Archer, Carter, Cole, Daly, Miller and Monroe voted to refer the matter to the SMTDA. The rest voted not to refer. The SMTDA gets $1.4 million in tax revenue from the hotel/motel tax. They could have easily found $10,000 in your budget but the commission chose to make you give even more. Only commissioners Archer, Miller and I voted no.
Blount County will have an Audit Committee. The committee will be comprised of 2 commissioners and 3 citizens. Commissioner Mike Akard offered an amendment to expand the number of commissioners to 4 and prohibit the membership from including people serving on the Budget Committee and Purchasing Commission. This make sense because the Audit Committee shouldn’t include the same people to Audit the results of their own decisions. The amendment failed. Commissioners Akard, Archer, Daly, French, Miller and I voted yes. The rest voted no.
Hopefully the Audit Committee will meet more often than the Purchasing Commission, which hasn’t met since the commission separated it from the Budget Committee in January. Commissioners Archer, Farmer, Miller and Stinnett voted no on forming an Audit Committee.
Emergency Medical Services Board
The commission unanimously passed a resolution creating an Emergency Medical Services Board to oversee the services provided by Rural Metro under their new ambulance contract. The original proposal was strongly resisted by commissioner Ron French who serves on the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department for failing to provide representative oversight to the rural areas of the county which have the longest response times for ambulance service. Commissioner French’s suggestions for improvement were unanimously adopted by the commission.
Vendor changes for county insurance program
The commission unanimously approved several vendor changes to the county insurance program. This will save some money but does not take the self insurance fund county out of the red. The rest of the savings will have come from changes to the insurance rates charged to the employees or the taxpayers will be stuck with another property tax increase.
Political machine voting block
The political machine of Blount County appears to be firmly in place one year into this commission term. Commissioners and Blount County Schools teachers Grady Caskey and Dodd Crowe weren’t backed by the local good ole’ boys in the last election but they appear to amalgamated with the machine. These two got what they wanted, a huge increase in local revenue to the schools and pay raises out of the increase budget. Thus, it’s not surprising that they vote with the machine on nearly everything. Grady Caskey started out with a bit more independence but that appears to be a thing of the past.
Here are the wage increase given to Blount County Schools employees who are commissioners or relatives of commissioners. Betsy Cunningham is not a relative of a commissioner but I inquired about her pay because she is now the full time PR person for the Schools.
1 – moved from part time to full time in FY 15-16
2 – added office manger job responsibilities in FY 15-16
Changes to the employee insurance rates.