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May 1, 2018 Local Election Issues

Harry Grothjahn of Truth Radio AM 1470 invited me to speak on his Sunday morning radio show to discuss important issues that you need to know about before voting in the upcoming May 1, 2018 local government primary election.  The interview was recorded so that you can listen to it and the slide show presentation is attached for your information and review.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of important local issues.  This is a good starting point in becoming informed for the upcoming May 1st primary election.

Let freedom ring!
Tona Monroe
Blount County Commissioner

May 1, 2017 local government primary election issues slides

http://tncitylinktv.com/archive/commissioner-monroes-most-important-blount-county-commission-issues-in-the-last-4-years/

August 2017 Commission Report

Commission meeting
Commissioners Gary Farmer, Kenneth Melton and Steve Samples were absent.

Last month, the commission approved a contract for architectural services with Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) without also approving a budget amendment to pay for the contract.  This month the commission approved the funding for the contract with the architectural firm as well as funding for public relations and a project manager.

Yes, Blount County government thinks that it needs a Ministry of Propaganda to tell you why they’ve hired an architect for the jail.  Unless you’ve been living in the forest you know that Blount County, like any other county in this nation, has a drug problem stemming from the use of pain pills and street drugs.  It’s really a shame that the taxpayers are having to pay to be told that there is an opioid and drug problem in the community.

The memo in the commission packet from the Blount County Purchasing Department, Human Resources and Finance Department says that the contract was approved by the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP).  However, it was not approved by the BCCP.

The last time that the BCCP met was in March to discuss the purchasing agent’s selection of MBI.  The agenda for the meeting says, “Discussion and possible action regarding presentation regarding the solicitation and request for qualifications for architectural planning and/or design services and/or programming services for Blount County.”  There is no mention of a contract in the agenda or the unofficial meeting minutes of this BCCP meeting.  The minutes are unofficial because the BCCP has not met since this March 28, 2017 meeting and therefore has not taken any vote to approve the meeting minutes.

The contract with MBI is time stamped on the bottom with a date of May 24, 2017, which is almost two months after the BCCP March 28 meeting.  Why would the purchasing agent, human resources director and director of accounts and budgets (finance director) sign a memo with a false statement?  Why would their boss Mayor Ed Mitchell let them?

The cost to the taxpayers is $244,723 which includes $188,000 for the MBI contract.  Only Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted against this.

The resolution says that the monies came from funds “Assigned for Public Safety.”  Many remember when I found that Sheriff James Lee Berrong and Mayor Ed Mitchell had a $2 million jail plan in Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control meeting minutes.  The commission is the body who has the authority to express the county’s intent by assigning monies in the general fund.  The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office did not recognize the assignments of $2 million for public safety.

The bigger and potentially more expensive picture is that “Blount County has not set a specific scope or budget for this project,” as stated under Article 1.12 of the MBI contract.

Grant process dysfunctional
The commission was asked to approve five grants.  The deadline for two of these grants, one for juvenile court and the other for the animal shelter, had already passed.  While these two grants had already been written, neither provided the commission with copies of the actual grants.  The juvenile court grant worksheet included a memo about the grant while the animal shelter only provided the grant worksheet.  It seems reasonable that any department/office wanting the commission to approve a grant after the deadline would include a copy of the grant along with the worksheet.

Road projects
The commission approved a $360,791 increase to the state aid account of the highway department budget.  According to a memo from Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick, Tennessee Department of Transport (TDOT) provided the funds for replacement of tiles/culverts on state highways.  The state aid account is now $1,082,000 for fiscal year 2018.

The commission approved TDOT’s proposal for the relocated Alcoa Highway.  While there was a public meeting in the City of Alcoa about this proposal in May, this was the first time that this commission was provided anything on the proposal.  It would have been nice to have been given more time to study the matter and to hear from the citizens on something this important.  Most seemed to be unaware that the commission was considering this matter.  I voted against this because of the short time frame to study the matter and because of the lack of information about other possibilities for Alcoa Highway.  Commissioners Jamie Daly and Karen Miller also voted no while the rest of the commissioners present voted yes.

A meeting was called to approve applying for federal funds to make improvements to Morganton Road.  This road has long been in need of repair.  People in the 1st, 6th and 7th districts have expressed their concerns about the road to me.  This has been one of the top 10 issues that I hear the most about from those in the community.

This a good start but more work is needed.  Some are upset that this project does not come further into the county.  There have been concerns expressed about the City of Maryville annexing part of Morganton Road.

According to the mayor, the commission approved $4 million for improvements to Morganton Road in 2006 but those funds were never spent for that purpose.  No one that I’ve spoken with seems to know why this money was never spent.

This project runs into 2023.  You can read more about it here.

Accounting and financial software
The commission approved a 7 year, $2.334M contract for a Financial Management Information System (FMIS).  This Services as a Software (SaaS) agreement is with Tyler Technologies.  The estimated cost for implementation is $293,470.50 and the annual recurring fees are $299,945.00 throughout the 7 year contract.

When the Kronos time keeping, payroll and HR software system was presented to the commission, a business case was made for savings through staff reductions.  Those projected savings never materialized.  According to a June 22, 2017 email from Finance Director Randy Vineyard, “there have been no retirements or departures since implementation in General County.”  He did write that there could be possible staff reductions in the future as “as staff retirements arise.”

No business case for savings was made for the purchase of Tyler Technologies software.  The commission was told that the current financial system was antiquated, unsecure, needed to be replaced with a modern system and that Tyler Technologies is the best fit for the county.  The commission not given anything to support the assertion that this company’s software is the best fit for Blount County.

The commission is often asked to vote on what the bureaucrats want without being given any information on comparable products.  With an annual reoccurring expense of nearly $300K, it would have been helpful to have seen what other companies had to offer.  Other companies might offer a bit less than a competitor but at a much lower price while still providing what the county needs.  I don’t know if there were any better deals or fits for the county because I wasn’t given any information on any other products.

The memo to the commission is from the county’s program manager for IT Abhijit Verekar of Avèro Advisors.  He is being sued in federal court by a previous employer.

Considering the lack of information about comparable products, I thought it best to vote no to this long term costly commitment.  Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly and Karen Miller also voted no.

Up next:  The end of August marks the end of the 3rd year of this four year commission term.  What would you like to see me focus on during the next year?

It’s also time to give serious consideration to running for local office.  In November, candidates can begin picking up petitions to run in the May 1, 2018 primary election.  That will be here before you know it.  Don’t let the opportunity slip past you.

In the words of a great American:

“We are not weak, if we make proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power… The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.” Patrick Henry

Even if you don’t want to run, you can begin talking to others about running and support good candidates who do run.

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” — Edmund Burke

July 2017 Commission Report

Information Technology (IT) Committee meeting
The IT Committee heard from Abhijit Verekar (AV) on the status of Blount County’s ongoing IT project updates.  AV has served as the project manger for the multiyear IT project.  However, this time he was the project manager from his own newly started company Avero Advisors, rather than Mindboard Inc (Mindboard).  If you’re thinking this seems odd, you may be right.

AV and Mindboard Inc. were embroiled in a lawsuit with AV’s previous employer RNR Consulting when the county commission approved a contract with Mindboard Inc.  Some serious allegations were made in that lawsuit.  If you aren’t familiar with the situation please click on these links and read about the matter before proceeding with the rest of this report.

New company not brought to the commission for approval
Only one of the references listed in response to the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) provided by Mindboard had a budget over $60,000 while the county’s IT budget was more than 22 times that amount.  It didn’t make good sense to hire Mindboard because of these serious allegations and too much uncertainty about Mindboard handling such a large budget.

Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr defended her choice in early 2016 by saying that the rates that Mindboard offered the county were 20% lower than other contract rates but nothing was provided to the commission to support this statement.  When I (Commissioner Tona Monroe) asked Branham-Kerr why the county was switching from Mindboard to Avero Advisors, she said the county would save about 30% from what it was paying Mindboard.  It makes one wonder why Mindboard was chosen when she could find another firm to do the work cheaper the following year.  The county’s purchasing process leaves much to be desired.

The county hasn’t actually terminated its contract with Mindboard.  Both Mindboard. and AV’s company Avero Advisors are providing IT services to Blount County government.  The contract with Avero is set up on a yearly basis, renewing annually at the start of each fiscal year.  The arrangement means that the Avero contract doesn’t have to be brought to the commission for a vote on the matter because it doesn’t extend beyond the current fiscal year.  However, a contract that annually renews automatically, unless being canceled, should be required to be approved by the county commission.  This is a reform needed at the state level.

I asked Branham-Kerr if AV was working for both companies and she said no.  She said that the county had received a signed agreement from Mindboard Inc., releasing AV from contract with Mindboard.  You can read the Change of Relationship Agreement here.

Under Terms and Conditions it says:

“1. Contract Termination.
The parties hereby agree that the Agreement has been and is hereby terminated in all respects, provided however that the provisions of Sections 5 shall survive with the exception that Employee is permitted to contract with Blount County, TN and Mindboard will not seek to enforce Section 5 with respect to Employee contracting with Blount County, TN.”

Section 5 is not stated in the agreement but it appears to refer to a non-compete clause in the terminated employment contract between Mindboard and AV.  Thus, it appears that Mindboard allowed AV to contract with Blount County but not any other customer that Mindboard may have.  If so, why?

Despite this large sum of money, people are expressing their dissatisfaction with the county’s new website and software system used for commission and committee meetings.  The new Granicus program isn’t as user friendly as the older, simpler system.

The IT Committee had no say in the selection of the new software system or website.  I have and continue to wonder why there is even an IT Committee since the Mayor’s Office along with the purchasing agent and these IT firms are making the decisions how to spend your money.

Over $3 million has been budgeted in recent years for Mayor Ed Mitchell, Mindboard Inc. and Avero Advisors to manage.  It is really a shame that there is so much dissatisfaction with the use of millions of your tax dollars.

Commission Meeting
Commissioners Mike Akard and Steve Samples were absent.  Once again, I was prohibited from asking questions at the monthly commission meeting.

Recycling convenience center – Failed leadership of Mayor Ed Mitchell
There is perhaps no greater example of the failure of Mayor Ed Mitchell’s leadership than with the way he has handled recycling in Blount County.  For those who are cheering the opening of a convenience center in the county, I encourage you to consider the history of recycling in Blount County because we now have less recycling sites with the county providing recycling than before the county decided to provide recycling.

Spectra recycling announced that in May it would be closing its recycling location on Robert C Jackson that was open to the public.  After learning about this, I called the owner Mr. Steve Dixon.  He told me that I was the only elected official to call him to find out why he had closed the recycling convenience center.  After I shared this with the Big Springs Community Club at its monthly meeting, the other commissioner from the 7th district went and met with Mr. Dixon after he had already voted to spend taxpayer money for a convenience center.

Mr. Dixon shared with me how previous mayors had met with him and were appreciative of his free recycling services that he provided to the citizens of Blount County.  He shared that this changed with the Mitchell administration and the new Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr.

In 2015, the Purchasing Department issued Request for Proposal (RFP) 2015-2372 to provide recycling services for county buildings.  Spectra had been providing free recycling to the county government, in addition to free recycling convenience centers throughout the county.  Spectra was the only one to bid that RFP.

Spectra had provided free recycling to the county government up to that point but the recycling market is dynamic and hadn’t been profitable; therefore, it had asked for a small trip fee to cover expenses.  The cost would have been a few thousand dollars annually.

Then Purchasing Agent Theresa Johnson, who was later demoted to assistant purchasing agent, told Mr. Dixon that she would have to take the matter to Mayor Ed Mitchell.  Mr. Dixon waited about a year thinking that Spectra would be awarded a contract but when he called the new Purchasing Agent Katie Branham-Kerr he was told that the county would not been awarding a contract for RFP 2015-2372.  During this year Spectra continued providing free recycling services to the county government.

When I tried to inquire why this RFP was not awarded, Commissioner Ron French declared a point of order saying that it was 2017 not 2015 and Chairman Jerome Moon declared me out of order.  This prohibited me from making the point that perhaps this matter had something to do with why Spectra was no longer offering recycling and inquiring why Spectra didn’t respond to the current RFP 2016-2456 (issued in 2017).  The 2017 RFP only had 2 responses.  Commissioners looking out for the taxpayers should want to know why Spectra, a local business, did not respond to a recycling RFP.

Mr. Dixon shared with me that he did not know that a new RFP had been issued.  This is alarming because I reviewed the 2015 RFP and found that the county reached out to potential bidders but did not appear to make the same effort with the 2017 RFP.  I asked the purchasing agent who the county reached out to on the 2017 RFP and received this response:

—–Original Message—–
From: “Katie Branham-Kerr” <kbranham@blounttn.org>
Sent: Friday, September 8, 2017 4:24pm
To: tona@breezeair.net
Cc: “Jackie Cooper” <jcooper@blounttn.org>
Subject: Fwd: Question about Recycling

Mrs. Monroe,

       Please see attached.
       Regards,
 
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Lauri Bell <lbell@blounttn.org>
Date: Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 8:48 AM
Subject: Re: Question about Recycling
To: Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org>

On 6/7/17 the invitation to bid (ITB) for Blount County’s recycling collection center was issued on Purchasing’s website via IonWave with registered suppliers being automatically notified of the posting via the website, a Legal Notice was posted in the The Daily Times, as well as on the bulletin board outside of the Purchasing Department.  I am only aware of verbal communication with Waste Connections of Tennessee and West Rock.
Finally, attached is the email string with Avero regarding pricing.

On Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 8:07 AM, Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org> wrote:

Please review Mrs. Monroe’s email and let me know who we reached out to individually regarding the recycling bid.
 
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: <tona@breezeair.net>
Date: Mon, Sep 4, 2017 at 10:31 AM
Subject: Question about Recycling
To: Katie Branham-Kerr <kbranham@blounttn.org>
Dear Katie,
In reviewing the recycling records, the purchasing office reached out to potential bidders, by email, in 2015 for recycling needs.  There wasn’t any record of that occurring this year.  Did your office reach out, by email or any other form of communication, to potential companies that might provide recycling services?
Also, I received 3 records from Jackie but didn’t receive the email that I asked be forwarded related to the hourly rates that you negotiated with AV.  Please forward that email to me.
Sincerely,
Tona

I have repeatedly asked the purchasing agent and Mayor’s Office why the 2015 recycling RFP was not awarded.  No explanation has been given.

At one time, Spectra was providing 12 free recycling sites throughout Blount County, not including the schools that it was providing free recycling services for.  Some of these recycling centers were open to the public 24/7/365.  The county’s convenience center will only be open 3 days a week.  Furthermore, recycling at the library will stop as well.

At one time Spectra was providing free recycling for the county at the location on McArthur Road where the new convenience center will be located.  Now the taxpayers will pay for part time recycling at this location and the 12 free recycling centers that the county once had are gone.  After speaking with Mr. Dixon at Spectra, I am firmly convinced that the county could have many more recycling centers throughout the county with more hours of operation for less money than the 3 day a week county operation that will be at McArthur Road.  This great loss to the community falls squarely on the shoulders of Mayor Ed Mitchell.  Blount County needs a mayor with private sector experience who can get things done without going to taxpayers for everything.

To make matters worse, the commission wasn’t provided with all the documentation pertaining to the contract.  The contract instrument says that the contract consists of 7 documents including: the Request for Proposal, the Instructions to Proponents, the Contractor’s Proposal, the General Specifications, the resolution of Blount County ordering or authorizing, the work and services contemplated herein, this instrument and any addenda or changes to the foregoing documents agreed to by the parties hereto.  The commission was only provided with the instrument and the authorizing resolution.  It’s possible that there were no amendments but the commission should have been told that no amendments exists if there were none.

I moved to postpone the matter until the next month so that the commission could be provided with all of the documentation.  The motion failed with only Commissioners Archie Archer, Shawn Carter, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voting to wait one month to be given all of the documentation prior to voting on the matter.  The commissioners who sponsored the resolution approving the contract have egg on their faces.  You should watch the commission meeting to see how some of them try defending why they brought a contract to the commission without having the entirety of the contract.  The purchasing agent said that the reason that some of the documents were not provided is because they weren’t yet finished.  However, that does not explain the failure to provide the RFP to the commission.

Commissioner Mike Caylor asked the mayor if he had done his due diligence on this matter.  Mitchell said he had.  Apparently Caylor was OK with not doing his due diligence as a county commissioner, to protect the taxpayers.

Most of the commissioners present took the Nancy Pelosi approach to government when they voted for something only to learn later what is in it.  Only Commissioners Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted against approving a contract without having all of the documents available.

Jail architect contract approved without a budget amendment – discussion process seriously flawed
The commission approved a contract with Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) for jail expansion/renovation (?) without knowing the full costs of what is being called the Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI).  Jerome Moon and the commissioners who follow his lead made hypocrites out of themselves with this issue because there was no budget amendment in the packet to pay for the contract.  Moon has insisted in the past that the commission appropriate money to pay for something prior to discuss what the money is actually being appropriated for.  Remember when I tried to move discussion of the budget ahead of setting the tax rate in 2015 and only the three women commissioners voted to discuss the budget first?

On this same agenda the commission voted to appropriate the money for the recycling contract before voting on the actual contract, which was not provided in its entirety.  Moon didn’t even want me discussing the recycling contract during the discussion time of the budget amendment that funded it.  The commission is expected to approve the money without first discussing the substance of the matter, the actual legal documents and impact those documents will have.  Doesn’t it make sense to discuss the substance of the matter before you spend the money to do it?  The discussion process is seriously flawed.

Commissioner Andy Allen pointed out that the contract was specific in the cost for this project.  It’s true that the cost of the architectural firm is in the contract.  However, the costs of the project are more than the MBI contract.  The commissioners weren’t told what the actual total costs of the CJI project would be.  Only commissioners Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted against approving the contract.

Not satisfied due to the lack of information provided, I wrote Director of Accounts and Budgets Randy Vineyard for an explanation of the costs.  It turns out that he didn’t know either and wrote that due diligence for the CJI was not finished when the contract was presented to the commission.

“—–Original Message—–
From: “Randy Vineyard” <rvineyard@blounttn.org>
Sent: Monday, July 24, 2017 11:05am
To: tona@breezeair.net
Cc: “Marvin Mitchell” <emitchell@blounttn.org>, “James Berrong” <jberrong@bcso.com>, “Jarrod Millsaps” <jmillsaps@bcso.com>
Subject: Re: Funding for MBI contract

Commissioner,
The amendment has not been finalized because there are items likely to be recommended along with the MBI fees. Our due diligence is not yet completed.
That should be concluded in time for the August Budget Committee meeting.

Randy
Randy Vineyard, IOM
Blount County Finance Director

Support for the federal government’s war on poverty
The commission approved a resolution supporting federal government programs that were created as a part of the war on poverty.  Nearly everything that the federal government declares war on turns into an expensive failure.  The war on poverty may be the costliest “war” disaster of all.

All 21 Blount County Commissioners were elected and are in office as Republicans.  Only Commissioner Karen Miller and I voted against this, showing that most Republicans aren’t serious about cutting wasteful spending or eliminating failed government programs.  Furthermore, most of the commissioners do not seem to honor their oaths of office because there is no authority for the federal government’s war of poverty authorized in the United States Constitution.

Federal COPS grant approved after deadline
The commission was presented with a USDOJ Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) grant application after the grant deadline had already passed.  The grant will pay for 75% of the salaries and benefits for 6 officers for 3 years.  The grant does not pay for equipping the officers with laptops, uniforms, weapons, or cars.  The commission was told that the county would be required to keep these positions, after the grant money runs out.

Commissioner Caylor seemed indigent that Commissioner Daly would even inquire about the county having to pay for the officers after the grant money ran out.  He said it was a savings but there is no savings.  Federal money is taxpayer money.  At the rate that the federal government is borrowing money, your children and grandchildren may be forced to pay interest to foreign investors in China and Saudi Arabia on these officers because the federal government is not paying its (our) bills now.

While the program goal and objectives were including in the grant application guide, the commission was provided no data to show that six more officers will actually improve safety in the community.  Only commissioners Daly, Miller and I voted no this grant.

Up next:
July was a doozie.  The lackadaisical attitude of several on the commission should give pause to those concerned about their community.  If you want to see better government, then seriously considering becoming that better government by either running for local office or supporting good candidates who will ensure that due diligence is done prior to each vote of the commission.

Many links on this site are broken due to county’s new website

Blount County government recently launched a new website.  As a result, many of the links to the Blount County government website (www.blounttn.org) found on this website (www.bcpublicrecord.com) will no longer work because the files are now in different locations.  If you read past articles and find that the links aren’t working, there is a good starting point page to look for the references found throughout this site. Please start here: http://www.blounttn.org/926/Meeting-Archives

Meeting Archives

Commission Meetings

Budget and Finance Committee Meetings

Agenda and Work Session Meetings

Insurance Committee Meetings

HR Committee Meetings

Blount County’s YouTube Channel containing meeting recordings

June 2017 Commission Report

“Last year we said, ‘Things can’t go on like this,’ and they didn’t, they got worse.”  Will Rogers

Annual Budget
Traditionally, each June, the Blount County Commission adopts an annual budget and sets the property tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year (FY).  A fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30th, which is why the commission usually adopts the budget in June.  A fiscal year is denoted by the calendar year in which the fiscal year ends.  For example FY 2017 ran July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017.  Accordingly FY 2018 runs July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.

The Blount County Commission approved an annual budget in June of 2016 for FY17 that was $181,267,406 (see pages 105-107).  In June of this year, the commission adopted a budget for FY18 that is $195,958,364 (see pages 534-536).

Not all of this was an actual increase.  According to the county’s Finance Director (FD), Randy Vineyard, governmental accounting standards require some expenditures to be recorded twice.  Troy Logan, the fiscal administrator for Blount County School District told me that he couldn’t think of any expenditures that were recorded twice in the school’s budget.  Upon my request, FD Vineyard provided this spread sheet outlining the use of fund balance and the monies that are being accounted for twice.

According to the numbers provided by FD Vineyard, $5,381,930 is accounted for twice.  Based on these figures, that means that the commission adopted a budget that is $9,309,028 more than what it initially approved for the previous year, when the double accounting amounts are removed.  This is a huge increase for local government that will not be sustainable in the future without either growth in tax revenues or more tax increases.

The spreadsheet shows the county using $7,087,000 of fund balances from the various funds.  Some of the increase is for nonrecurring capital expenditures.  You can read my questions and FD Vineyard’s responses related to the use of fund balances here.  Please take the time to read this as it shows that $1.1M of fund balance may be used for corporate welfare for one company.

At the Agenda Committee meeting, I asked Mayor Ed Mitchell how much this secret company would receive from local governments (City of Maryville and Blount County) and the state of Tennessee.  He only knew what the county’s contribution will be.  Thus, local elected officials walk into these types of “deals” without knowing how much public money will actually be spent.

According to FD Vineyard the county’s General Fund grew to about $15M at the end of FY16 and an estimate for the end of FY17 had not been calculated in early June.  Property tax and federal inmate revenues may have been sandbagged in FY16.  Both came in higher than projected, and you were slammed with a higher property tax rate than necessary.  Some local elected officials may feel good about having accumulated such a large General Fund, but it came about as a result of two large tax increases (sales tax and property tax) not from being good stewards with your tax dollars.

$1.85M of fund balance will be used for Information Technology (IT) updates.  This is addition to the $4.1M that has already been spent for IT improvements and huge software purchases since 2014.  This new budget brings the total to nearly $6M that has or will be spent from 2014 through the end of June in 2018.

One would think that with such large expenditures that the IT Committee would be keeping a close watch on the various IT projects but it is not.  From June 2016 through June 2017 the IT Committee only met twice and during one of those meetings it lacked a quorum.  The Mayor canceled the other two meetings that were scheduled.

Blount County taxpayers will be forced to pay $96,717 in additional salaries and benefits to four office holders beyond the state mandated minimums.  These office holders are already some of the highest paid employees in county government and have been paid nearly double or triple the average salary of a Blount County citizen.

Chromebooks lease
The commission approved a 3 year lease agreement for Chromebooks for the schools.  I voted against this because the county will be paying interest when it does not have to.  The funds are available to purchase the computers without wasting any money on interest.

$1,272,000 loan to the schools
The commission, through the Agenda Committee, actually rejected a spending request from the schools in February.  This month the schools requested this money, for tennis courts renovations, once again along with more money for 3 additional capital projects.  The commission was asked to approve capital outlay notes that would be funded by using monies from debt service that will be loaned to the schools.  The county should be using the debt service fund to pay down debt rather than loaning it to be paid back at 2% interest.  Furthermore, the county has to pay a financial advisor and bond counsel to loan money to itself.  The better option would be to increase the amount of property tax going to the schools capital fund rather than a complicated loan transaction with fees and interest.

Medical plan changes
The commission voted to reduce the out of pocket maximum from $4,000 to $3,000 for health care and to charge $5 for the employee only dental plan.  The dental plan for the employee only is currently free.  The cost of the dental family plan is currently the difference between the price of the premium of the employee only plan and the family plan.  The dental family plan was also increases $5 and will become the difference between the employee only premium and the family premium, plus $5.  The county will be paying $22.14 a month for employees that are enrolled in either the employee only or family dental plans. These changes will take effect January 1, 2018.  The health care plans run the calendar year, rather than the fiscal year.

Interruptions continue
Commissioner Mike Caylor continued interrupting commissioners by twice declaring a point of order.  He appears to be abusing the power to raise a point of order to stifle discussion that challenges the status quo.

Up next:
The commission will look at hiring an architectural firm to renovate and/or expand the jail.

FY18 proposed budget includes $1.1M for one secret company

The proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, which is July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018, includes spending $1.1 million from Blount County’s General Fund balance to use to recruit one company to Blount County.  I sent a list of questions to the Director of Accounts and Budgets, commonly referred to as the Finance Director, Randy Vineyard.  His answers directly follow each question.

At the Agenda Committee meeting, I asked Mayor Ed Mitchell what the total costs in incentives will be for this one company.  He didn’t know.  It is likely that the City of Maryville and the State of Tennessee will also provide incentives.  With the county offering to spend $1.1M, this is obviously an expensive proposition.

Your elected local legislative officials are being asked to approve this without knowing the full costs to the taxpayers and with little knowledge about the company.  This is somewhat like putting the money into a blind trust and hoping that unelected bureaucrats and a few politicians in the know will make sound decisions with you money.

Things to keep in mind:

  • The commission doesn’t receive reports from the Industrial Development Board (IDB), detailing the use and results of your tax money that it receives from the county.
  • The IDB doesn’t even provide the commission with a copy of its annual budget.
  • Commissioner Jamie Daly and I were blocked for asking questions about the IDB/Blount Partnership/Chamber of Commerce/Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority.
  • The commission has been provided nothing in writing about this deal/proposal, other than to identify the use of funds as an “Economic Development Project.”
  • This $1.1M is in addition to the $1,062,200 that the IDB received this year and will receive again next year, if the FY18 budget is approved.
  • The IDB/Blount Partnership has failed to provide a copy of IDB’s open records policy, which I asked for in May.

The Pellissippi Place, AMI, and the IDB’s handling of the racetrack should give us pause before handing over any more money for corporate welfare, particularly when nearly everything about this is a secret.  It is past time for the state legislature to pass a local government uniform tax incentives act, which would eliminate the secret, special corporate handouts.

Budget Questions sent to the Director of Accounts and Budgets:

Commissioner,

See the responses below. I have copied Troy Logan on the School questions.

Randy

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Angelie Shankle <ashankle@blounttn.org>
Date: Fri, Jun 2, 2017 at 3:24 PM
Subject: Fwd: Budget Questions
To: Randolph Vineyard <rvineyard@blounttn.org>

Dear Director of Accounts and Budgets,

Questions related to Fund 189

1.  How much, if any, of the $1,850,000 for IT is money that will be left over from the current budget year?  None
2.  With the budget request for the upcoming year, what will the total budgeted costs (eliminating duplication of unspent appropriations from prior years) for the IT project be? $1.85m for 17-18; $1.3m prior
3. What is the $1.1M economic development project for?  A project that hasn’t been disclosed publicly yet; payback in 2 years; creation of 1000 jobs
4.  Is this $1.1M in addition to the $1,062,200 that is current budgeted? Yes
5.  Will the economic development costs for FY be over $2M? For FY17-18?  If project comes to fruition, yes.
6.  If so, is this expected to reoccur in future years? No, not the $1.1m for the econ. dev. proj.
7.  What is the $415,000 labeled BCSO officer safety capital needs for? body cams, rifles, ballistic helmets/vests, active shooter kits, jail camera replacements-2nd phase

Questions related to use of Fund Balance and Maintenance of Effort

1.  How much of the General Fund balance will be appropriated in the proposed budget?  $3.4m
2.  What do you anticipate the General Fund balance being at the end of the current fiscal year? haven’t estimated yet, but was $15m FY15-16 year end
3.  How much of the School’s General Purpose Fund balance will be appropriated in the proposed budget? $3.1m was proposed
4.  What do you anticipate the School’s General Purpose Fund balance being at the end of the current fiscal year? Troy Logan question
5.  Does use of the School’s General Purpose Fund balance contribute to the MOE in future years, meaning will the county have to provide the same amount next year even if it does not have the fund balance to supply the same amount? Troy Logan question
6.  What is the current school MOE? Troy Logan question
7.  What will the school MOE be if the proposed FY 18 budget is adopted? Troy Logan question

Sincerely,
Tona


Angelie Shankle

Budget Manager
Blount County Courthouse
341 Court St.
Maryville, TN 37804
 

Randy

Randy Vineyard, IOM
Blount County Finance Director
341 Court Street
Maryville, TN 37804
865-273-5719 (office)
rvineyard@blounttn.org

Blount County taxpayers are paying $96,717 more than state minimum for 4 elected officials

If the commission votes to approve the budget on its agenda next week, the taxpaying citizens of Blount County will be paying $96,717 more in salaries and benefits than the state mandated minimums for four elected officials.  Blount County Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher and Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick will make 10% above the state minimums.  Sheriff James Lee Berrong and Mayor Marvin Ed Mitchell will both make 32% more than the state mandated minimums.  The sheriff’s additional pay of $30,603 could be used to fund an additional deputy or give $1,000 pay raise to 30 employees.

You can view the state mandated salaries for the upcoming year, current year and prior years here.

During the last two annual budget discussions, I (Tona Monroe) tried to cut the salary supplements from the budget bringing the pay for these 4 elected officials down to the state minimums.  Both times only Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted to reduce the pay.  Last year Jerome Moon argued that the commission had to pay the sheriff more but did not state the law requiring an additional pay supplement.  These pay supplements aren’t required.

These salaries are double and nearly triple what the taxpaying citizens of Blount County are making.

Government officials salaries continue to grow by large amounts, reaping the fruits of the labor of the citizenry while pay in Blount County isn’t even keeping up with the rate of inflation.

Tennessee trial court judges are best paid in nation after cost of living adjustment.

Meanwhile the mayor, Governor Bill Halsam, Lord of Croynism Randy Boyd and Gentlemen of the Bedchamber Byran Daniels have been busy getting their pictures in the paper for job creation.  The local rag is happy to serve as their PR firm.

The Tennessee General Assembly has been largely nonresponsive to reforming salaries that are double, triple and quadruple the average annual salary.  Most of them don’t feel your pain.  Many voted for the gas tax and most voted for Haslam’s bloated budget.

  Proposed   state minimum   Salary Estimated Total Fund
Office 2017-18   (no supplements)   Difference Taxes    
Mayor – Mitchell 132,550 must make 5% more than Sheriff 100,416   32,134 6207 38,341 101
                 
Circuit Court Clerk* – Hatcher 95,635 other elected officials plus 10% for more than 1 court 86,941   8,694 1716 10,410 101
                 
Sheriff – Berrong 105,199 must make 10% more than highest general elected official (CCC) 95,635   30,603 5914 36,517 101
Workhouse* 10,520              
Juvenile* 10,520              
  126,238              
                 
Highway – Headrick 105,199 must make 10% more than highest general elected official (CCC) 95,635   9,564 1885 11,449 131

Figures provided by Angelie Shankle, Budget Manager for Blount County government.

Beacon Center Report on Blount County School District shows big administrative growth while students declined from 2004-2014

The Beacon Center created a tool to examine school spending and growth rates from 2004-2014.

According to the reported generated by the tool, the Blount County School District saw a 71% increase in administrative costs, an 11% increase in teachers and a 21% increase in administrators from 2004-2014 but the number of students dropped 0.2% during this time.

Are your tax dollars being used wisely?

For comparison during the same time period, Alcoa and Maryville School Districts both had a decrease in administrators while the rest of the data provided, including students, increased.

The debt amount in this report does not accurately reflect the full debt costs of the schools because most of the debt for the schools is paid for out of the Debt Service Fund and not the General Purpose Schools Fund.

May 2017 Commission Report

Open Records Policy
The majority of commissioners showed themselves to be overlords rather than servants of the people by adopting an open records policy with a process making it difficult for people to obtain their government records.  The policy speaks for itself.  Only those with disdain for the people they are suppose to serve would make it as difficult to obtain your records as this commission just did.  These people can claim they’re there to serve you but actions speak louder than words.

The policy was designed by an ad hoc committee comprised of 3 county commissioners and 2 citizens.  2 of the commission members, Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor, are local government employees who consistently support government of the government, for the government, and by the government rather than government of the people, for the people and by the people.

Copy fees
The ad hoc committee proposed charging 50 cents per copy, for both black and white and color copies.  The fee for black and white copies in the Schedule of Reasonable Charges produced by the state Office of Open Records Counsel, within the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, is 15 cents.  Jerome Moon, the Chairman of the committee that wrote the policy, took the extraordinary measure of changing the fee for black and white copies in the policy before presenting it to the commission.  Rather than respecting the process by proposing an amendment, he actually changed the policy that the ad hoc committee had recommended.

Commissioners Moon and Grady Caskey sponsored the resolution that adopted the open records policy.  These two falsely claimed in their resolution that the commission was adopting the policy as recommended by the ad hoc committee.  The fourth whereas statement in the resolution reads:

“WHEREAS, the Blount County legislative body finds that it is mandated to establish a written public records policy and hereby adopts and approves the proposed written public records policy as recommended by the ad hoc committee and attached hereto as Exhibit A.”

This is a false statement because the policy presented to the Agenda Committee, which consists of all members of the commission, was changed.  Commissioner Moon is the Chairman of the Blount County Commission.  He is well versed in parliamentary procedure.  There is absolutely no excuse for what he did.  All he had to do was present an amendment and explain his reasoning for the amendment.  Instead he changed what was presented to the commission.

Appointments for records inspections – take a number
From the Office of Open Records Counsel’s website, see the 3rd paragraph:

“Under the Tennessee Public Records Act, a records custodian cannot require a request for inspection of public records to be in writing. However, other provisions of law may permit or require such written request. A records custodian can require a request for copies of records to be in writing, or to be made on the Records Request Form, and to include that requirement in their public records policy. If a request must be on a specific form, a copy of the required form must be included in their public records policy and should be readily available for public use. If a governmental entity does not require a specific form, requestors may use the Records Request Form.”

The policy approved by the commission requires an appointment for records inspections, although a section below it makes it sound like it is the decision of the Public Records Request Coordinator (PRRC).

“IV. Inspection of Records

A. There shall be no charge for inspection of open public records. An appointment is required for inspection.

B. The location for inspection of records within the offices of Blount County Government should be determined by either the PRRC or the records custodian.

C. Under reasonable circumstances, the PRRC or a records custodian may require an appointment for inspection or may require inspection of records at an alternate location. The time for appointments should be made with in normal business hours unless mutually agreed upon by PRRC and the requestor.”

For clarity on the matter, I asked the Office of Open Records Counsel for its opinion on Section IV, Part A and Part C. This was the response I received:

“Good Afternoon Ms. Monroe:

I assume your question is regarding Section IV, Part A of the draft policy, which provides: “There shall be no charge for inspection of open public records.  An appointment is required for inspection.”  However, Part C of the same section provides that the PRRC may require an appointment for inspection of records “under reasonable circumstances.” 

Whether requiring an appointment to inspect the records is reasonable will ultimately be left to a court to decide, based upon the particular facts and circumstances of each case.  However, to the extent that a county’s public records policy provides a blanket rule that an appointment is required for the inspection of any records in any situation, we find it difficult to imagine that a court would find it reasonable to require an appointment for inspection under the facts and circumstances of each and every situation.”

To resolve the confusion and to reduce the burden upon those requesting records, I offered an amendment to remove the sentence in A that required an appointment for all records inspections.  This would have left in place the flexibility of requiring an appointment when circumstances warrant it.  The commission rejected this.  Only commissioners Akard, Archer, Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted to resolve this issue.  If the county is ever sued over the matter of requiring an appointment, it will be the fault of the commissioners who opposed the amendment and voted for the policy.  They have sufficient knowledge to know that the matter needed to be resolved.

Proof of citizenship and a photo ID – Papers “please”
You will have to prove that you are a Tennessee citizen and may have to provide a photo ID for records request.  These two impediments can really slow things down.  This isn’t papers “please.”  This is papers demanded and just to see or obtain records.  Karen Miller and I were placed in an interrogation room at the justice center when a photo ID was demanded of me when I make a records request of the Sheriff’s Office .

I offered an amendment that would have required that proof of citizenship only be required when someone is requesting a fee waiver with their records request.  It was rejected.

Proof of citizenship should only be obtained to verify that the person receiving a waiver of fees is actually a citizen and once is it provided it should be destroyed. How is the county going to keep your citizenship and photo ID records?  These records may contain sensitive information that Blount County has no legitimate reason in demanding, other than to provide a waiver of the costs/fees to its citizenry.

A photo ID should not be required just to see or get copies of public records.  This is not Nazi Germany.

Requests request must go to Blount County Records Manager and Archivist
Jackie Glenn, the Blount County Records Manager and Archivist, will serve as the PRRC.  This concerns me because some years back I asked her to provide me with copies of some records.  She wrote that it would cost a couple hundred dollars to provide the records but I was able to make copies of the records for a few dollars on my own.  I hope that no one finds themselves in a similar situation where a request for copies of records turns into hundreds of dollars when the records can be copied for a few dollars.

Only Commissioners Akard, Daly, Miller and I rejected a policy that put in place with nearly as many unnecessary impediments to obtaining records as the courthouse clique could get away with.  While Daly was absent from the commission meeting, she voted against it at the Agenda Committee meeting.

Cutting commissioners off
It has become standard operating procedure for Commissioners Dave Bennett and Mike Caylor to call a point of order while I am speaking to shut me down.  This makes it difficult for me to do the job that I was elected to do.

Some have suggested that this is occurring because I am a woman.  It’s possible.  Commissioner Karen Miller has been questioned about her income and statements have been made about my employment.

A study of the Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS) found that women justices are interrupted more frequently than men by male justices.  Male advocates arguing cases are much more likely to interrupt than female advocates.  The article says, “gender is 30 times more powerful in explaining interruptions than seniority.”

Source: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-men-continue-to-interrupt-even-the-most-powerful-women

Agenda Committee meeting
Commissioner Dave Bennett was absent.

Commission pay raise rejected
Commissioners Ron French and Grady Caskey proposed giving the commission a pay raise.  Currently Blount County Commissioners make a salary of $405 a month.  There are no official benefits such as health care.  However, taxpayer funded meals are provided before and after some special meetings.  Additionally, some commissioners are county employees and already receive benefits from the county.

The proposal would have increased the salary to $450 a month and pay commissioners $200 for their attendance at the Agenda Committee meeting.  This would have increased the pay from $405 to $650 a month.

I offered an amendment to remove the $200 for attending the Agenda Committee meeting but that amendment failed.  Only commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller, Steve Sample and I supported the amendment.  Commissioner Tom Stinnett abstained.

The resolution failed in a 9-10-1 vote.  Commissioners Archie Archer, Brad Bowers, Shawn Carter, Grady Caskey, Gary Farmer, Ron French, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton and Jerome Moon voted yes to placing the resolution to increase their pay on the commission agenda.  Commissioners Mike Akard, Andy Allen, Rick Carver, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Dodd Crowe, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller, Tona Monroe and Steve Samples voted against sending the resolution forward.  Commissioner Tom Stinnett abstained.

This is a hot button political issue that gets a lot of attention but its best to view the voting records of commissioners in their entirety.  Some of the commissioners who voted against increasing their pay rarely, if ever, look out for you the taxpayers.

The issue was simple for me.  This is public service and I am not going to vote to increase my own pay.  I tried to turn down my commission salary but was forced to take it after great resistance on my part.

Commission meeting
Commissioners Cole, Daly and Lewis were absent.

Planning Commission appointment
The Blount County Commission rubber stamped Mayor Ed Mitchell’s latest nomination to the Planning Commission.  Some rural districts of the county still have no representation on the Planning Commission, despite it having authority to propose regulations that impact the rural areas of the county.  I was the only commissioner that voted against the mayor’s appointment.

$350,000 more for equipment for the Highway Department
The new Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick has gone on a spending spree, purchasing new equipment.  Previous equipment purchases totaled more than $1.4M.

This month the commission approved a request for $350,000 to purchase a new 8′ paver.  The county already has a 10′ paver.

The memo accompanying the request said that this will save the county money since the county will be able to do more of its own paving.  However, there were no documents or figures to support this claim.  Some counties contract this out as it costs less to pay companies to do the paving but I was cut off from fully expressing this and further reasons why I couldn’t support this issue.

Without any information to support the claim that it will save the county money, I wasn’t comfortable with spending the money.  I made motion to postpone this for a month so that the commission could be provided with numbers to back up the claim that this purchase will save money.  The motion failed.  Commissioner Akard made an amendment, which I seconded, to reduce the amount to $200,000 so that the county could purchase a used paver.  That failed as well.  The commission approved the purchase with only commissioners Akard, Miller and myself voting against it.

Road for Denso
Unfortunately, corporate welfare is ingrained in local and state governments.  Blount County government already spends $1,062,200 annualy on “economic development”, without the commission being provided any info on how the money is spent.  Commissioners aren’t even given a budget showing how this $1M will be spent.  After asking for the budget in 2015, Bryan Daniels of the Blount Partnership/Blount Chamber of Commerce/Industrial Development Board/Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority blocked me.

Despite spending $1M+ on “economic development”, the commission was asked to approve an additional $60,425 to build a road for Denso.  The letter from the Tennessee Department of Transportation accompanying the contract is dated September 16, 2016 but the commission was not told about this or provided anything until this month.

$1M is enough of your money for secret, crony, corporate welfare deals.  Only commissioners Miller and I voted against giving more of your money to another special deal.

I am all for business friendly tax policies but tax breaks should be fair to all and apply equally to similar businesses.  Giving one business the farm (literally), another a building, building a road for another, or a tax abatement for another should stop.  Tax policies could be written to provide incentives to all businesses, not just those that cozy up to the courthouse clique and the swamp in Nashville.

Watch out for Randy Boyd, who is running in the Republican primary for Governor of Tennessee.  He is the king of corporate welfare, having spent two years as the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development.  During that time he traveled the state giving corporate handouts to businesses while he and local elected officials could get their pictures in papers for “creating jobs” with your money.  As such, 22 east Tennessee mayors recently endorsed him.  Multiple media outlets serve as PR firms rather than news reporters, promoting how wonder these special, secret deals are.  That’s how powerful the corporate welfare, special interests have become.  Boyd has been well groomed to be the next big government governor, next in line after Bill Haslam.

Highway Dept. agreement with 4 local cities
The majority of commissioners rubber stamped local agreements between the Blount County Highway Department and the cities of Friendsville, Louisville, Rockford and Townsend.  The agreements were simple, only 1-2 pages each.  However, there was no mention of liability for the parties.  I inquired as to who would pay for what should an accident occur and was met with silence rather than answers.  Only commissioners Akard, Miller and I voted against taking the risk of the unknown with these agreements.

Up next:
Budget
While there is no tax rate increase proposed in the upcoming budget, spending will increase.  The revenues recommend by the Budget Committee are available hereThe expenditures recommended by the Budget Committee are available here.

Local government elections

“The future has a way of arriving unannounced.”  George F. Will

In many of these monthly commission reports I encourage you, the public, to get involved.  The 2018 local government primary election is less than one year away.  All partisan elected officials in Blount County are Republicans.  Thus all county government races, with the exception of the school board and Property Assessor, were determined in the May 6, 2014 primary election and the races will likely be determined in the May 1, 2018 election.  School board races are nonpartisan and the Property Assessor election occurs in the same year as a presidential election.

If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, please give consideration to running and/or supporting good candidates for local office next year.  It is not to early to start preparing.

“A year from now you will wish you had started today.”  Karen Lamb

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”  Will Rogers

April 2017 Commission Report

Agenda and Commission Meetings
This was a light month for the Blount County Commission.  The agenda was short. There was a zoning request that was had no objections and the commission voted to approve its minutes and receive reports.

The only thing of significance that happened was the commission moved the regular meeting time of 7 PM to 4 PM.  This was likely because the Republican Party of Blount County scheduled its Lincoln Day dinner for the same night at 6 PM.  Commissioner Dave Bennett had the item placed on the agenda for the Agenda Committee but he wasn’t present at the meeting to explain his request.  He is the former chairman of the local Republican Party.

Would the all Republican commission change the meeting time for the Blount County Democratic or Libertarian Parties?  The Information Technology Committee meeting, which was scheduled for 6 PM the same night, was also canceled.  I was the only commissioner present to vote against catering to the local Republican Party.

Paper takes down a story related to jail expansion
Last month I wrote about the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) cutting me off and not letting me do the job that I was elected to do: ask questions and get answers related to jail expansion in order to make an informed decision.  This month the paper removed a story from its website that it wrote related to my research and questions about this endeavor.

Blount County Tax Revolt, a local citizens group, asked me to come speak about the BCCP cutting me off and explain what I was prohibited from asking and what I had hoped to learn by asking questions.  A reporter for The Daily Times was present at the meeting and a story was written.  The story did not appear in the print edition but it was online with a link on the homepage of the paper’s website until the early afternoon when it was taken down.

The Daily Times has twice published that the Purchasing Department had an open meeting related to the jail RFQ.  This cherry picked reporting is a disservice to this community.  Most of the purchasing process related to the selection of a firm was done in secret because of a new state law.  It seems that the paper is more interested in publishing the talking points of the courthouse clique than it is evaluating a new law that made what was formerly an open process largely secret.  This law coupled with the actions of the BCCP have made my job more difficult than it should be.

At the March BCCP meeting, Purchasing Agent Katie Branham Kerr said that she would have to refer to her notes when I asked her who she had contacted in Loudon County when consulting references for the architectural firm Michael Brady Inc. (MBI).  I requested a copy of her notes and all communications records that she had with other governmental entities related to MBI.  Kerr informed me that she has no communications records related to MBI.

She says that she did contact someone at Loudon County regarding MBI but can’t remember who she spoke with or what office/department this person works in.  I checked with the Loudon County Mayor’s Office to see if anyone had any recollection of speaking to Kerr or anyone from Blount County related to MBI.  Anita Green with the Loudon County Mayor’s Office responded with, “I have spoken with several department heads and none have any recollection of speaking with anyone from Blount County.”

I’ll likely write more on this in the future.

Spectra Recycling Center to close
Blount County has been fortunate to enjoy having recycling services provided free of charge by a private company.  Spectra will be closing its recycling center on May 1st.  Spectra has provided recycling services free to city and county residents for 17 years.

While some recycling materials are profitable others are not.  The demand for glass is low and many governments that provide recycling services have stopped collecting it during garbage pick up.

In 2015, I served on an ad hoc committee that looked at recycling options for Blount County.  You can read the report issued by the chairman of that committee here.

If the county were to provide recycling, there will be costs associated with that service.  We had a valuable service being provided by a private business.  I don’t know if that service could have continued but I do wish that possibility had been fully explored before looking to provide a new county service.  Do you support using your tax dollars for the county to provide recycling?

Up Next:
Open Records Policy

The commission will soon vote on an open records policy.  Those who are interested in open government and obtaining or inspecting records will want to pay close attention to this.

Info on TCSA funding and support for IMPROVE act

Last week I wrote about the Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) sending a newsletter telling local elected officials to call their legislators in support of the IMPROVE act.  This legislation increases the gas tax and raises the non-commercial vehicle registration fee $5 annually.

This organization is funded by you, the taxpayers.  Here is a copy of the meeting minutes for the meeting that the TCSA voted to support the IMPROVE act.  The TCSA website says the board endorsed the legislation.  Since the meeting minutes don’t give a roll call vote of the TCSA Board, I asked if any voted against supporting the legislation that will soon be law.  Executive Director David Connor wrote, “The board vote was a voice vote. No members voted against supporting the measure and no one asked to be recorded as a no.”  The minutes contain a listing of the members that were present and absent from the meeting.

Blount County paid $3,875 in dues to the TCSA.  The TCSA annual budget is available here.

Do you think your tax money should be spent to fund an association that supports/endorses raises taxes and fees on you?

Pastor and The Daily Times editor Buzz Trexler compares Christian belief to penguin sex

The press has many important functions that can be invaluable.  As such, it’s important to know the people who are doing the reporting as it can give insight into the mindsets and biases that occur in journalism.

Buzz Trexler is the pastor at Green Meadow United Methodist Church and an editor at The Daily Times.  His blog/website can help readers glean information about his approach to journalism and preaching.

There you will find that he preached a sermon at the Friendsville United Methodist Church entitled, “Christian Belief Is Like Penguin Sex.”

And that folks is who is editing your daily source of written news in the Bible belt.

Tennessee County Services Association tells local elected officials to support gas tax increase

The Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) sends local elected officials a newsletter, called Capitol Update, while the Tennessee General Assembly is in session.  The TCSA failed to mention the purchasing secrecy legislation in the six issues that it sent to me in 2016.  When I asked TCSA Executive Director David Connor why he didn’t include bills that made an open process a secret government process he wrote, “Since it was mirroring the process used at the state, I didn’t see a problem with it.”  Two wrongs apparently make a right.

This year the TCSA has sent newsletter with a headline telling local officials to call their state lawmakers and tell them to support the gas tax increase included in the slyly named IMPROVE act.  TCSA seem more interested in telling local officials what to do rather than keeping them informed of legislation that creates local government secrecy.  Is the tail wagging the dog?

March 2017 Commission Report

Agenda Committee
The commission recently started voting to receive reports and minutes from committees and entities that provides us with information because of the new software system that the commission started using in January.  Prior to the new system, these records were available in the commission packet as information without a vote.  I (Tona Monroe) pointed out that some of the meeting minutes were drafts and subject to being changed by their respective bodies.  The draft minutes were postponed until April so that the commission can figure out how to properly handle voting on minutes being received in the future.  The matter shows how most commissioners operate on auto pilot during the meetings and how little thought most put into the process.

Commission meeting
Commissioners Mike Akard, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Jamie Daly and Tom Stinnett were absent.

Evergreen pay study for Highway Department
The Evergreen Solutions salary study pay increase request for the Highway Department was back on the agenda after being pulled by Commissioner Dave Bennett last month without any explanation for it being pulled.  The request increased from $13,579.46 to $15,346.13.

The $15,346.13 will be used to increase the pay of 14 employees.  Shortly before this, one employee was about 2/3’s of this amount in one year.  Certain people get huge page raises while many get small ones.  According to the 2015 payroll, Assistant Superintendent Chico Messer made $71,999.98.  According to the 2016 salary list, Chico Messer’s salary increased to $82,801 on August 25, 2016 (see page 42).  In 2014, Messer’s annual salary was $66,000.06.  It’s interesting that Messer sought and received certification from the state to run for the position of Highway Superintendent but chose not to seek the postion.  Could the big pay increase be a deterrent to Messer running in 2018?

In 2015, the Blount County Commission voted to adopt the recommendations of the Evergreen Solutions employee classification and compensation study for all county departments except the Highway Department and the Schools.  This request adds the Highway Department to the rest of the General County government pay scale.

You may remember that one of my objections at the time was that the report wasn’t even finished when the commission was asked to vote to adopt its recommendations.  The final study was not made public until 7 months after the commission had voted on the matter.  Well this new study wasn’t in the Agenda Committee packet.  When I asked why, I was told by the Human Resources Director that she had just received the report that day.  That raises the question of why it had been put on the agenda last month when the report wasn’t finished.  Do these people ever learn?  Do they even care?

Furthermore, the previous study only compared Blount County to one other county.  The rest of the comparisons were to schools, even though Blount County Schools didn’t participate, cities and other entities.  This new study only compared Blount County to cities.  Not one county was included in the study.  It wouldn’t be that hard, particularly when you’re only looking at one department, to obtain the payrolls for other counties and analyze comparable positions.  Commissioners Karen Miller and I were the only no votes.

Service dogs
A couple donated $10,000 to the county for the purchase of a service dog.  Blount County currently has 7 service dogs and will soon have 10.

CTAS resolution
State legislation has been filed that would add the County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) to the list of government entities that would sunset and have to be renewed by the Tennessee General Assembly after a review process.  All of the status quo, courthouse clique commissioners signed onto a resolution that opposed this legislation.

If enacted, an Evaluation Committee would review the objectives of CTAS.  TCA 4-29-105 says:

The Evaluation Committee shall have as its objectives:
1) The review of present programs and strategies of entities to determine the quality, efficiency, and success of such programs and strategies in implementation of legislative mandates.

What’s wrong with a regular review of CTAS?  CTAS can be political and is cliquish, picking their favorites.

On at least two occasions that I have asked CTAS questions, the local government consultant for this area, Wesley Robertson, has called Commission Chairman Jerome Moon and given him the answer to my questions rather than calling and giving the answers to me.

I’ve talked to local elected officials in several counties around the state.  Those who are principled reformers receive similar treatment.  A commissioner in another county shared with me that she has quit contacting CTAS because as soon as she inquires about anything, her CTAS government consultant calls her county mayor to inform him of what she is inquiring about.  Another elected official in a different county told me that we should get together and ask the Tennessee General Assembly for some real help, since we aren’t getting it from CTAS.  She shared with me how another lady she knows in local government is treated poorly by CTAS.  It seems that CTAS has a history of treating women who oppose the status quo, poorly.  However, I have talked with men in local elected office who don’t consult with CTAS either because they consider them to be part of the problem within the bureaucracy in government.

CTAS is a part of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service (IPS).  IPS blocked me on twitter after I posted tweets critical of CTAS.  Amazingly, the IPS unblocked me the day before the commission voted on this resolution and is now following www.twitter.com/bcpublicrecord.

A thorough review of CTAS might be just exactly what it needs to provide better service.  It makes no sense to oppose a review process of your tax dollars at work; therefore I voted no.  Only Commissioner Karen Miller joined me in voting no.  Commissioners Akard and Daly, who were absent from the commission meeting, voted against putting this item on the agenda, at the Agenda Committee meeting.

Open records policy
The state legislature enacted a law requiring local governments to have open records policies by July 1st.  This should have been a law many years ago.  However, the law is not as specific as it should be and will probably require changes to it in the future.

As an elected official, I thought that it would be easier to obtain information but that is often not the case.  It can be difficult obtaining records needed to make important public policy decisions.  I’ve had to go to the Office of Open Records Counsel for assistant several times in obtaining records from Blount County government.  Several people have shared with me how difficult it can be to obtain help from the Office of Open Records Counsel.  Thus, a clear policy is needed.

Commissioner Jerome Moon chose to place himself and Commissioners Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor on the ad hoc committee that will write the open records policy.  Both Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor work for local governments and tend to favor government.  Hopefully the policy to be written will serve the people of Blount County well.

Lack of discussion
Other that the normal course of speaking required for the chairman to run a meeting, I was the only commissioner to discuss anything on the agenda that was put to a vote.  Many have said that these meetings are a done deal before the commissioners get there.  With no discussion except from me, I see why so many conclude this.

Commissioner Dodd Crowe’s only statement of the night came at the end of the meeting to inform those in the audience that the IT Department was working to ensure that all of the commissioners and their votes appeared on the screen displaying the votes.  All of the commissioners, and their votes, had not been showing on the screen because of an issue with the new software system.

Blount County Corrections Partnership
The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) is a charade that exists to appease the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) to keep the jail certified.  Certification by the TCI Board of Control (BOC) is pretty close to worthless.  Jail standards are good but the TCIBOC has and continues to certify jails that are not in compliance with the standards because they jump through hoops.

One of those hoops is having the BCCP.  Part of the charade even includes TCI employees Detentions Facility Specialist (DFS) Robert Kane, who inspects the jail, and the Corrections Partnership Coordinator Bob Bass.  DFS Robert Kane makes false statements in his jail inspection report such as the March 3, 2016 report that gives the BCCP credit for things that it doesn’t do such as submitting monthly progress reports to the TCI.  It doesn’t, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office does that.  He says that the BCCP meets monthly and discusses the findings of the ILPP report.  The BCCP met 4 times in 2015.  You can read more about the report here.

CPC Bass serves as the bully for the TCI.  He comes to some of the meetings to talk tough to the BCCP about how the jail could be decertified if the county doesn’t build.  Talking tough is about all he can do, other than educate us in meetings with videos available on YouTube.  He once popped off to me about shutting the jail down but he and the TCI lack the authority to shut the jail down.  All he can do is go to the State Fire Marshal’s Office like the rest of us can and speak against the jail getting a nearly worthless certification from the TCI.

TCI certification is voluntary but many don’t know that.  Certification is used as a red herring for the TCI’s lack of authority to shut a jail down.  Jails that aren’t certified operate without being shut down.  Increased insurance rates can be a consequence of decertification, but this will not likely impact Blount County significantly because the county is self insured.  Read this letter from the legal counsel for the TCI on its certification and authority regarding shutting a jail down.

We are currently looking at architectural and engineering firms because Bob “the bully” Bass and Robert Kane came in and talked tough.  That was the excuse the political machine needed to start the expansion process.  Reality is that little to nothing would have happened if Blount County hadn’t solicited a firm because certification is a voluntarily process.

The only person to speak during public input was Commissioner Karen Miller.  She expressed how disappointed she is that the BCCP hasn’t actually examined the possible solutions that have been given in the studies that have been done and instead is wanting to pay an architectural firm to look at what the BCCP should be looking at.

Purchasing Agent Katie Branham Kerr spoke briefly about the jail RFQ process and how Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) was chosen for jail renovation and/or expansion.  She was quick to say that the interviews for 3 of the companies that submitted qualifications were public but failed to mention that most of the process, including the decision making, was done in secret.  The Tennessee General Assembly last year decided that you the taxpaying citizens might some how corrupt the integrity of the process and made most of the purchasing process sealed.  Yes, state legislators thinks that you lack the integrity to interact with the Purchasing Agent and the evaluators that she selects until she has chosen a company and they made a law to stop you for interacting.  However, the names of the Screening Committee/Evaluation Team were published on this website before she made the names of the evaluators known.

MBI employee Jay Henderlight and John Eisenlau with TreanorHL gave a presentation on what they can and have done related to jails.  Eisenlau would work with MBI throughout the process.  I asked them if they were considering a new facility at a new location and was told that they haven’t considered that and didn’t think it would be necessary.  This is important because of what happened in Loudon County.

Loudon County Justice Center: Expansion and renovation vs a new facility
In the letter of engagement from MBI to the Loudon County Purchasing Agent, under Project Information the proposed improvements/use says “Expansion and Renovation of Existing Justice Center.”  The site location reads “12680 Highway 11 W., Loudon, TN” which is the location of the current Loudon County Justice Center.

Loudon County had previously paid MBI about $16,000 to see if the current location of their justice center was suitable for expansion.  After it was determined that the existing location is suitable for expansion, the Loudon County Corrections Partnership (LCCP) voted to move forward with expanding the existing facility in August of 2015.  However, that changed after the Loudon County Commission approved paying MBI up to $60,000 to provide options to expand the justice center at its current location.

MBI provided several expansion and renovation options but the recommendation that came from the LCCP in 2016 was the construction of a new facility at a different location.  While the LCCP was considering building at a new location, the Loudon County jail was decertified by the TCIBOC.  Who and/or what caused the change in plan from expansion of the existing facility to the construction of a new facility isn’t entirely clear.  What role, if any, MBI played in this isn’t clear either.  Who caused the deviation from expanding the existing facility to building a brand new facility at a different location?

Since MBI touts their work in Loudon County and PA Katie Kerr recommends MBI, both should be able to explain to the BCCP and the commission what happened in Loudon County.  I asked PA Kerr who she spoke to at Loudon County when evaluating MBI.  She said she would have to go back and look at her notes.  Even if she couldn’t recall the name of the person that she spoke with she should have been able to recall the conversation but she didn’t offer anything specific about her conversation with Loudon County.

Exactly how much research did Kerr do into MBI prior to recommending them?  Kerr has taken 11 months to complete the process of selecting a company.  Kerr’s office took nearly 3 months to issue the RFQ, despite her saying that 30 days should be sufficient time to issue the paperwork.

Furthermore, Kerr deviated from the jail RFQ issued by her office.  The RFQ says that the Screening Committee selected to evaluate the firms that submitted proposals would be county commissioners and employees Sheriff’s Office (see page 16).  2 of the evaluators were neither county commissioners or employees of the Sheriff’s Office.

I continued with my efforts to learn exactly what happened in the change of course in Loudon County but was prohibited from questioning Kerr further on the matter.  Chairman Rick Carver said that my questioning was out of order.  I challenged the rule of the chair and the rest of the voting members voted against allowing me to continue.

The people of the 7th district elected me to ask the though questions.  The BCCP voted to prohibit me from asking the necessary questions to make informed decisions the protect the taxpayers of Blount County and are in the best interest of the community.  We were there to decide whether to recommend the company chosen by the PA to the Blount County Commission.  I was prohibited by the BCCP from doing what I was elected to do.

What is point of attending these meetings if I am not going to be allowed to do my job?  The people deserve to know exactly what happened in Loudon County and how much research that PA Kerr did on MBI but I was prohibited from finding out.

When a new justice center was recommended to the Loudon County Commission, the matter died for a lack of motion.

MBI is the same company that was chosen for the renovation proposals for the high schools that was original estimated at $40M and has now ballooned up to $66M.  Given that the same company has been recommended for and involved in two important, and very costly proposals the people deserve answers that Commissioners Dave Bennett, Rick Carver and Mike Caylor and Blount County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff French and Jail Administrator John Adams prohibited me from obtaining.

This is a farce.  Nothing about the jail should be trusted.

I have requested Kerr’s notes related to MBI for the jail and high school renovations.  We’ll see what I get.

BCCP emails:
Chairman Rick Carver rcarver@blounttn.org
Commissioner Mike Caylor mcaylor@blounttn.org, bmcaylor@maryville-tn.gov
Commissioner Dave Bennett dbennett@blounttn.org
Commissioner Tona Monroe tmonroe@blounttn.org
Chief Deputy Jeff French jfrench@bcso.com
Jail Administrator John Adams jadams@bcso.com
Finance Director Randy Vineyard rvineyard@blounttn.org
General Session Judge Mike Gallegos mgallegos@blounttn.org
Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington tharrington@blounttn.org

Other Chairs:
Agenda Committee Chairman Steve Samples ssamples@blounttn.org
Commission Chairman Jerome Moon jmoon@blounttn.org

Up next: The commission will be considering MBI for work related to the jail and expansion and renovation of the high schools.  Some have contacted me about these matters.  If you want answers, you’re going to have to help me as I’ve been stonewalled by the courthouse clique.

February 2017 Commission Report

Agenda Committee
Spending increase rejected
The commission actually rejected a spending increase request from the schools for tennis court renovations.  This is the first spending request, apart from the annual budget requests, that this commission has rejected.

Commission meetings
State inmate revenue reported incorrectly

After the Tennessee Department of Corrections announced that it would transfer some of its state felons to state facilities, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office started providing the commission a monthly report showing the revenue that the county is receiving from the state for housing state felons.  The county receives $37 a day from the state of Tennessee but the reports have been incorrectly stating that the daily per diem rate is $37.50.  $37 a day is substantially less than the cost to the county for housing state sentenced felons.  Blount County Sheriff James Berrong told the commission last April that the state inmates are only a good deal for the state and that he doesn’t want to keep them.

Highway Department
The commission was asked to approve spending $800,000 of fund balance for the Blount County Highway Department (HD) in a special called meeting.  This request was deemed an emergency by Highway Superintendent (HS) Jeff Headrick, due to trucks being damaged by salt.

The request included 8 new single-axial diesel salt trucks and 4 trailers.  I asked how many salt trucks the HD has.  Headrick didn’t know.  Assistant Superintendent Chico Messer told the commission that the HD has 15.

A common sense fleet management policy would be to replace these trucks at the rate of 1 or 2 a year.  It doesn’t make sense to replace the majority of your fleet (8 of 15) in one budget year.  While this seems to be poor management on the part of the former Highway Superintendent Bill Dunlap, it is also poor planning on the part of the new HS.  A slower, more consistent, replacement of the fleet allows for better budget planning and as well as use of the vehicles.

The HD had just purchased 2 new triple-axial trucks in December at a cost of $145,746.80 each.  There was a transfer for $35,000 in January for parts.

At the regular commission meeting, the commission was asked to approve $281,000 to purchase a pug mill and asphalt patching trailer as well as $120,000 for asphalt.  Commissioner Mike Akard asked if the $120,000 for asphalt was an emergency.  Headrick said that it was but no explanation was given as to why it wasn’t included in the special called meeting with the equipment purchase.

Additionally, there was a $13,579.46 request to increase salaries in the Highway Department.  Commissioner Dave Bennett asked for this item to be removed without providing an explanation for its removal.

The requests and purchases for equipment and parts total over $1.4M in less than 3 months.  This was too much too fast.

It makes sense to approve more money for asphalt because the county hasn’t been keeping up with its paving needs.  Headrick said that the $120K will pave an additional 2.25 miles of the 830 miles of local roads.  Additionally, I asked him for a list of roads that will be paved in the next year.  You can read that list here.

Taxpayers footed the lunch bill for the commission, the mayor and his staff and some highway employees for the special called meeting.  Meals paid for by the taxpaying citizens of Blount County have become all too common of a practice.

Ethra funding
The commission was asked to approve the use of local tax money to bail out a federally funded program.  This isn’t the first time that the federal government has failed to fund one of its programs.  Funding was cut and service was to be temporarily halted.  This is a good example of why the federal government shouldn’t be running programs.  There is no constitutional authority for the federal government to fund this program.

There were unanswered questions.  A commissioner who is a part of the courthouse clique said after the meeting that this matter wasn’t explained well to the commission.

As a county commissioner, it isn’t my job to vote to bail out unconstitutional, federal government programs.  Furthermore, not one person from my district called me and asked me to vote for this.  I was the only commissioner to vote no.

Workers compensation (comp) settlement
The commission was asked to approve a workers comp settlement because the settlement was more than $50,000.  The case had been ongoing for over 2 years.  I had asked for records related to the case back in December, primarily because I wanted to know the cost of the legal fees for the case, and was provided with nothing.  Since I didn’t receive anything, I called  Director of General Services Don Stallions and he told me that the legal fees for the case is about $75,000.

I told Mr. Stallions that the commission should, at a minimum, be provided with an annual report on the status of lawsuits and claims against the county, but ideally it should be provided quarterly.  He agreed and said that the information used to be provided in the past when the county had a committee dealing with these matters.  When I mentioned this at the commission meeting, Commissioner Bennett made a statement cautioning against releasing information.  Apparently the status quo of having nothing is acceptable to him, although I doubt he’d run a private business without having this information.

For almost a year, I have been trying to get records and information from Stallions regarding the status of law suits, claims and settlements.  To date he has provided me with nothing.  This lengthy delay is not out of sort.  A former commissioner shared with me that Mr. Stallions stalled him for 2 years on a request.

Jail RFQ purchasing meeting
After I publically criticized the secrecy created by a new purchasing law, the Purchasing Department held a meeting open to the public so three companies chosen in secret could give presentations as to why their company is the best to look at jail expansion or construction of a new facility.  No decisions were made at the meeting.  The selection of the company was done behind closed doors, to protect the integrity of the process, according to Purchasing Agent (PA) Katie Branham Kerr.  This means that the Tennessee General Assembly and the Purchasing Agent think that the public lacks the integrity to allow her to select a company openly.

The Evaluation Team/Screening Committee consisted of 4 of the 5 people that I named here.  Laurie Bell did not participate at the meeting.  Commissioner Mike Caylor missed two of the three presentations.

Presenters for Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) said that Blount County has a better jail that most in the state and that Monroe County would love to have what we have today.

When asked what the county needs a presenter for Barber McMurry (BMA) said he didn’t know.  This affirms what I have been saying, that Blount County got the cart before the horse.  The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) and the commission never identified what the county needed.

A presenter for Cope Architecture said he suggested a jail committee that would meet weekly during planning and construction.  His suggestion for the makeup of the committee is essentially what exists now with the BCCP.

Upon request, PA Branham Kerr informed me that MBI was chosen.  This is the same company that the schools are using that came back with a $66M proposal after originally estimating $40M.  The public wasn’t allowed to express concerns about a company that went way over what was originally estimated.  We’re told that your comments would have corrupted the integrity of the process.

It’s not surprising that MBI was chosen.  They’ve been watching this for years.  Roy Latham, an employee of MBI, has been attending commission meetings for years.  Commissioners receive a chocolate bar for Christmas from MBI.  Allowing them to be chosen in secret makes me wonder if MBI was a shoo-in all along.

Up next: “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.”  Indian Proverb

Blount County is facing two big renovation/building project: the 2 high schools and the jail.  These two matters could become very expensive, quickly.  Pay close attention to these matters.

The Purchasing Agent will make her recommendation for MBI to the BCCP on March 28th at 5:30 in room 430 at the courthouse.

2 of chairman’s picks for records committee work for local government

Last night the Blount County Commission voted to create an ad hoc committee to write an open records policy for Blount County government.  The committee will consist of 5 members: 3 appointed by Commission Chairman Jerome Moon and 2 appointed by Mayor Ed Mitchell.

Jerome Moon has chosen himself and Commissioners Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor.  Both Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor are local government employees.  Grady Caskey works for Blount County Schools and Mike Caylor works for the City of Maryville.  The 5 member committee will have at least 2 members who may have a tendency to favor the government over the citizenry.

Accessing entire commission meeting packets

The county recently purchased a new software system called Granicus to organize local government meetings.  Meeting packets use to be available on the county’s website as one file, for each meeting, that was indexed by individual items.  The new system divides documentation by agenda item and breaks the information down even further by document type.  However, it’s still possible to download the entire commission packet for those desiring the simplicity of the structure of the old system.

To access an entire commission meeting packet:
Visit https://blounttn.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx
Click on Meeting Details for Board of Commissioners.
On the new screen, next to Attachments, click on Information for Commission (or Agenda Committee) Meeting Scheduled for (date).

Right now, the commission and agenda meetings are the only meetings that have an entire packet available without having to click on each agenda item separately.  Hopefully more committees will make entire meeting packets available in the future.  In the meantime, you can read the information available for each agenda item by clicking on the individual links.

 

 

Jail RFQ Evaluation Team/Screening Committee meeting Thursday at 8:30 AM

The jail evaluations will meet in the commission room on February 23rd at 8:30 AM to interview the 3 architectural firms that were chosen based on scoring of written qualifications.  These written qualifications and scores are currently secret due to a change in Tennessee purchasing law last year.  The public will still not be able to comment on the firms.  Purchasing Agent Katie Branham wrote of the interviews, “They are open to the public for observation only.”