Some Fiscal Sanity Prevails
The best thing to happen this month was the unanimous 20-0 vote to secure fixed rate refinancing for $20,165,000 of variable rate Series E-3-B County debt that I wrote about last month. The outcome was a step toward better debt management, but there was a last minute attempt by Commissioner Mike Lewis to dismantle the effort. His proposal was one of the most ludicrous that I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard a lot of crazy idea from government officials.
Lewis proposed postponing the refinancing for a month to study whether the County could internally amortize the cost of terminating the swap attached to the debt, which has ranged in value from $5-6 million in recent months. He proposed setting aside the additional amount that would be paid toward fixed rate financing, restricting it, allegedly to keep from having to pay the swap termination fee. You may be asking what’s wrong with that, well this is government we’re talking about. The proposed “restricted” money would be blown before we could count to three. Furthermore, it would have kept the variable rate debt in place leaving us with all the risks of variable rate financing, the need to obtain a letter of credit ever couple of years and the principle balloon payments would be left in place for 2030 and 2031. You can read more about that Series of debt in my October Commission Report.
8 Commissioners voted to explore Lewis’ idea. A Allen, B Bowers, M Caylor, D Crowe, G Farmer, R French, M Lewis, K Melton voted yes and Moon was absent. Thankfully rational heads prevailed and the motion failed. The Commission chose to bite the bullet and move forward. Debt is painful, and I am delighted that the Commission chose the most fiscally responsible path for this Series of debt. The County still has over 1/3 of it’s debt in variable rate financing that will need to be addressed in about a year and a half.
Starting next year, the County will spend more to service the debt as it begins paying principle on this fixed rate debt. The increased expenditure is already being used as an excuse to start talking about increasing the property tax rate next year. Keep these important facts in mind when you encounter the propaganda. The debt service fund was actually projected to have a surplus this year, but the previous Commission took part of it and allocated it to fund General County government. Next year the debt service fund will receive increased revenue from the sales tax from the recently enacted increase in the County sales tax. It’s nonsense to use fiscally sound refinancing to condition people into accepting an unneeded tax increase.
Top Secret Kronos IT Project Approved
Nothing in recent memory has been more top secret in Blount County government, with the possible exception of Commissioner Tom Stinnett telling Commissioner Grady Caskey to hide benefits information from the public, than the Kronos information technology (IT) project. Last month I wrote about the subject, but the matter deserves more through coverage and discussion. The NSA scandals have demonstrated the need for better accountability and open transparent government. The secrecy of Kronos IT project is of a scandalous nature, but in the end only Commissioner Karen Miller and I said no to rubber stamping the top secret project. Commissioner Jamie Daly said at the end of the meeting that she meant to vote no. She had trouble with her remote working throughout the meeting. Once again the women were the only ones willing to stand up to the bureaucrats.
No transparency on funding the project
Twice this year, the Mayor and Director of Budgets and Finance (commonly called Finance Director) asked the previous Commission to designate large amounts of money to Capital Projects, allegedly for future capital project expenditures, without providing any information detailing what the money would be spent on. 7 of the 8 incumbents on the current Commission rubber stamped both: Carver, Caylor, Farmer, French, Lewis, Melton and Moon. Commissioner Samples voted for the first request and against the second request to transfer money.
In February then Commissioner Jim Folts reported:
“Mayor and Commission take Nancy Pelosi approach to government
The Mayor proposed, and the Commission approved, spending $545,000 on “capital projects”. The only problem is that Mayor Mitchell did not bother to tell anyone what would be purchased with this money. He seems to be taking the Nancy Pelosi approach to government. Pass the resolution and we’ll tell you where we’ll spend it – later. Only Commissioner Murrell and myself voted against this blank check.”
In June then Commissioner Jim Folts reported:
“Throwing another $442,000 into a pot for unknown projects
Since the budget process had to be redone, there was very little on the agenda of the official Commission meeting. The major item was another sign of the sloppy way in which the County is being operated. As a result of some accounting changes in accounting for self insurance funds, an additional $442,000 became available in the current budget. Instead of just using this money to make an extra payment of the huge county debt ($240 million per the last audit report), the Mayor recommended adding this money to a mysterious “capital projects” fund he created several months ago. This would bring the total amount in the fund to nearly $1 million. In the real world, if capital projects are anticipated, a capital expenditures plan is prepared, and money is put aside in a capital fund to meet those needs. When several Commissioners asked the Mayor where the plan was for the use of the money, the reply was that his office had not had time to come up with a plan. The Mayor has been in office nearly four years. That would seem to be adequate time to come up with a list of capital projects.
In government, throwing $1 million of your money into a pot without a clear plan for the use of the money, almost guarantees waste and abuse. But, this seemed OK with the Mayor and many Commissioners. Only Commissioners Murrell, Samples, Wright and myself voted against this nonsense.”
At the June 10, 2014 Agenda Committee meeting when the Commission considered the $442,507 capital projects request, Finance Director Vineyard said, “There is no list of capital (projects). It’s merely is a statement by this body that you’re setting aside money that in the future if there are capital needs that arise you would have available at your disposable (sic) $982,000 and change to address those capital needs, whatever they may be.” Folts followed up on that statement asking if the County had a long term capital projects plan. Vineyard responded, “The simple answer to that is no. We are starting one, but we are not where I’d like to see us, nor where I think this body would like to be.” Commissioner Steve Samples said “I just have a problem with putting that much money in there, when we don’t have a list, simply because if we put that much money in there the list (capital projects) will magically appear.”
Lo and behold, Mayor Mitchell and the Finance Director sprang on the scene in July with a resolution to spend the money, just one month after the second transfer. They admitted that they had been planning this project before either of the two Capital Projects fund requests. But, as you see above, they failed to mention this very large capital project, even in response to direct questions from Commissioners.
The Kronos IT project consists of an HR component, a payroll component and time-keeping component. At a 5 years cost of around $2.3 million, this may be the biggest and most expensive IT project in the County’s history but alarmingly it did not go through the IT Committee. The Mayor and Finance Director bypassed this Committee and formed their own Committee without telling the Commission. Worse, they proposed putting a lawyer in charge of the IT project, instead of an IT professional. Can you imagine walking into a Courtroom with an IT man as your lead counsel? Why would anyone put a lawyer in charge of an expensive IT project?
In response to Samples statement about a list magically appearing at the June Agenda meeting Vineyard said, “You’re going to get a list because I am committed to get you one, of the needs that we’re aware of.” If that’s the case, then why didn’t he give the Commission a heads-up at the June meeting with regards to his plan for use of the nearly $1 million? Vineyard, an unelected official, has been allowed to tell the Commission what he wants them to know, when he wants them to know it, because the Commission puts up with it. Many of the Commissioners are simply too lazy to fully research matters and chose to rely on him, rather than demanding more accountability and transparency.
After Commissioners Folts and Samples objections made the proposal look ill-thought-out, Commissioner Moon attempted to save the June recommitment of fund balance by implying that the County needed a capital fund to appease rating agencies. If that’s the case, it begs the question of why Commissioner Moon, along with most of the Commission, is willing to drain the fund knowing that the County is going to the market to refinance debt.
At the July Commission meeting, the Kronos Project Manager, Bill Rahner a lawyer, presented a slide-show presentation to the Commission about the project and included a chart of proposed savings. It’s worth watching the meeting to see Commissioner Folts rip the alleged savings to shreds. After he torched the shreds, the only thing left of the alleged savings was the smoke to fill the back rooms of the Kronos project.
New Commission arrives – Project over half a million more than originally projected – No job cuts planned
The Kronos IT project required two votes from the Commission, although that wasn’t explained well to anyone. The first vote appropriated $1,361,506.00, for the first year of the project, draining the entire $987,507.00 committed to capital outlay. The vote this month authorized a five year contract costing approximately $2.3 million. In July, the paper published an article saying the 5-year cost would be $1,646,712. The Commission was given no explanation why the 5 -year cost was over half a million more than originally projected.
Please read the Open Enrollment Software and Kronos Suspension sections of my October Commission Report if you haven’t already done so, before proceeding with the rest of this report. You will see that I validated a portion of Commissioner Folts’ statements about the lack of alleged savings. Notice also that the Commission was urged to rush through committing about $1.3 million in July, supposedly to save the cost of open enrollment software for 2015, but instead the Commission spent $60,000 on open enrollment software anyway.
The sales pitch to the Commission in July said that software could do the work of 10.75 full time jobs, implying there would be staff reductions (page 49). At the time, I asked the Finance Director when he planned to make the first staff reduction. He told me possibly 2017. There was/is no plan to cut jobs, just to spend your money.
New HR Director
The County has not needed a stand alone Human Resources Director for about 3 years. The Mayor found a way to save money by having Don Stallions serve as Risk Manager and HR Director. However, that changed in late August. The Mayor hired a new HR Director. It turns out that the new HR Director has Kronos software experience and can train employees on its use. This shows the Kronos system is already costing money, not saving it.
Finally a meeting to answer questions
After voting to suspend the Kronos IT project in October, I received a call from the Mayor’s office asking me to meet with the Finance Director and the officials who would be in charge of the project. I went to the meeting with an open mind about the HR software thinking that it may be best to start with that portion of the software project and then proceed with the payroll and time-keeping if the HR portion was successful. I asked for a break down of the alleged savings, to determine what is attributed to the HR portion and what is attributed to the payroll and time-keeping portion. Additionally I asked for the costs of just the HR portion of the Kronos software.
I came away from the meeting uneasy about the HR portion of the software. When the responses to my questions arrived, I could not support the HR portion of the software. You can read the Project Managers response here. The most important part is his statement, “In my judgment, the business case for implementing just the HR piece is not supportable and I could not recommend the County proceed with just that component.” If the Project Manger doesn’t recommend that the County implement the HR portion, then why would we do it? I read this statement to the Commission at the November meeting but it didn’t matter. Facts often don’t matter and the bureaucrats usually get what the bureaucrats want.
At the Commission meeting, I asked the Information Technology Manger (ITM) John Herron if anyone had looked into low cost open source software. He said no. Thus, without exploring open source solutions and the Project Manager saying that he wouldn’t recommend that the County proceed with just the HR portion, it didn’t make rational sense to proceed with the HR software.
The Finance Director did agree to place the Kronos Project Manger under the County’s IT Manager, per Commissioner Tom Cole’s request. This was the only potentially meaningful concession the Commission got before approving the roughly $2.3 million expenditure of your money. This does little to ease my mind thought because it was a last minute change, likely to get votes, and I don’t know how much oversight Herron will actually have.
The Commission packet says the County will be purchasing 250 management and 3,000 employee time keeping licenses. But the County says only the hourly employees who will be clocking in (Page 43). That means that there will be roughly 250 managers for 1,500 employees (Page 78). That’s a 1:6 ratio. Surely the managers can handle tracking the hours of 6 employees on average. Taxpayers will be paying for the licenses for the salaried employees to make the lives of the mangers easier to track time off and vacations.
Former Commissioner Folts would frequently say that something didn’t pass the common sense test. This IT project doesn’t pass the common sense test or the smell test. The Tennessean had a good article on the subject of IT project failures. The Commission should have done a better job thinking this through. $2.3 million of your tax money was just spent when we have outstanding debt of over $200,000,000.
The worst thing about this top secret IT project is the fact that I had to spend so much unnecessary time on it, trying to obtain information that should have been readily available. I’ve spent far more time dealing with the endless excuses, white washing, obfuscating and falsities of bureaucrats who consider the Commission a trite formality to their endless wasteful agendas than I’ve ever spent listening to the concern of the citizens. Not one person in my district, or the whole County for that matter, came to me and asked me to support this project. The people didn’t want this, the bureaucrats did. My job as a Commissioner is to represent you, not to give the bureaucrats everything they want. I will continue saying no to the nonsense.
Utilities use of right-of-ways
The Commission considered a sloppily worded resolution to govern utilities use of right-of-ways. The resolution did not define the word work and said that all work required a permit to obtained from the Highway Superintendent and a million dollar insurance policy. This meant that someone volunteering their work to pick up trash or dig a hole for a mailbox could be required to obtain a permit and a million dollar insurance policy. Thankfully my amendment defining the word work passed, specifically limiting it to the work done by utilities, correcting the problem.
Up next – Commission Rules
In previous Commission reports, I’ve written about the Commission not following it’s rules. This month was even worse for rule breaking. Board rules require the Agenda to be published 5 days prior to the meeting day and documentation has to be included with the resolutions, but that was violated multiple times. There were 6 versions of our Commission packet, with the latest revisions appearing in the packet the day of the Commission meeting. The Commission needs to ensure that the people of Blount County have time to thoroughly review everything. I will insist on better adherence to the rules governing our agenda and it’s supporting documentation at future meetings. Next month I will be offering a resolution to amend our rules to achieve better transparency for our Committee meetings and may offer further resolutions in the future as the need arises.