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August 2015 Commission Report

“Just when you thought you’d seen the last straw, here comes a whole new bale.”  the late Ron McTigue, a local political activist

August marks the completion of my first year as a county commissioner.  This month did not disappoint for those use to adventures in head banging.

Commission Meeting
All commissioners were present.

Nominations – rubber stamping instead of serious discussion
As I wrote last month, the commission routinely rubber stamps the nominees with no discussion except from me.  It appears to me that if the political machine nominated Lucifer, most commissioners would vote yes without saying a word.

It has been standard practice of the Blount County Board of Commissioners to ignore the order of its own local rules.  Rule 3 governs the order of business.  Item 6 under Rule 3 is elections, appointments, and confirmations.  This is a separate agenda item from the consent calendar which is item 4 on the agenda.  The consent calendar is suppose to be noncontroversial items that cost the taxpayers nothing and require little or no discussion.

Most commission meetings have the elections, appointments and confirmation placed on the consent calendar so as to rubber stamp the important appointments without giving the public the opportunity to comment which occurs between these two items as Item 5.  See the agenda on page one of this August commission packet to see exactly what I am describing.

Elections, appointments and confirmations are far too important to place under bulk items to be rubber stamped.  I intend to stop this practice and hope that the public will provide more input on the nominations and that the commission will take their duty to see quality people serving on important bodies more seriously.

The first term commissioners would do well to look deeper into who they are approving on the consent calendar.  It is easy to blame past commissions for our problems, which are plenty, but the situation isn’t going to get any better by rubber stamping the same people already in these positions.

Commissioner Karen Miller and I (Tona Monroe) attended Blount County government meetings for years, prior to becoming commissioners.  We have both shaken our heads in disgust over many of the decisions made.  Only commissioners Karen Miller and I voted no on rubber stamping the consent calendar which included approving nominations to 3 important bodies.

Public Building Authority (PBA)
The commission reappointed Bob Kidd and Abbe Evans to the PBA.  To read about past iniquities in the PBA click here and here.

Board of Construction Appeals
There were two nominees to serve on the Board of Construction Appeals.  I asked if one of the nominees, who has worked on a variety of school projects, was involved in any of the many problems that we’ve had with our schools.  The Mayor said that he hadn’t received any complaints on one of the nominees and didn’t know if he had done any work on the schools.  This was alarming because I had to wonder if the Mayor had read the resume of his nominee because that’s where I read that the nominee had worked on several school projects.  See page 21 of the commission packet for the resume.  I am not aware of anything that the nominee has done that is cause for concern but wanted to ask since there have been so many problems with school construction projects and designs.

County Purchasing Agent
The Mayor decided to restructure the Purchasing Department eliminating two positions while creating a new assistant position.  The current Purchasing Agent was demoted to the assistant position.  His pick is the latest in in a series of bizarre choices.

Last year the Finance Director and Mayor were promoting an attorney to head up the Kronos IT project.  The Mayor choose someone who repeatedly didn’t pay her taxes on time to sit on the Budget Committee, which oversees spending $175 million of your money.  The Mayor recently chose a reporter, with no emergency management experience, to become the Emergency Management Director.  Now, the County will have an attorney serving as the Purchasing Agent.

The lady selected, Katie Branham, has little relevant purchasing experience.  I suggested a different use for Ms. Branham, since most of her work experience is related to the legal profession.

According to figures from the Mayor’s office, the County spent nearly $100,000, $99,872.59 to be exact, for legal services from attorney Craig Garrett during the last fiscal year.  Ms. Branham will be paid $58,000, which is more than the previous Purchasing Agent, but far less than what the County is paying Garrett.  While I am not suggesting that Ms. Branham be made the County Attorney, a position which has never been created in Blount County government, it appeared to me that we had an opportunity to reduce our legal expenses.  That idea took off like a lead balloon.

Financial advice for debt refinancing
The commission approved spending $9,000 for financial advice regarding nearly $80 million in variable rate debt that will need to be refinanced by the end of 2016.  There are several causes for concern about the matter.

The commission will be given a presentation by Public Financial Management Inc. (PFM) in October.  The information that PFM will present will likely be outdated by the time that the matter goes to market.  There is great uncertainty in the market right now.  While waiting until the last minute is not a good idea, the financial advice rendered may not be relevant when the county goes to market.

The letter of engagement from PFM says that there is some subjectivity in choosing the appropriate debt refunding structure.  The final deliverable says that PFM will work the Finance Director, Randy Vineyard, to determine the ideal option and prepare a presentation to give to the commission.  Because of the subjectivity and saying that these two will determine the ideal option, I tried to amend the resolution to ensure that the commission will be presented with options rather on a single option with subjectivity.

One reason I made the motion is because last year during the previous debt presentation given by PFM, they presented 4 options but gave limited information on the 2 fixed rate options.  When I expressed my dissatisfaction with the lack of information provided on fixed rate financing options, the Finance Director told me that he told PFM not to give the information because he didn’t want the commission to have too much information.  Yes, he actually said he didn’t want to give the commission to much information.

This previous experience made me question whether the Mayor was promoting staying in variable rate debt.  What I was concerned about was confirmed when the Mayor was so hesitant on voting for the fixed rate refinancing last year during a Budget Committee meeting.  My amendment didn’t actually go far enough.  I should have requested that it included detailed information about multiple options, but it wouldn’t have mattered.  Commissioner Farmer was his usual snarky self and the commission didn’t seem too concerned about the matter.  Only commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen and I voted to amend the resolution to require multiple options.

The other cause for concern is that PFM will consider extending the length of the debt.  I am the youngest commissioner by 5 days.  Only commissioners Andy Allen and are below the age of 40.  We may be the only two below the age of 50.  Some of the commissioners will never live see the debt paid off and I will be an old woman by the time this debt is paid off.  It’s disheartening that the Finance Director would even propose consideration of kicking the can further down the road.

Only commissioners Karen Miller and I voted no to financing the possibility of extending the length of the debt.

Airshow donation with your tax dollars
The commission chose to return to the practice of using your tax dollars to fund charitable purposes.  Several years ago the commission chose to discontinue donation to charitable organizations, with the exception of the Heritage Center.

An airshow which will come to the airport next year, requested a $10,000 sponsorship from the county.  Since this was promoted as bringing tourism to the area, with the proceeds going to a charity, I moved to refer the matter to the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority (SMTDA).  The motion failed.  Commissioners Akard, Archer, Carter, Cole, Daly, Miller and Monroe voted to refer the matter to the SMTDA.  The rest voted not to refer.  The SMTDA gets $1.4 million in tax revenue from the hotel/motel tax.  They could have easily found $10,000 in your budget but the commission chose to make you give even more.  Only commissioners Archer, Miller and I voted no.

Audit Committee
Blount County will have an Audit Committee.  The committee will be comprised of 2 commissioners and 3 citizens.  Commissioner Mike Akard offered an amendment to expand the number of commissioners to 4 and prohibit the membership from including people serving on the Budget Committee and Purchasing Commission.  This make sense because the Audit Committee shouldn’t include the same people to Audit the results of their own decisions.  The amendment failed.  Commissioners Akard, Archer, Daly, French, Miller and I voted yes.  The rest voted no.

Hopefully the Audit Committee will meet more often than the Purchasing Commission, which hasn’t met since the commission separated it from the Budget Committee in January.  Commissioners Archer, Farmer, Miller and Stinnett voted no on forming an Audit Committee.

Emergency Medical Services Board
The commission unanimously passed a resolution creating an Emergency Medical Services Board to oversee the services provided by Rural Metro under their new ambulance contract.  The original proposal was strongly resisted by commissioner Ron French who serves on the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department for failing to provide representative oversight to the rural areas of the county which have the longest response times for ambulance service.  Commissioner French’s suggestions for improvement were unanimously adopted by the commission.

Vendor changes for county insurance program
The commission unanimously approved several vendor changes to the county insurance program.  This will save some money but does not take the self insurance fund county out of the red.  The rest of the savings will have come from changes to the insurance rates charged to the employees or the taxpayers will be stuck with another property tax increase.

Political machine voting block
The political machine of Blount County appears to be firmly in place one year into this commission term.  Commissioners and Blount County Schools teachers Grady Caskey and Dodd Crowe weren’t backed by the local good ole’ boys in the last election but they appear to amalgamated with the machine.  These two got what they wanted, a huge increase in local revenue to the schools and pay raises out of the increase budget.  Thus, it’s not surprising that they vote with the machine on nearly everything.  Grady Caskey started out with a bit more independence but that appears to be a thing of the past.

Here are the wage increase given to Blount County Schools employees who are commissioners or relatives of commissioners.  Betsy Cunningham is not a relative of a commissioner but I inquired about her pay because she is now the full time PR person for the Schools.

    ANNUAL ANNUAL
NAME   WAGES WAGES
       
Grady Caskey   53,080 50,520
Dodd Crowe   64,380 62,718
Gary Farmer   68,792 66,783
Betsy Cunningham 1 44,440 30,000
Becky Cole   11,056 10,505
Kristi Yates 2 50,582 41,539

1 – moved from part time to full time in FY 15-16
2 – added office manger job responsibilities in FY 15-16

Up next:
Changes to the employee insurance rates.

A critique of recent economic evaluations of community water fluoridation

http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/full/10.1179/2049396714Y.0000000093

When is the Mayor going to be true to his word to the Smoky Mountain Tea Party Patriots (SMTPP) and appoint new people to the water board?  He told the SMTPP that he knew water fluoridation is harmful, because Linda King kept him informed on the latest research.

If the Mayor knows that water fluoridation is harmful why does he reappoint the same people and allow the practice to continue?

Not everything on this website is written by me

There are some in the community who think that everything on this website is written by me (Tona Monroe).  That is not the case.  This site was never intended to be a website solely with material written by me.  I own domains with my name and could just as easily write the material there.

There are some in the community who think that I agree with everything written on this website.  That is not the case either.  My intention in creating this website was never to have complete and total agreement with every word posted here.

The litmus test for content on this website was never complete and total agreement with my views and is not the case now.  My goals are to promote freedom and transparency in government.  Those are the reasons why I started this website and why I continue publishing on this website.  Those are also the reasons that I ran for office and what I hope to achieve while in office.

The content here is intended to be thought provoking while promoting freedom and openness in government.  Everything that is posted here should no more be viewed as my opinions than letters to the editors are viewed as being the opinions of the editors at newspapers.

As I’ve said many times before and will continue saying, let freedom ring!

July 2015 Commission Report

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.   Isaiah 40:31   King James Version (KJV)

Agenda Committee

County Revenue Commissioners
Thirteen commissioners voted against implementing a state transparency law governing county receipts.  It was a sight to see commissioners Jerome Moon, Grady Caskey and Ron French fall all over themselves making excuses for why the county doesn’t need to follow a state law that allows for three citizens to inspect the county books and issue a report on their findings.  Basically their arguments were that the law was outdated, that the information is already online and that we should have an Audit Committee.

Commissioner Moon’s feeble attempt at excusing the county from following the state law included reading a statement from the Comptroller’s Office which revealed that Blount County is one of only two counties in the state to not have an Audit Committee.  The success of an Audit Committee will be dependent of the quality of the people serving on it.  If the Commission puts the same people on the Budget Committee, the H.R. Committee or their friends on the Audit Committee to audit their results of their own rubber stamping and decisions, don’t expect much from any such Audit Committee.

The Comptroller’s Office wants the County Revenue Commissioners statute repealed and wants the county to go with an Audit Committee.  A commissioner from another county shared her frustrations with me on how worthless she feels their Audit Committee is and how worthless the state Comptroller’s Office is in resolving audit findings and accounting problems in their county.  She would know.  Her husband is a CPA and a Certified Fraud Examiner.  She has shared the numerous problems that she and her husband have experienced with transparency and accountability in their local government and getting the state to address the matters.

The County does have an annual audit, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), performed by the state Comptroller’s Office.  The audit is useful information providing a snapshot of the county books at the end of the fiscal year but it is not a detailed audit of everything the county does.

We should have an Audit Committee.  Hopefully it will do more than our non-functioning Purchasing Commission.

Commission meeting
Commissioner Karen Miller was absent from the meeting.  The rest were present.

Appointments
The Commission routinely appoints people to important bodies without any discussion on the nominees.  This month the Commission rubber stamped appointments to the Emergency Communications District Board and the Ocoee River Regional Library Board.

Several people have shared with me their concerns about one of the nominees having a history involving alcohol.  The Ocoee River Regional Library Board nominee approved the Library Director sending out an email in support of the tax increase.

Blount County has a population of around 125,000 people.  The commission should take its time and not rubber stamp every name submitted to it.

Budget increases
Even though the commission just passed a budget that includes a 16.7% property tax increase, there were several budget increases.

Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher had a technology increase request.  As usual he was not present to answer questions.  I voted no on the request because I didn’t receive answers to my questions.  It is amazing how little information the commission actually wants to know about voting to spend large sums of money.  Only commissioners Akard and Monroe voted no.  After the meeting, I received a call from a citizen telling me that Hatcher had time to eat dinner with several commissioners, after the Commission meeting.

The Schools received a huge increase in local revenue this budget year but were back for more with the new budget being only a few weeks old.  The School Board had already approved spending the increase and wanted the commission to approve using fund balance.  The School Board has failed to prioritize for a long time.  Only commissioners Mike Akard and Tona Monroe voted no.

Attacks on commissioners Mike Akard and Tona Monroe
Since taking office, I have been attacked several times.  In July commissioner Mike Akard was attacked by a fellow commissioner and then called out off the agenda.  If you live in the Alcoa area know that commissioner Mike Akard is standing up for you, as I have been for the citizens of the Big Springs, Carpenters Elementary, Friendsville, Happy Valley and Lanier, as evidenced by the attacks occurring against us.

Recycling Committee
County residents don’t have a lot of options available for glass recycling.  The reason is because it costs more to process and haul glass to companies willing to reuse it than they are paid for the product.

A company that manufacturers table tops using recycled glass is moving to Blount County.  While this won’t use all of the glass available for recycling, it is exciting to see this manufacturer locating here.

State of county fiscal health
The Mayor assured us that great things are coming to Blount County.  Today increases in the number of free and reduced lunches were reported.  Ask your commissioner(s) why he felt it was a good idea to increase taxes in this economic environment.

Up next:
Emergency Services Medical Board and Audit Committee

Did 13 commissioners vote to break a state transparency law?

At the July Agenda Committee meeting, I placed an item on the agenda to elect three County Revenue Commissioners.  It appears to me that 13 Blount County Commissioners voted to break this state transparency law.

Commissioners Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and Tona Monroe voted yes on the state transparency law.
Commissioners Andy Allen, Brad Bowers, Rick Carver, Shawn Carter, Grady Caskey, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Dodd Crowe, Ron French, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton, Jerome Moon and Steve Samples voted no.
Commissioners Gary Farmer and Tom Stinnett were absent.

The good thing that came out of this vote is that commissioner Jerome Moon read a statement from the Comptroller’s Office that said that Blount County is one of only two counties in the state that doesn’t have an Audit Committee.  Perhaps we will finally get an Audit Committee in light of the fact that there is only one other county besides Blount without one.  However if we get an Audit Committee that exists on paper but never meets, like our Purchasing Commission, then what good will it do the taxpayers of Blount County?

5-8-601.  Appointment — Tenure — Oath.

  (a)  (1) The county legislative bodies, at their July term, shall elect three (3) competent citizens, not members of the county legislative body, county clerk, or deputy county clerk, who shall be known as the “revenue commissioners” of the county.

   (2) One (1) of these commissioners shall be an expert accountant.

(b) Their term of office shall begin on the first Monday in September following their election, and they shall hold office for two (2) years, and until their successors are elected and qualified.

(c) Before entering upon their duties, they shall subscribe to an oath before the county clerk that they will well and truly discharge all duties that may devolve upon them by law.

HISTORY: Acts 1907, ch. 602, § 76; Shan., § 935; Code 1932, § 1650; impl. am. Acts 1978, ch. 934, §§ 7, 22, 36; T.C.A. (orig. ed.), § 5-831.

5-8-602.  Inspections.

  (a) On Tuesday before the first Monday in January, April, July and October of each year, the revenue commissioners shall meet and critically examine the settlements of the county mayor, with all the collecting officers of the county.

(b) They shall inspect the reports of those collecting officers made to the county mayor, and the books of those officers, if necessary.

(c) They shall also carefully examine the financial report of the county mayor.

(d) They shall examine the checks and warrants on which disbursements from the treasury have been made, and compare these with the books of the treasurer or trustee.

(e) They shall ascertain what warrants have been drawn by the county mayor during the preceding quarter, which of these have been paid, which have been registered with the trustee and remain unpaid, and how many, if any, have been either registered or paid.

(f) The commissioners in each case shall see that the balances as stated in the report of the county mayor correspond with the balances shown to be on hand by the books of the trustee and exhibit of the cash or assets which the trustee has or should have on hand.

HISTORY: Acts 1907, ch. 602, § 76; Shan., § 936; Code 1932, § 1651; impl. am. Acts 1978, ch. 934, §§ 16, 36; T.C.A. (orig. ed.), § 5-832; Acts 2003, ch. 90, § 2.

5-8-603.  Reports. 

The revenue commissioners shall report, in writing at the end of each quarter, the result of their investigation, and it shall be their special duty to call attention to any neglect or violation of duty that they may observe on the part of any official.

HISTORY: Acts 1907, ch. 602, § 76; Shan., § 937; Code 1932, § 1652; T.C.A. (orig. ed.), § 5-833.

5-8-604.  Compensation. 

(a) The revenue commissioners shall be paid for their services such compensation as may be allowed them by the county legislative bodies of the respective counties as follows: not to exceed ten dollars ($10.00) per day for the chair and not to exceed eight dollars ($8.00) per day for other members for the time actually engaged in the discharge of their duties.

(b)  (1) In counties having a population of:  Click here to view image.

      according to the 1970 United States census or any subsequent United States census, such compensation shall not exceed twenty dollars ($20.00) per day for the chair and not exceed fifteen dollars ($15.00) per day for other members for the time actually engaged in the discharge of their duties.

   (2) In counties having a population of not less than fourteen thousand nine hundred (14,900) nor more than fourteen thousand nine hundred twenty-five (14,925), according to the 1980 federal census or any subsequent federal census, such compensation shall not exceed thirty dollars ($30.00) per day for the chair and twenty-five dollars ($25.00) per day for other members for the time actually engaged in the discharge of their duties.

HISTORY: Acts 1907, ch. 602, § 76; Shan., § 938; Acts 1921, ch. 135, § 2; Code 1932, § 1653; Acts 1959, ch. 231, § 1; 1971, ch. 294, §§ 1, 2; 1975, ch. 18, § 1; impl. am. Acts 1978, ch. 934, §§ 7, 36; T.C.A. (orig. ed.), § 5-834; Acts 1984, ch. 509, §§ 1, 2.

 

Probation Services is projected to lose money in new budget year

The political machine has bragged for several years that Probation Services makes money for the county.  It’s not a lot of money but Probation has usually been revenue positive, leaving more in the general fund than was spent administering the service.  However, that seems to coming to an end.  The approved budget for FY 16 projects that Probation Services will actually lose about $2,200.

Joni Seratt is the Probation Director.  Earlier this year, I learned that she is the daughter of Tony Crisp, Chief of Police in the City of Maryville, and Phyllis Crisp, the Register of Deeds.  The Mayor promised the position to a former police officer who was fired after the officer reported what he believed to be corruption to the FBI.

When Mayor Ed Mitchell reneged on the offer, he told the former officer that he was afraid that the Sheriff would convince the former commission (8 of those commissioners are still on the current commission) to defund Probation Services and turn it back over to the private sector, if he chose someone who the Sheriff didn’t like.  Thus, the Mayor gave the position to the daughter of a political machine family.

Mitchell’s statement and decision raises two important questions.  What does this say about Mitchell and those commissioners who are still on the commission?  If the county is going to lose money on Probation Services, should the commission look at privatizing it?

When I mentioned this to the Finance Director his response was that he was sure that Seratt wouldn’t actually spend as much as projected.  The Mayor should have made her come back to him with a balanced budget before submitting it to the Budget Committee.  Instead, Seratt has been rewarded with a pay raise.

These are the probation numbers from the recently approved budget.  Notice the budgeted increase in pay for the Administrator position.

Fund/Cost Center Title FY 14 FY 15 FY 16
105 Administrator $57,250 $65,000 $65,462
53910 Probation Services $504,783 $606,563 $624,482
43393 Fees Probation $607,026 $657,245 $622,250

Since the Administrator numbers don’t match the payroll, I wrote the H.R. Director for an explanation about Seratt’s pay. This is the response that I received.

“Tona,

I have provided a breakdown of Joni’s salary history dating back to when she became the Director of Probation.  I hope you will find this information helpful.

  • Hired as Director of Probation – 4/2/2012 – $55,000
  • 7/1/2012 – County Commission approved the FY budget which included across the board increases for all employees.  This took Joni’s salary to $56,250
  • 7/1/2014 – received salary increase to $58,250
  • 3/1/2015 – received salary increase to $60,000

Thank you,

Jenny Morgan
Human Resources Director
Blount County Government”

The fiscal year (FY) runs July 1st to June 30th.  How many people in County government received two pay increases in one FY like Joni Seratt?  We keep hearing about the low pay of deputies but Seratt received two pay increase in one year to run a department that is projected to lose money.

What incentive is there for Seratt to actually keep the department in the black?  Is there a 3rd raise on the horizon?  Where else can someone take over a department, project that it will lose money and get two pay raises in the same FY?  It must be nice to be born into a politically connected family, known as the good ole’ boys of Blount County.

Do We Need to Bring Back Internment Camps?

by Ron Paul

Last week, Retired General Wesley Clark, who was NATO commander during the US bombing of Serbia, proposed that “disloyal Americans” be sent to internment camps for the “duration of the conflict.” Discussing the recent military base shootings in Chattanooga, TN, in which five US service members were killed, Clark recalled the internment of American citizens during World War II who were suspected of having Nazi sympathies. He said: “back then we didn’t say ‘that was freedom of speech,’ we put him in a camp.”
 
He called for the government to identify people most likely to be radicalized so we can “cut this off at the beginning.” That sounds like “pre-crime”!
 
Gen. Clark ran for president in 2004 and it’s probably a good thing he didn’t win considering what seems to be his disregard for the Constitution. Unfortunately in the current presidential race Donald Trump even one-upped Clark, stating recently that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is a traitor and should be treated like one, implying that the government should kill him.
 
These statements and others like them most likely reflect the frustration felt in Washington over a 15 year war on terror where there has been no victory and where we actually seem worse off than when we started. The real problem is they will argue and bicker over changing tactics but their interventionist strategy remains the same. 
 
Retired Army Gen. Mike Flynn, who was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency during the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, told al-Jazeera this week that US drones create more terrorists than they kill. He said: “The more weapons we give, the more bombs we drop, that just … fuels the conflict.”

Still Washington pursues the same strategy while expecting different results.
 
It is probably almost inevitable that the warhawks will turn their anger inward, toward Americans who are sick of the endless and costly wars. The US loss of the Vietnam war is still blamed by many on the protesters at home rather than on the foolishness of the war based on a lie in the first place. 

Let’s hope these threats from Clark and Trump are not a trial balloon leading to a clampdown on our liberties. There are a few reasons we should be concerned. Last week the US House passed a bill that would allow the Secretary of State to unilaterally cancel an American citizen’s passport if he determines that person has “aided” or “abetted” a terrorist organization. And as of this writing, the Senate is debating a highway funding bill that would allow the Secretary of State to cancel the passport of any American who owes too much money to the IRS. 
 
Canceling a passport means removing the right to travel, which is a kind of virtual interment camp. The person would find his movements restricted, either being prevented from leaving or entering the United States. Neither of these measures involves any due process or possibility of appeal, and the government’s evidence supporting the action can be kept secret.
 
We should demand an end to these foolish wars that even the experts admit are making matters worse. Of course we need a strong defense, but we should not provoke the hatred of others through drones, bombs, or pushing regime change overseas. And we must protect our civil liberties here at home from government elites who increasingly view us as the enemy.

Copyright © 2015 by RonPaul Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit and a live link are given.

Read online: http://bit.ly/1fyJgMe

Will the real Bill Haslam please stand up?

proclmation-edited

by Eric Holcombe

Rocky Top Politics has reminded us that July 13 is Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee. It’s required by state law TCA 15-2-101:

Additional special observance days.

  Each year it is the duty of the governor of this state to proclaim the following as days of special observance: January 19, “Robert E. Lee Day”; February 12, “Abraham Lincoln Day”; March 15, “Andrew Jackson Day”; June 3, “Memorial Day” or “Confederate Decoration Day”; July 13, “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day”; and November 11, “Veterans’ Day.” The governor shall invite the people of this state to observe the days in schools, churches, and other suitable places with appropriate ceremonies expressive of the public sentiment befitting the anniversary of such dates.

RTP pointed out that Achieve Inc. board member Haslam has signed such a proclamation for Nathan Bedford Forrest Day the last four years running and wondered in light of his recent, new-found distaste for certain statues if Achieve Inc. board member Haslam would break the state law this year. However, that question has been answered already: Achieve Inc. board member Haslam signed the proclamation declaring July 13 as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day back on June 2.

 

So to recap:

Achieve Inc. board member Haslam on June 2, 2015: “I….do hereby proclaim July 13, 2015 as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee and encourage all citizens to join me in this worthy observance.

 

A mere three weeks later:

Achieve Inc. board member Haslam on June 23, 2015:  “If I’m choosing the Tennesseans that I’m going to honor, and we’re only going to honor a few in the State Capitol, I don’t think I’d pick Nathan Bedford Forrest,”.

June 2015 Commission Report

“And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.”  2 Peter 2:3

This month I did a lot of writing on issues prior to the monthly commission meeting.  If you haven’t already done so, please take the time to read those articles prior to reading this report.  Alternatively, you can read those articles that are linked throughout this report.

Agenda Meeting
The Commission rejected my request to move the Commission meeting to a bigger venue.  A move to one of the school auditoriums would have given all people the opportunity to sit and watch the commission meeting.  Instead people who arrived early were locked out of the commission room.

As a result, people in the commission room were cold and those left standing outside the meeting room were burning up.  The request came after the Chairman, Jerome Moon, ordered standing citizens out of the room last month while allowing uniformed officers to line the wall.

Commission Meeting

The fix is in – Commission raises property tax rate before voting on budget

State law requires the commission to pass an appropriations resolution (annual budget) and a property tax rate resolution.  In the interest of protecting the taxpayers, I tried to have the budget placed ahead of the tax rate for purposes of discussion.  Putting the tax rate ahead of the budget means that the fix is in as there is no incentive to cut the budget after the property tax rate has been set.

In a poor economic environment, where the commission wants to hold the line on taxes but is handed a bloated budget from the Budget Committee recommending a tax increase, the commission could set the rate ahead of the budget and then work on the budget until it is balanced without a tax increase.  That isn’t what happened though and there are still problems with setting the tax rate first.

The tax rate isn’t just one number.  In past years the tax rate has fixed the levy for three funds, General County, General Purpose Schools and Debt Service.  This year, after a court opinion in McMinn County, a new fund for Capital Education Projects was added.  Thus, the Commission isn’t voting on just one number in the tax rate but four.  How would the commission know how much to fix for each fund without discussing the budget?  Debt service is straight forward but the rest require discussion.  It doesn’t make sense to set the rate before knowing how much you are going to spend in each fund.  Do you know any business that sets the price of the products or services before they have any idea what their expenses are?

Voting for the tax rate first and then discussing the budget allows commissioners to play political games with their constituents because some commissioners will vote no on the tax rate or abstain knowing that the increase will pass but then will vote yes on the budget which caused the increase.  Voting for the budget which caused the increase has the same effect as the vote on the tax rate increase.  It spends the same amount of your money and these commissioners are just as responsible as those who didn’t play games with their yes vote on the tax increase.

My motion to discuss the budget before the tax rate failed 3-18 with only Commissioners Daly, Miller and myself (Monroe) voting to discuss the budget before fixing the tax rate.  The fix was in with a tax increase approved before the commission discussed the budget.

A citizen contacted me several days before the vote and told me what the tax rate would be.  Another contacted me telling me that the tax rate had already been determined but I would not be included.

It came as no surprise when commissioners Rick Carver and Gary Farmer offered amendments that set the tax rate at what I had been told without explaining why that was the rate needed.  Somehow those of us who weren’t included were just suppose to magically know where the reductions in increases (some call these cuts) would be made when the tax rate was voted on before the appropriations resolution, without any discussion as to why the tax rate of $2.47 was the one to go with.

Consensus and stifling of debate
There seemed to be a consensus amongst the majority of commissioners.  How they would know where Rick Carver was going to amend the budget and why he felt no need to explain it to the commission or to the public why those were the changes to make is beyond me.  Debate was stifled through parliamentary procedure and the only explanation given to the citizens as to why Carver’s cuts were the only ones that should be made was the comment from the Finance Director.

Commissioner Andy Allen moved to cut off debate on all amendments and the main motion moving adoption of the budget.  Only four commissioners voted not to cut off debate on over $175 million of your money.  Commissioners Grady Caskey, Tom Cole, Karen Miller and Tona Monroe voted to continue debate.  The rest voted to stifle debate.

Six commissioners voted no on the tax rate and the budget
A game that some commissioners play with their constituents is voting no or abstaining on the tax rate but voting yes on the budget that requires a tax increase to pay for it.  Only six commissioners voted no on both.  The contradictory votes of the one who abstained and other who voted no on the tax rate but yes on the budget should be viewed for the game and hypocrisy that it is.

The six commissioner who voted no are Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Tom Cole, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and Tona Monroe.

Conflicts of interest
Several commissioners read conflict of interest statements prior to voting on the budget.  Sadly there are more who should have read statements but didn’t.  Since debate on the budget was stifled through parliamentary procedure, the commission spent more time reading conflict of interest statements than it did voting on the main motion adopting the annual budget.

Obtaining information
The public should know how difficult it can be at times to obtain information to make informed decisions.  Some are quick to provide information while others are not.

During the budget process I met with the Finance Director Randy Vineyard.  While I have been critical of his withholding information and not giving me a straight answer in the past, he actually was quite accommodating during the budget process.  He hired a new lady, Angelie Shankle, who took my questions and got answers to me promptly.  There is another lady in Accounting named Susan Gennoe who quickly works to get answers.  Both of these ladies have pleasant demeanors and based on my experiences with them appear to be doing their jobs well.

Troy Logan, Finance Director for the Schools, has always given me straight answers.  I met with him and he provided me with everything that I asked for.

Last year when I asked for information about the jail John Adams and Jeff French were quick to provide me with information.  The budget process with the Sheriff’s Office was not a pleasant experience.  Marian O’Briant, the PR person for the Sheriff’s Office attacked me multiple times, was slow to respond and told me that she was getting paid overtime to write me a short email that didn’t answer my questions.  The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t need a PR person.  Upper management is paid well and could answer media questions.

I never received the complete breakdown of the compensation from the Evergreen study that I asked for.  The study was incomplete, inadequate and it was a hasty decision for the commission to act on the study.  It was my intention to propose an alternative pay option for deputies in the Sheriff’s Office instead of using an unfinished study to base pay raises on.  15 minutes prior to the start of the Commission meeting, I was given a tiny portion of the information that I had asked for.  It was not broken down into the categories necessary to propose the alternative pay option making it impossible for me to propose an alternate solution.

Employees to be paid above average wages based on unfinished study

The pay recommendations of the Evergreen study are not based on merit.  Furthermore, county employees will be paid above average wages.

The story told me about the need for the study is that county officials got together and decided that they wanted to pay “competitive” wages.  An economist friend of mine pointed out that many positions in government aren’t competitive because they don’t compete in a free market, with the only competition being between surrounding governments.  He said that the more accurate description is that that the study would look at paying similar or better wages.

The officials looked at paying better wages that are above average.  Officials didn’t look to bring wages to average based on the 50th percentile.  The study was based on a pay scale of the 60th percentile of pay.  That would be reasonable if Blount County had a robust economy but it doesn’t.

The ET Index shows that Blount County is the only county in the eight county region where pay has actually dropped .5% after inflation.  Blount County is tied for the biggest drop in median household income at 15%, and is about $7,000 less than it was in 2000.  This type of economic environment is not conducive to a big tax increase.  The people of Blount County are living on substantially less and will now be forced to live on even less thanks to the big property tax increase.  Office holders should have looked harder to control spending and make pay more equitable.  Pay raises based on the 50th percentile or my alternative proposal that I wasn’t able to make because of the lack of information provided would have been more reasonable.  Government often lacks reason in the way it approaches problems.

The Evergreen study still has the word draft stamped on it but the FY 16 budget was built around the draft which only contained 3 of the 5 chapters that will be available in the final report.  No one would run a business this way if they wanted to stay in business and it is embarrassing to see the county run this way.

Fear mongering and Sheriff’s political playbook
Several people wrote me about their displeasure with the head of the library using their email addresses to solicit support for the tax increase.  The fear mongering worked on some because I got a few emails telling me to support raising taxes because of the library.  Overall, people saw through it and weren’t happy about the situation.

Every couple of years the Sheriff drags out his playbook and we go through the same procedure of hearing about the lowest paid deputies.  This tugs on heart strings causing some to be willing to support a tax increase without knowing how much of a pay gap exists within government departments and offices.  The state sets minimum salaries for office holders, which are much higher than they should be but the county is compelled by law to pay those salaries.

This commission can raise the salaries above the state minimum for some office holders and it did that in FY15.  The Sheriff makes about the cost of an entire deputy salary above the state minimum.  He has no credibility talking about how much he cares about the deputies.  Actions speak louder than words.  He could have given this money to his employees but chose not to.  The same is true for Tom Hatcher, Bill Dunlap and Ed Mitchell.

My motion to the cut the salaries of these elected officials failed 4-16-1.  Commissioners Akard, Daly, Miller and I voted to cut their salaries.  Shawn Carter abstained.  The rest voted no.

Probation Services is projected to lose money in the new budget year
The political machine has bragged for several years that Probation Services makes money for the county.  It’s not a lot of money but Probation has usually been revenue positive, leaving more in the general fund than was spent administer the service.  However, that seems to coming to an end.  The approved budget for FY 16 projects that Probation Services will actually lose about $2,200.

Notice the budgeted increase in pay for the Administrator position.  More on that later.

Fund/Cost Center Title FY 14 FY 15 FY 16
105 Administrator $57,250 $65,000 $65,462
53910 Probation Services $504,783 $606,563 $624,482
43393 Fees Probation $607,026 $657,245 $622,250

Schools get a big increase in local revenue
Blount County Schools will see a huge increase in local revenue.  The sales tax increase last year will result in $2 million in increased revenue.  The creation of a Capital Educations Projects fund will result in about a $1.27 million increase funded by a 4 cent property tax increase.  State funding for the schools will be about the same as it was last year because the school population is up only slightly.

The sales tax increase was promoted to the public to be used to fund the purchase of textbooks, technology and infrastructure improvements.  The schools will getting about $1.27 million earmarked for infrastructure improvements.  A recent article in the paper shows that the majority of the $2 million from the sales tax increase will go to increased compensation rather than textbooks and technology.  Thus, we may hear the same old stories next year about there being no money for textbooks and computers.

I recently learned about a book keeper who has been with the schools for over 40 years.  She makes less than the part time PR person employed by the schools.  It was upsetting to read in the paper that the increase will be used to make a part time PR position full time.  This is definitely not a priority item over textbooks and computers.  I’ve asked for a breakdown of the school budget to see exactly how much is going to be spent on technology and textbooks and waiting for that response.

Several teachers voted no on giving the schools a million dollars.  A motion was made to cut $1 million from the economic development budget leaving it with about $62,000 since there is little accountability to the taxpayers.  Commissioners Akard, Archer, Carter, Daly, Miller and Monroe voted yes.  Commissioners Cole and Farmer abstained.  The rest voted yes.  Commissioners Grady Caskey, Dodd Crowe and Tom Stinnett, all teachers, voted no on giving the schools the money and allowing the unaccountability of this taxpayer money to continue.

The Blount Partnership is a private entity and Bryan Daniels denied my request for their budget.  However, it consists of many of the same people involved with the Industrial Development Board (IDB) and the Chamber of Commerce.  Apparently the IDB can go out and make promises to private business and hand the taxpayers the bill.  The commission doesn’t vote on these deals/promises made to private business and we are often not even informed what type of deals/promises are made.  It is absolutely wrong to allow a board to go out and promise taxpayer money to private businesses and then levy a tax on your home to pay for it.  Furthermore, some of these same people are involved with the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority which is another unaccountable use of taxpayer money.

Budget
There is much more to say about the budget but I will stop here because this report is approaching a treatise.

Grant policy routinely violated
Office holders and department heads have repeatedly shown that the authority of the commission means nothing to them.  The commission is expected to rubber stamp grants and not ask questions.  The Chairman, Jerome Moon, tried to stop me from asking questions at the Commission meeting because I had asked questions at the Agenda meeting.  After the Agenda meeting, I did some homework and came prepared with questions to ask at the Commission meeting.  Apparently the Chairman doesn’t think you should actually do your job as a County Commissioner by researching matters and coming prepared with questions. What’s the point of having a meeting if you aren’t going to do your homework and come prepared to discuss the items on the agenda?

The deadline to apply for nearly every grant that the commission is asked to vote on has already passed before being brought to the commission.  Explanations are never given unless I ask why.  The Budget Committee never asks why the grants aren’t presented in a timely manner.  When I asked Jeff French why the deadline for the grant request from the Sheriff’s Office had already passed, he told me he didn’t know.  His name is listed as the reporting person.  See page 48.

The grant from the Facilities Coordinator, under the Mayor, didn’t even have a grant worksheet with the request in the Budget Committee and Agenda Committee meetings.  It only appeared in the Commission meeting packet after I pointed this out at the Agenda meeting.

While I was begrudgingly allowed to ask some questions about the energy efficiency grant for court house building improvements, I wasn’t able to ask everything.  When my questioning revealed that the county had already received the grant, without any commission oversight, knowledge or inclusion on the matter, the Chairman asked Commissioner Farmer to amend his motion to ratify the grant rather than to approve the worksheet to apply for the grant.  I had my light on to be recognized to speak to ask further questions but the Chairman turned it off.  I then asked if we were only voting on the amendment.  Chairman Moon shook his head yes in answer to my question.  After voting on the amendment, the Chairman proceeded on to the next Agenda item when we hadn’t even voted on the main motion, just the amendment.

I still had questions about how the county would benefit from energy efficiency in replacing the windows when the grant application said it would take over 179 years for the energy cost savings to be more than the cost of the windows.  See page 62 for the payback period.

RAC2 district created
The Commission voted to create what will eventually be a special new zone.  The wording is tricky saying that it isn’t creating a zone but it allows for it in the future and the effect is to allow special development privileges for a handful of properties.

“This section does not amend the Zoning Map, nor zone nor rezone any land to RAC2, but only identifies limits to location for any land that may in the future be zoned RAC2.”

This request morphed into nothing more than a crony deal for an office holder to develop his land when the rest of us can’t.  The matter has been the subject of discussion since 2013 in the Planning Commission.  It would have been quicker and simpler to have just sent the commission the crony deal to start with since the good ole’ boys get what they wanted.

Why do we have zoning regulations when anyone who is politically connected can get them amended to do what they want?  Zoning has become a tool of the politically connected to develop their land while squashing competition.  Unfortunately, some “conservationists” go along with this as those it’s a good thing for our community to create laws and regulations with special favors for the politically connected few while discriminating against everyone else.

Only Commissioners Akard, Cole, Daly, Miller and Monroe voted against this crony deal.  The rest took care of a political office holder while discriminating against you.

Blount County Corrections Partnership
The Corrections Partnership heard from Bob Bass of the Tennessee Corrections Institute.  He previously asked to speak to the Partnership about what he does in other counties, leading me to believe that he was going to offer solutions to reduce jail overcrowding.  He offered none.  His presentation was on the role of the jail and did not address how to reduce the overcrowding problem.

The only person to ask any questions was me.  I asked him what the TCI’s position was on keeping federal inmates when the jail is overcrowded.  He said the TCI doesn’t have a position.

After the meeting, it became apparent to me after further discussion with the people from the TCI that they want the county to build a new jail pod.  The inspector told me that work programs don’t work and the ILPP report didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know.  Actually the jail the report told me several disturbing things about our criminal justice system that I didn’t know.  It was the TCI presentation that didn’t tell me anything that I don’t already know.

A member of the community shared with me that the Sheriff didn’t get what he wanted in the jail study so he is trying to get what he wants out of the state, which is a position that the jail should be expanded.  Unfortunately I am afraid that this person is right.

There are people who need to be in jail.  However, I have heard from people in a variety of situations who should not be in jail.  There are numerous factors to the jail overcrowding.  The jail study addresses several of those factors.

One factor that would quickly reduce the number of inmates is to stop taking federal prisoners.  The ILPP study that the Mayor and Sheriff don’t want to talk about in public says that we lose money on federal prisoners.  The Mayor went so far as to threaten filing a frivolous lawsuit.  Where is that lawsuit Mayor?

There is genuine fear in the community about speaking out about the Sheriff, the judges and the condition of the jail.  People share their stories with me but won’t go public for fear of retaliation against them or their loved ones.  It makes my job of advocating for meaningful reform more difficult because people won’t share their stories with the public.  Couple the fear with a Sheriff who wants to expand political power with a bigger jail, and Mayor who has bowed to the Sheriff and some judges who can’t handle criticism and you have a mess.

The jail overcrowding is a multilayered problem.  One big layer of the problem that can be peeled off is the optional practice of keeping federal inmates.  For those of you who aren’t afraid of the Sheriff, tell him that you don’t want the county to keep federal inmates any longer.  His email address is jlb@bcso.com and his phone number is 273-5000.

Role of government
One thing that emerged during budget discussions with the people of my district is what the role of government should be.  I had several people telling me that they are tired of paying taxes for services that they don’t use.  People are tired of paying for the schools, library and parks when they don’t use them.  Others told me that they are tired of having to pay fees to use these three, when they are already paying taxes on them.  Theselegitament points are frequently buried and not fully vetted in debate about taxes.

People complained to me about the schools always saying that they never get enough money.  Others expressed to me that they aren’t happy with upper management making big salaries.  Others homeschooling or sending their kids to private school feel that they shouldn’t pay taxes for public education when they pay for their kids education.

People complained to me about having to pay for the library when they don’t use it.  Others told me that they love the library and would pay more taxes for it.  Others said that they find the fees that the library charges to use meeting rooms ridiculous when they pay taxes for the library.

People complained to me that they are tried of paying taxes for Parks and Rec when they charges big fees for summer time activities.

These are all legitimate points worthy of discussion, not suppression and emotional, libelous branding of the people who make them.  Should people pay taxes for services that they don’t use?  Some County Offices are fee offices like the County Clerk’s Office and the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.  They are funded by fees rather than taxes.  Should services like the library and Parks and Rec be funded by fees from the people who use them, rather than taxing the homes of people who don’t use them?  Some people certainly think so.

If you think so, let your state legislators know.

Senator Doug Overbey sen.doug.overbey@capitol.tn.gov 850-9411
Representative Art Swann rep.art.swann@capitol.tn.gov 982-6811
Representative Bob Ramsey rep.bob.ramsey@capitol.tn.gov 984-8124

Media coverage
People regularly send me emails asking why the media doesn’t cover more local government issues.  They also complain to me about media bias favoring the good ole’ boys.

One person commented about the paper in Knox County offering a more balanced approach to the coverage of deputy pay while the local paper ran several puff pieces in support of the Sheriff’s Office.  Others have complained to me about the editorials always supporting Senators Doug Overbey, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

The best place to address these concerns are with local media sources although I did publish some of what was sent to me here.

Up next
County Revenue Commissioners.  This is an old statute still on the books that I found that could bring some transparency and accountability to a local government that lacks an Audit Committee.  Newly elected Commissioners in multiple counties are trying to revive the positions since Audit Committees are optional unless the Comptroller requires one and even then an Audit Committee may do nothing.  The Comptroller is talking about having it repealed since they enjoy being in charge.  Tell your state elected officials that a fully functioning Audit Committee should be required or the County Revenue Commissioners law should stay.

Senator Doug Overbey sen.doug.overbey@capitol.tn.gov 850-9411
Representative Art Swann rep.art.swann@capitol.tn.gov 982-6811
Representative Bob Ramsey rep.bob.ramsey@capitol.tn.gov 984-8124

Question for the people of Blount County
Each month I spend a great deal of time writing lengthy detailed commission reports.  One of my campaign promises included writing commission reports and I will continue to keep that promise.  Do you want the reports to continue to be as detailed as they are now?  Or would shorter reports suffice?

Keeping your friends close and your enemies closer: Where is that lawsuit Mayor?

It’s interesting that Mayor Ed Mitchell has hired a reporter who a few months ago covered the fact that the Blount County Commission has yet to hear from the jail consultant paid to address the overcrowding problem.  Mitchell responded by threatening to file a frivolous lawsuit.

The reporter doesn’t have any experience in the field of Emergency Management that he was hired to work in.  Could this be Mitchell’s attempt to keep his friends close and his enemies closer?  It appears to be a smart move on Mitchell’s part but the way that Mitchell, the Sheriff and the commission have responded to the jail report is not smart for the taxpayers of Blount County.

The Sheriff is hell-bent on building a new jail pod.  The criminal justice assessement report (jail study) said there are many things we can do besides expand the jail.  That’s why the report had to be squashed, ignored, ridiculed and the character of the person who did the report maligned.  Most of the people in county government are afraid to stand up to the Sheriff and say no to expanding the jail.

Ed Mitchell doesn’t run this town.  The Sheriff does.  Mitchell is only in charge of the things that the Sheriff doesn’t care about.  You can see it in Mitchell’s actions.  The Mayor didn’t have to respond to the jail consultant the way he did.

Where is that lawsuit Mayor?  You know the one that you threatened to file with your Not the County Attorney*.  It’s time to quit playing games.  Numerous lives and the wallets of the people of Blount County are at risk from the poor decisions made by our local government.

The best place to start reducing the jail population is to stop taking federal inmates since we lose money on them.  The report that the Mayor and his Not the County Attorney don’t want the commission to talk about said we lose money on federal inmates.

*Blount County does not have a county atttorney established by private act.  The Mayor is authorized to employee counsel when there is no office of county attorney.

Links: http://www.thedailytimes.com/news/coleman-former-daily-times-reporter-hired-as-county-emergency-management/article_6dacc88e-7863-5f74-93ab-37835f266e4c.html

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/local-news/jail-consultant-blount-county-leaders-distracted-by-money_88872812

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/state/blount-mayor-threatens-lawsuit-over-jail-report_91564577