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November 2016 Commission Report

This month there were two special called commission meetings in addition to the regular monthly meeting: one to look at architectural ideas for the high schools and the other to refinance hospital debt.  There were several interruptions making it difficult to concentrate.  The meetings were some of the worst that I’ve ever attended.

Architects suggest lavish plans for high schools
When people criticize school spending, they are often quickly attacked as being against education.  Education spending and a quality education are not synonymous and it should not be taboo to talk about wasteful spending in the schools.

The schools are the majority of the local government budget.  You can cut the rest of the budget and improve efficiency all day long but taxes will continue to go up unless school spending is responsibility restrained.

Many don’t like big government.  Big Ed, short for education, is a huge part of big government.  Some of the teachers on the commission talk about per pupil spending when they want more money while the quality of education is often left out of these discussions.  The amount of money should not be the standard measure for education.

Commissioners Grady Caskey and Tom Stinnett have made insulting statements that we either educate the kids or jail them.  I’ve known several people who don’t have a high school diploma but work hard and pay taxes to fund the generous salaries of people like these two.

There is probably nothing more worn out than saying that something is for the children but many in the education field continue to beat that drum.  It’s easy to see why when you look at the payroll.  Administrators are making about double what the average taxpayer makes and the Director of Schools is making triple what the average taxpayer makes.

It’s easy come, easy go to some of these people.  The taxpayers are treated like ATM machines.  The presentation by architects with Michael Brady Inc. shows just how out of touch some on the school board and the Blount County public school system are with the taxpayers.

Most of the presentation focused on looks.  One of the architects told us how their expensive and lavish ideas “feel” better.  The ideas include lots of open space and suggestions to make the high schools look like universities.  If some want these types of luxury improvements, then let those people pay for these updates.

Only a small portion of the presentation actually focused on improvements that may enhance the quality of education that the students receive.  The science labs were mentioned as being in need of modernization.  We weren’t given many details about this but this is something worth looking into.  Having good sciences labs is a worthy endeavor.  Next year the school board should look at using the education capital fund that it is receiving to improve the science labs.  The fund is being used to replace roofs this year.

With the internet and technology rapidly advancing, the future of education will change.  Before spending large sums of your money on brick and mortar that “feels” good, we should be looking at how to modernize education, utilizing online resources.

When I was out knocking on doors, during the campaign season, I spoke to several retired educators and school employees.  In general the retired teachers would speak openly, telling me about waste in the schools, where money does need to be spent, and shared that they don’t think we need more brick and mortar in Blount County Schools.  In comparison some of the current educators seemed fearful.  An educator shared with me that many are job scared and that administration unnecessarily promotes a fearful environment.  Teachers should be free to teach in an environment where they aren’t constantly burdened with political agendas.

Agenda Committee meeting
The chairman of the Agenda Committee, Commissioner Steve Samples, did not run the meeting as he should have.  He let newly elected Commissioner Dave Bennett interrupt me (Tona Monroe) and Jamie Daly.  Bennett continued doing this during the Commission meeting but Chairman Jerome Moon reminded Bennett that he did not have the floor.

After the commission meeting a citizen talked about the lack of control and said that he thought the bullying from Bennett (without naming Bennett by name) was inappropriate.

IT budget amendment decrease without clear answer why it was needed
The agenda included a rarity: a request to decrease the current budgets use of funds from the Information Technology (IT) capital fund.  Before anyone gets excited thinking that government is actually spending less of your money, it’s not.  This is a carryover amendment from the previous budget because the county used more of the fund last year that it anticipated, leaving less funds to spend in the current budget.

Since budget decreases are rare, I asked some questions about why it was necessary.  I asked the Finance Director if funds could be spent that aren’t there.  He said no but didn’t give a clear answer as to why the amendment was necessary.  The state Comptroller’s Office told me that the amendment isn’t required by law but it is good accounting practice to make the budget reflect actual available funds.  It would have been nice to have been given a similar, simple answer from the Finance Director.

Commission meeting – Hospital keeps risky variable rate debt
Last month the commission voted to convert all of the county’s variable rate debt to fully fixed rate financing.  The timing was excellent for the county, through no great planning on the part of any one individual.  Interest rates were historically low right before the election and the holder of the swaps had received two credit downgrading.

However, Blount Memorial Hospital (BMH) will continue on with its variable rate financing and interest rate swaps.  The hospital could have done what the county did but instead in will remain in risky financing, having missed a good opportunity.

The hospital should be embarrassed for presenting this request to the commission.  Besides missing a good opportunity to go fully fixed rate, the hospital failed to provide the commission with what it needed to make a good decision and also waited until the last minute to ask the commission to approve extending the variable rate debt.

The hospital has known for 3 years that this debt would need to be refinanced in December of 2016 but it did not present anything to the commission until a few weeks before the refinancing need to be in place.  Chairman Jerome Moon told me after the vote that he was glad the commission voted to approve an extension of the variable rate debt for the hospital because the hospital was up against a deadline for approval.  Moon should be upset that the hospital used the commission like this and that BMH has no more respect for the taxpayers than to wait until the last minute to present us with an extension of risky debt financing.

The taxpayers of Blount County are on the hook for the hospital debt if the hospital defaults on its debt.  The agreement that the commission approved is between the county and JP Morgan.  The hospital is not on the agreement.

If waiting until the last minute and putting you on the hook aren’t bad enough, the commission was also not given all the necessary paperwork to understand what is already in place.  The commission was not given a copy of the bond or the two swap agreements.

The two swaps don’t fully cover all of the $79.025 million of variable rate debt.  There is $23 million of debt that is not hedged with a swap and is exposed to variable interest rates.  The hospital debt will not be fully hedged until 2024.

We were not given the current mark to market value of the interest rate swaps, although I did obtain that from the Chief Financial Officer, Jonathan Smith, by calling the hospital and speaking with him.  Furthermore, we weren’t provided with the interest rates of the swaps.  The CFO did provide me with the interest rates that the hospital is paying on the swaps but he did not know how much the hospital was receiving in the swap agreements.

The commission voted on this matter without having this vital information.  It seems that whatever the advisor Public Financial Management Inc. (PFM) puts in front of them is enough.  PFM has a conflict of interest.  They make money every time the county goes to market for financing.  It is to their advantage to continually see refinancing like this.

Chairman Moon cut my microphone off for talking about the lack of information on the swaps.  All the commission was given is a letter offering an extension of the tender date and a term sheet that expired on September 9, 2016.  The letter is dated August 26, 2016 but we were never offered either of these as a courtesy prior to the November meeting.

At the Agenda Committee meeting I asked the Finance Director Randy Vineyard why the hospital would need to go through the county to issue debt.  He said to utilize a better credit rating.  When I asked if the county had a better credit rating than BMH he said most counties do.  After speaking with the CFO of the hospital, I learned that BMH doesn’t have an active credit rating.  Thus, the commission voted to approve this without any idea of what the credit rating of the hospital actual is.  Additionally, I have to wonder if the Finance Director knew this as it would explain why he didn’t answer with a simple yes to my question about the BMH’s credit rating.

BMH is looking at building a new emergency room facility in the county.  This will necessitate taking on more debt.  Before any new debt is considered, BMH needs to be more forthcoming in what it presents to the commission.  There is no excuse for the way this was handled.  You the taxpayers deserve more respect that you received.

Commission meeting
Chairman Moon was frustrated throughout the commission meeting.  He interrupted the speakers unnecessarily several times throughout the evening.  The frustration may be coming from seeing Mike Caylor act like a hothead, Dave Bennett act like a bully and Steve Samples inability to run a meeting.

Server Grant
In the packet was an application to apply for a $5,000 grant to pay for a $58,000 server.  Commissioner Mike Akard asked where the other $53,000 will be coming from.  I asked if it would be coming from the Information Technology (IT) capital fund.  No one knew the answer or no one was willing to say.  A motion was made to postpone it for one month and another motion was made to send it to the IT Committee since it is IT related.  The application was approved by the commission.  Where the other $53,000 will come from remains to be seen.

Employee Handbook
The employee handbook came to the commission with a change to the vacation policy after being sent back.  The questions about vehicle liability were not addressed by the Human Resources (HR) Committee.  The commission voted to scrap the vacation changes and keep the vacation policy currently in place.

Vehicle Policy leaves questions about liability
There will now be a restriction on the use of concealed carry of weapons in vehicles in the employee handbook.  When I inquired about open carry, the Director of General Services said it would be a policy decision of the office holders and department heads.  He wasn’t sure if open carry is occurring now.  Commissioner Ron French made the comment that employees have to follow state law but no one was suggesting that employee handbook would be used to supersede state law.

My questions about whether the county has liability for personal use of county vehicles seemed to be yes, no and maybe.  Unfortunately there wasn’t a clear answer.  The commission should have taken its time to ensure that it is adequately protecting the taxpayers.

During the campaign season, my husband Troy spoke to a retired police chief living in our district.  He said that on court days he drove his own vehicle to work because he was reporting to work the same as anyone else.  He didn’t think the county should be providing take home vehicles for people who didn’t need the vehicles to do their jobs.

I proposed that employees using county vehicles for personal use pay a small fee of $20 a week for the privilege.  It was rejected.  Commission Caylor attacked me personally, asking me if I had ever had a job and made it sound like I don’t think that county employees should be able to eat out for lunch.  My proposal wouldn’t have prohibited any county employee from going out to eat for lunch.  It simply would have charged a small amount for the personal use of a county vehicle.

Last month during statements toward the end of the meeting, Commissioner Daly made a statement about someone she knew who had implemented a program to track personal use of computers by company employees.  Commissioner Caylor became upset over her statement.

Could this be why?  This website is frequently visited by government employees.  Will the time spent on this website be prohibited under the new policy?  Or will local government employees continue surfing this website while on taxpayers’ time?

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Cell phone usage
The cell phone policy for personal use limits talking but it doesn’t limit texting or use of the phone to surf the internet.  I pointed this out and tried to fix this by offering an amendment.  Discussion then turned to job performance and the amendment was defeated.  Commissioner Mike Akard pointed out that if everything hinges on job performance then why have any statement about cell phone usage in the handbook.  Commissioner Caylor made a statement about the Blount County Commission becoming the phone police.

It is a shame that sincere concerns of commissioners are treated with such sarcastic statements.  Commissioners were sighing during discussion.  Commissioner Steve Samples moved to cut off debate and told the commission that he was sure that the commissioners already had their minds made up on how they would vote.  He made a similar statement regarding a matter last year.

Another question that I asked is what the policy is on using county phones for personal use.  Human Resources (HR) Director Jenny Morgan said, “I am not aware of a policy pertaining to personal use on work phones.”  This is another matter that the HR Committee should look at and a good reason that it should have been sent back to the HR Committee.

At the end of the meeting Register of Deeds Phyllis Crisp, admonished the commission for trying to take the time to get the answers needed to make good policy decisions saying, “Be ready to make a decision whether is the right decision or the wrong decision.  You know in your heart when you come here that you are going to vote yes or your going to vote no.  It doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter?  What is the point in having meetings if commissioners show up with their minds already made up and aren’t open to discussion or possible improvements to public policy?  While she was talking one of the Blount County Sheriff’s Office deputies was nodding in agreement.

Rather than take the time to get answers to the concerns of the few commissioners who look out for the taxpayers, the commission was dismissive of these concerns.  There are many problems with the handbook.  It wouldn’t have hurt to wait a month to get some answers and amend the handbook to resolve any concerns.

Conflicts of interest
A major problem in Blount County government is the huge number of conflicts of interest within the Blount County Commission.  Commissioners Grady Caskey, Dodd Crowe and Gary Farmer are employees of Blount County Schools.  Commissioners Brad Bowers and Tom Cole have relatives working for the schools.  Commissioner Kenneth Melton previously said that he has a relative working for the county.  Should any of these commissioners vote on the employee handbook?

The handbook was 41 pages prior to the revisions.  Some Departments/Offices have their own page employee handbooks.  The Highway Department Handbook is available online here and is 39 pages.  The handbook for the Schools is available here.

Commissioner Rick Carver works for East Tennessee Medical Group which is owned by BMH but he voted to use the credit of the county, guaranteed by you, to continue variable rate financing for BMH.  He should have abstained.

Commissioners Andy Allen and Dave Bennett work for companies owned by the same individual.  Some of these companies do work for the county.  You can read their employee handbook here.  At 94 pages, it is much more detailed than the county’s handbook which was 41 pages prior to the revisions.

Obviously the content is more important than the number of pages.  Compare what it says about storage of weapons in vehicles, liability for personal use of vehicles and use of social media.  One would think that as businessmen they would strive to have a county handbook that is as thorough as there employers handbook to protect the taxpayers of Blount County.

If you pull up the IT capital fund through the county’s account system (189-91110) you will see that the county is utilizing Cherokee Millwright this fiscal year and used Massey Construction Inc. last fiscal year.  Both of these commissioners should have abstained on the IT budget amendment.

There are plenty more conflicts in Blount County, Tennessee government.  Do these conflicts serve you the taxpayers well?  If not, in the May 2018 primary election vote for people who don’t have conflicts of interest.  All 21 of the commission races were determined in the Republican primary in May 2014 election.  Please don’t wait until the general election in August because most or all of the races will be determined in the May primary election.

After the commission meeting
After the meeting Register of Deeds Phyllis Crisp told Commissioners Jamie Daly and Miller that if they were going to dish it out they should be prepared to take it.  You can watch the commission meeting to see if you think that Daly or Miller did anything to warrant a lecture from Crisp.

Up next:
As I wrote in my thanksgiving message, please consider taking a more active role in local government.  You don’t have to be a full time activist.  Do what you can, when you can.

A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. - Thomas Jefferson

This Thanksgiving she’ll be thankful that she will make more than 10 times Tennessee households

This is so disgusting.  It’s salaries like this that make government elite so out of touch with the working folks.  http://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/education/2016/11/21/university-tennessee-name-davenport-next-chancellor/94233352/

Seriously? $585K?  Why stop there?  Why not make it $10 million?  The state legislature can just tax the people more to pay for anything the elite want.  Never mind what they make.

The median household income in Tennessee is was $47,275 in 2015.  That’s an entire household, not one salary.  http://www.deptofnumbers.com/income/tennessee/

Tennessee General Assembly Emails:

sen.paul.bailey@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.mike.bell@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.rusty.crowe@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.todd.gardenshire@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.dolores.gresham@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.ferrell.haile@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.thelma.harper@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.lee.harris@captitol.tn.gov,
sen.joey.hensley@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.jon.lundberg@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.randy.mcnally@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.kerry.roberts@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.john.stevens@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.reginald.tate@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.jim.tracy@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.bo.watson@capitol.tn.gov,
sen.jeff.yarbro@capitol.tn.gov,
“Becky Massey” <sen.becky.massey@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Bill Ketron” <sen.bill.ketron@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Brian Kelsey” <sen.brian.kelsey@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Doug Overbey” <sen.doug.overbey@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Ed Jackson” <sen.ed.jackson@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Frank Niceley” <sen.frank.niceley@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Jack Johnson” <sen.jack.johnson@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Janice Bowling” <sen.janice.bowling@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Mae Beavers” <sen.mae.beavers@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Mark Green” <sen.mark.green@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Mark Norris” <sen.mark.norris@capitol.tn.gov>,
lt.gov.ron.ramsey@capitol.tn.gov,
“Steven Dickerson” <sen.steven.dickerson@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Steve Southerland” <sen.steve.southerland@capitol.tn.gov>,
sen.sara.kyle@capitol.tn.gov,
“Richard Briggs” <sen.richard.briggs@capitol.tn.gov>,
“Ken Yager” <sen.ken.yager@capitol.tn.gov>,
rep.raumesh.akbari@capitol.tn.gov, rep.david.alexander@capitol.tn.gov, rep.joe.armstrong@capitol.tn.gov, rep.bill.beck@capitol.tn.gov, rep.harry.brooks@capitol.tn.gov, rep.kevin.brooks@capitol.tn.gov, rep.sheila.butt@capitol.tn.gov, rep.david.byrd@capitol.tn.gov, rep.kent.calfee@capitol.tn.gov, rep.karen.camper@capitol.tn.gov, rep.dale.carr@capitol.tn.gov, rep.mike.carter@capitol.tn.gov, rep.glen.casada@capitol.tn.gov, rep.john.ray.clemmons@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jim.coley@capitol.tn.gov, rep.barbara.cooper@capitol.tn.gov, rep.martin.daniel@capitol.tn.gov, rep.john.deberry@capitol.tn.gov, rep.barry.doss@capitol.tn.gov, rep.kevin.dunlap@capitol.tn.gov, rep.bill.dunn@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jimmy.eldridge@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jeremy.faison@capitol.tn.gov, rep.andrew.farmer@capitol.tn.gov, rep.joanne.favors@capitol.tn.gov, rep.craig.fitzhugh@capitol.tn.gov, rep.john.forgety@capitol.tn.gov, rep.brenda.gilmore@capitol.tn.gov, rep.tilman.goins@capitol.tn.gov, rep.marc.gravitt@capitol.tn.gov, rep.curtis.halford@capitol.tn.gov, rep.ga.hardaway@capitol.tn.gov, speaker.beth.harwell@capitol.tn.gov, rep.david.hawk@capitol.tn.gov, rep.patsy.hazlewood@capitol.tn.gov, rep.gary.hicks@capitol.tn.gov, rep.timothy.hill@capitol.tn.gov, rep.matthew.hill@capitol.tn.gov, rep.john.holsclaw@capitol.tn.gov, rep.andy.holt@capitol.tn.gov, rep.dan.howell@capitol.tn.gov, rep.bud.hulsey@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jamie.jenkins@capitol.tn.gov, rep.darren.jernigan@capitol.tn.gov, rep.curtis.johnson@capitol.tn.gov, rep.sherry.jones@capitol.tn.gov, rep.roger.kane@capitol.tn.gov, rep.kelly.keisling@capitol.tn.gov, rep.sabi.kumar@capitol.tn.gov, rep.william.lamberth@capitol.tn.gov, rep.mary.littleton@capitol.tn.gov, rep.ron.lollar@capitol.tn.gov, rep.harold.love@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jon.lundberg@capitol.tn.gov, rep.susan.lynn@capitol.tn.gov, rep.pat.marsh@capitol.tn.gov, rep.judd.matheny@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jimmy.matlock@capitol.tn.gov, rep.gerald.mccormick@capitol.tn.gov, rep.steve.mcdaniel@capitol.tn.gov, rep.steve.mcmanus@capitol.tn.gov, rep.larry.miller@capitol.tn.gov, rep.bo.mitchell@capitol.tn.gov, rep.debra.moody@capitol.tn.gov, rep.antonio.parkinson@capitol.tn.gov, rep.joe.pitts@capitol.tn.gov, rep.mark.pody@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jason.powell@capitol.tn.gov, rep.dennis.powers@capitol.tn.gov, rep.john.ragan@capitol.tn.gov, rep.bob.ramsey@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jay.reedy@capitol.tn.gov, rep.courtney.rogers@capitol.tn.gov, rep.bill.sanderson@capitol.tn.gov, rep.charles.sargent@capitol.tn.gov, rep.cameron.sexton@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jerry.sexton@capitol.tn.gov, rep.johnny.shaw@capitol.tn.gov, rep.david.shepard@capitol.tn.gov, rep.eddie.smith@capitol.tn.gov, rep.mike.sparks@capitol.tn.gov, rep.billy.spivey@capitol.tn.gov, rep.mike.stewart@capitol.tn.gov, rep.art.swann@capitol.tn.gov, rep.bryan.terry@capitol.tn.gov, rep.joe.towns@capitol.tn.gov, rep.ron.travis@capitol.tn.gov, rep.johnnie.turner@capitol.tn.gov, rep.micah.vanhuss@capitol.tn.gov, rep.terri.lynn.weaver@capitol.tn.gov, rep.dawn.white@capitol.tn.gov, rep.mark.white@capitol.tn.gov, rep.ryan.williams@capitol.tn.gov, rep.john.windle@capitol.tn.gov, rep.tim.wirgau@capitol.tn.gov, rep.rick.womick@capitol.tn.gov, rep.jason.zachary@capitol.tn.gov

October 2016 Commission Report

“The real destroyers of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations, and benefits.”  Plutarch

Plutarch’s statement could be rewritten to more accurately reflect our society and the politics of today by saying, “The real destroyers of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them government services, government approved education, and benefits.”

Agenda Committee
There were seven commissioners absent from the agenda meeting.  This is one third of the twenty one members commission.  Since this meeting ran smoothly without one third of its membership now is a good time to ask how many commissioners you think Blount County should have.  State law requires a minimum of nine and a maximum of twenty four.

How many commissioners should Blount County have?

9-11
12-15
16-20
Keep it at 21
22-24

Poll Maker

Commission meeting
Commissioner Brad Bowers was absent from the commission meeting.

Transfer turned into political theater
On the agenda was a transfer in the Sherriff’s Office that Finance Director (FD) Randy Vineyard described as being an accounting change to simply recording of employees’ pay in the new Kronos payroll system.  Commissioner Dave Bennett used this transfer as an opportunity for political theater with the jail.

There was no resolution for the matter.  All that was in the packet is a budget amendment form with the transfer box checked with a one sentence explanation.  See Item F1 on page 16.

Dave Bennett made the motion to require the FD to provide the commission with an update on the loss of revenue for housing state inmates.  In the packet you will find that the Sheriff’s Office has been providing the FD, who then forwards to the commission, a letter stating how much revenue the county is receiving for state inmates compared to the monthly average last year.  See page 92 of the commission packet for the letter from Deputy Chief Jarrod Millsaps to the FD.

The letter does not show how much the Sherriff’s Office projected in revenue for the year compared to what the county is actually receiving.  However, you can obtain that information by looking at the monthly financial report that the FD is required to prepare for the commission.  See page 158, line item 101 00000 46915 00000 CONTRACTED PRISONER BOARD.

Chairman Jerome Moon declared Bennett’s motion out of order.  Commissioner Steve Samples immediately challenged the rule of the chair.  The commission chose to override the chair, forcing a vote on the matter.

From the draft minutes of the meeting:

Commissioner Samples appealed the ruling of the Chair. Commissioner Carter seconded the motion. Chairman Moon instructed the members to vote yes if they agree with the ruling of the Chair, and to vote no if they disagree with the ruling of the Chair. An electronic vote was taken on the appeal.

AkardYes,       AllenNo
ArcherYes,     Bennett‐No
Caskey
Yes,     Carter‐No
Cole‐Yes,
         Carver‐No
Crowe‐Yes,      Caylor‐No
Daly‐Yes,
          Farmer‐No
French- Yes,     Mike Lewis‐No
Miller‐Yes,        Melton‐No

Monroe‐Yes,    Samples‐No
                           Stinnett‐No

BowersAbsent,    Moon‐Abstain

There were 9 voting yes, 10 voting no, 1 abstain, and 1 absent.
Chairman Moon declared the ruling of the Chair was not upheld.

Commission Mike Akard moved to require the reduction in expenses, related to housing less state inmates, be included in the report.  The courthouse clique didn’t want the whole truth, just the distorted, incomplete statement on revenue.  Only commissioners Akard, Archie Archer, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted to be given the whole truth on housing state inmates.

Dave Bennett, the maker of the motion, Andy Allen, quick to provide a second to the motion, and Steve Samples, the commissioner challenging the rule of the chair should be embarrassed.  All 3 are business men.  Good business people always take a look at expenses, and not just revenue, when examining the financial statements of any situation.  However, keep in mind that Dave Bennett and Andy Allen are both in businesses that profit from building and/or renovations.

Bennett’s motion failed, even though there were not enough votes to uphold the rule of the chair.

Retirement benefit – Taxpayers to contribute 4 times what employees contribute
Sometimes I wonder if commissioners read their packets before voting, or if they read their packets if they actually fully consider the ramifications of what they are doing to the taxpayers before voting.  A resolution regarding retirement benefits for Parks and Recreation Commission employees that the FD referred to as a housekeeping measure makes me questions the quality and fitness of most of our commissioners.

A letter from FD Randy Vineyard tells the Budget Committee that the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement Services is requiring the cities of Maryville and Alcoa and Blount County to separate Parks and Rec employees into their own employee group.  The letter further states that there are no changes to plan design and benefits.  That sounds all well and good but there are still several causes for concern.

1.  The resolution calls for an employer (taxpayers) contribution of 20.16% starting 2017 while the employees contribute 5%.
How many people in the private sector have a retirement benefits package where the employer, in this case you the taxpayers, contribute more than four times the amount of the employees?  Private sector business typical budget around 20% of salaries for benefits.  This resolution budgets what the private sector typically budgets for all benefits, solely for retirement benefits.  Furthermore, there is no limit to the percentage.

2.  The taxpayer funded portion of benefits “shall be subject to change based on subsequent annual actuarial valuations.”
The taxpayers will be on the hook for future increases if actuarial valuations show the need.  Alarmingly there is no cap or limit placed on the percentage amount that you could be required to pay for retirement benefits.

3.  “The unfunded accrued liability that remains at the effective date of participation, following the transfer of assets within TCRS to the Joint Venture’s account approved by the City of Maryville by separate resolution, is $1,327,251.”
Could this large unfunded liability be why the contribution from taxpayers is so high?  The FD should have explained this and what the plan is to fully fund this liability before bringing this resolution to the commission.

4.  The county’s portion/share is 38%.
There is no logic given for the amount of 38% but the resolution guarantees that the county will fund this amount.  Commissioner Jamie Daly pointed out that most of the parks are in the cities.  Many of the rural county residence don’t use the parks or rarely use them.  Most are convenient for city residents but not for county residents.  Parks are an optional service that should be paid for by those using the service rather than being subsided by people don’t use or want the services.

For these reasons I voted no on the resolution.  Only commissioner Karen Miller joined me.  The rest voted yes.

Employee Handbook
There were many revisions proposed to the employee handbook.  The Human Resources (HR) Director was not present at the Agenda Committee meeting and she can be very hard to get ahold of by phone and email.  Thus, the only reliable opportunity to ask her questions was at the commission meeting.

I had several questions, many pertaining to the use of county vehicles.  The HR Director said she didn’t know the answers to my questions related to the use of county vehicles and that I would need to direct my questions to Risk Management (RM).  Since no one from RM was present to answer my questions, I moved to postpone discussion and action on the handbook until November so that RM could be present to answer questions.  The commission voted this down.

Alarmingly, Commissioner Tom Stinnett told the body that he had just spent two days on the handbook.  This invites the question of why he didn’t do this before he voted for the revisions in the HR Committee, a committee that he serves on.  Would you vote to forward something to the commission for approval, that requires two days of research, without asking any questions?   This clearly wasn’t well thought out.

Commissioner Ron French was quick to dismiss my concern but this isn’t in the best interest of the public.  The commission should take the time to thoroughly examine the handbook because there are many glaring holes/deficiencies in the employee handbook.  A lawyer could pick it apart easily.  Commissioners are elected to set public policy.  Answers should be provided before policies are adopted.

The commission actually did vote to give more time to the handbook by sending it back to the HR Committee to look at how to award vacation time after the first 6 months of employment.  However, the HR Committee rubber stamped what was presented to it at its last meeting.  The HR Committee spent less time on the changes to the handbook than the commission.  You can watch the meeting online here.  Hopefully the HR Committee will examine all the policy revisions and work through the entire handbook this time.

Information Technology (IT) Committee
The agenda for the IT Committee was sent by email 2 hours and 20 minutes before the state of the meeting with no supporting documentation.  The committee lacked a quorum so there was no official action taken but their rarely is anyway.

The committee heard from its $100+ hour IT consultant about the IT projects currently under way.  I was the only member to ask any questions.  AV, as he is known, with Mindboard Inc. told the committee that the county’s websites will cost $20,000 annually.  It sounds steep and I have to wonder if the county could be doing some of these projects for substantially less in-house.  The government is rarely, if ever, more efficient than the private sector but the county has benefited from in-house software.  The county is doing away with most, or all, of its in-house software and purchasing software and services that have lots of renewal and license fees.

The list of IT projects contained in the presentation given a couple of months ago has still not been provided and I continue to wonder what the point of having an IT Committee is.

Up next
A joint meeting of the Blount County Commission and Board of Education has been called to look at $40 million in updates to the two high schools.  The meeting will be held in the Heritage High School Theater on Thursday at 6:30 PM.

The Agenda Committee meeting has been moved up a day and will held on Monday November 7th at 6:30 in room 430 at the courthouse.

August 2016 Commission Report

Debt workshop
A special commission meeting was called for the purpose of discussing debt refinancing options.  The county has $79,435,000 in outstanding par for the Series 2013B general obligation refunding bonds.  The 3 year note for this series will expire in December.  Thus, the commission will soon need to make a decision on how to refinance this debt.

There are 4 interest rate swaps with Deutsche Bank associated with this variable rate debt.  The cost to terminate the swaps is high.  It changes frequently.  You can view the monthly swap reports in the monthly budget packets online.  The most recent swap report, found in the July 11, 2016 Budget Committee packet, shows a mark to market value of $14,912,989.89 on June 29, 2016.  See page 287.  The value given at the workshop, as of July 11, 2016 was $15.2M.

The cost to terminate the swaps is negotiable.  According the county’s advisor, Public Financial Management (PFM), Deutsche Bank (DB) has not been willing to negotiate significant savings in the past.  However, due to a recent drops in the credit ratings, DB is more willing to negotiate.  Now may be a good time to terminate these swaps.

This meeting was much more useful in terms of options than the meeting called last October.  The presentation given in October gave 3 variations of keeping 20% variable rate debt in place.  This 3 options given this month include two which would refund every callable maturity (2004A, 2004B, 2005, 2011, 2013B, B-16-A, B-17-A & B-10-A) and one option to refund $39M of variable rate debt.  The county has other series of debt that can be refinanced at lower interest rates.  These series would be included in refinancing scenarios A and C that were presented to us.

Option C appears to be the best option because it eliminates all variable rate debt, terminates all swaps and has the county paying debt at a more consistent level than option A which also eliminates the variable rate and terminates the swaps.  This reduces the risk to the county and we would know exactly what we owe in terms of debt.  The county currently has about $11M in fund balance.  Option C would use $5M of this fund balance, leaving the county with about $6M in debt service fund balance.

It is my hope that the commission votes to approve option C or something similar when it is presented to us in the near future.

Commission meeting
Spending increases
There were several spending increases and all were approved.  This commission has shown that it will approve nearly every spending request put before it.

The biggest spending request came from the schools and was more than all the other requests combined.  The schools requested a $1,639,000 million increase for the General Purpose Schools Fund.  $397,000 of this request will be funded with a projected increase in sales tax revenue.  After a big property tax increase last year, closer attention should be paid to the other sources of revenue such as the sales tax before levying such a huge property tax rate increase.  The property tax payers may have been hit harder than necessary.

Last month the budget request failed to even get a motion to send it to the commission but this month it passed.  The request was the same as last month.

Animal shelter budget now over double the actual budget of 6 years ago
The animal shelter requested a budget increase of $33,054 to pay 2 part time people to clean the animal shelter after losing inmate labor when the state pulled the TDOC felons from the local jail.  I purposed using donation money given to the animal shelter to fund these two positions temporarily until the changes in jail population had been worked out.  That amendment failed.  The requested increase could have been funded without any use of tax dollars.

From Deena Finley the Accounting Manager:

“To Commission,

To follow up on the questions from August 19, 2016 Commission meeting:

Item F.3 – Resolution No. 16-08-008

In regard to donations for the Animal Center, the amount I reported at the meeting was the Total Non-SMACF donations collected for Fiscal years 2011 through 2016.  Please see below.

Fiscal Year     Donations Collected

10-11           32,862.58
11-12           25,144.32
12-13           16,253.20
13-14           8,202.09
14-15           13,867.31
15-16           76,192.09
Total           172,521.59

The amount of Committed Donations as of 6/30/2015 (account 101-346300 – Committed for Public Health & Welfare) was $16,069.40 and from above collections Year-to-Date of $76,192.09 which means the value of Committed Donations at 6/30/2016 should equal the sum total of $92,261.49, subject to Audit.”

Labor of the animal shelter isn’t limited to those serving sentences in the jail.  There are about 1800 on county probation and 700 people on state probation.  This is a large number of people to look to for help in the animal shelter.

Animal shelter spending was originally budgeted to be up 86%, compared to 6 years ago when the mayor took office.  With the budget amendment, the amended budget is now more than double what the actual budget was when Mayor Ed Mitchell took office.

FY Actual Budget SMACF Donations Original Budget Amended Budget
2007 $131,849 $138,349 $138,349
2008 $102,846 $148,349 $138,349
2009 $124,142 $138,349 $138,349
2010 $157,459 $135,826 $203,326
2011 $223,941 $414,806 $414,806
2012 $263,901 $361,710 $361,710
2013 $272,685 $330,419 $330,419
2014 $320,388 $330,407 $327,310
2015 $322,742 $76,139 $342,931 $355,426
2016 $371,126 $180,400 $407,727 $415,217
2017 $182,090 $417,315 $450,369

2007-2014 data is from state CAFRs
2015-2017 is data from the county’s website
2016 data is subject to change as budget is finalized
2017 data is budgeted amounts not actual amounts

There was a request to spend $195,000 of the Drug Control fund balance.  The only explanation given was to buy needed equipment and there was no date on the budget request.  That is a lot of money that will be spent without any details given for the use of the funds.

Half way point
The end of this month marks the half way point of this commission term.  As I look back over the past two years, I think the best thing this commission did was refinance $20,165,000 in variable rate debt and the swap attached to it to fixed rate debt.  Creating the school capital fund, providing funds that don’t have to be split with the cities to fix leaking roofs is another good thing.

The large property tax increase after an increase in the local option sales tax may have been the worst thing this commission has done.  The unwillingness to hear from the jail consultant while approving an RFQ to seek design services for the jail doesn’t make good sense or good public policy.

What I’d like to see over the next two years is for the county to go to completely fixed rate debt with more debt service money going to principal.  I’d like for the commission to take a look at the county’s land use regulations, particularly zoning which is too easily manipulated for the benefit of the few.  The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) should meet to actually discuss the needs of the criminal justice system rather than just meeting a few times a year to appease the state for certification that means very little.  Critical decisions that should have been fully discussed through the BCCP are going to be made through the Purchasing Department.  Additionally, the commission should look at the over $1 million that is given to the Industrial Development Board and the approximately $1.5 million in hotel/motel tax money given to the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority.  Both of these entities serve special interests with crony deals.  These monies could be put to better use by paying down the enormous county debt.

What would you like to see your county government do during the next two years?

When Uncle Sugar isn’t your pimp

outhouse

photo: Horatio Bunce

by Horatio Bunce

In my neck of the woods, a “food desert” somewhere in FEMA Region IV, a local business thumbs their nose at the “cell-phone-and-a-pen” unconstitutional platitudes emanating from Washington DC. Folks like us not receiving the corporate welfare benefits that result in forced acceptance of Bill Gates’ Common Core, Pearson Sharia Social Studies, PARCC/SBAC/AIR/UTAH SAGE test question rentals and now apparently co-ed public school locker rooms, are finding it hard to understand why the super-majority Republicans in Tennessee shake in their boots every time Hedy Weinberg utters a threat to federal funding. We “might” get sued. Uncle Sugar “might” withhold your money that was automatically “withheld” from you when you earned it to begin with.  So keep turning those tricks Welfare Queen. You don’t want to get slapped by Uncle Sugar, do you?

All those liberties sold out chasing Uncle Sugar’s dollar (which was yours to begin with). They sure came cheap. You can call it “state-led” all you want, but it is plain to see who is in control.

The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.  Proverbs 22:7

 

A report from the #TNaintReady front lines

by Horatio Bunce

From a friend in the public school system (yeah, I have a few) with the names and places removed to protect the innocent:

“My wife is a teacher in xxxxxx County, and as such is at the point of the spear on this. I think the most succinct statement came from one of her 3rd graders; he asked, “Mrs. Xxxxxx, don’t they know that we are 8 years old?” Xxxxx has been spending scads of time teaching how to take the computerized test, rather than the curriculum. This, combined with the fact that her class has to share computers with the rest of the school, has essentially made the last two weeks a bust as far as classroom instruction is concerned.”

I guess Mrs. Xxxxx should have “expected more/achieved more” and said “Buck up son! How do you expect to compete in the global marketplace without these internationally benchmarked standards that haven’t actually been used anywhere else in the world ever?”

Just remember that back in late 2009 Achieve Inc. national co-chair Phil Bredesen, Tim Webb and B. Fielding Rolston were twisting the arms of your local directors of schools to sign a memorandum of understanding that they were familiar with all the trappings that came with taking the Race To The Top federal bribe (adherence with Common Core “State” Standards they couldn’t yet read because they didn’t yet exist, mandatory online testing and mandatory student longitudinal database expansion). The application was only about 1100 pages long. I’m sure they read it….aren’t you?

Here, you can still watch Bredesen and Jamie “we were going to do it anyway” Woodson lie about all the unanimous agreement right here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByuIlsf9ftY

#TNaintReady

YUNOby Horatio Bunce

TNReady tests to be given via paper, pencil after tech failure

Just wanted to comment on the repeated failures of the many media outlets that keep calling these the TNReady tests that we contracted with Measurement Inc. to produce for $108M. Measurement Inc. sub-contracted to the behavioral research company American Institutes for Research (AIR ) who also made the tests called the SAGE Assessments for Utah. Like Tennessee, Utah also took the federal bribe called Race To The Top which required mandatory online assessments (all the better to mine your human capital data with). Bribe-takers were additionally required to work through one of two federally-created, stimulus-funded, multi-state testing consortia for these online tests: PARCC or SBAC. After initially awarding an illegal, no-bid testing contract to PARCC (Kevin Huffman, governing board member) and their project manager Achieve Inc. (Bill Haslam board member, Phil Bredesen national co-chair), the testing contract was “rebid” (sic) with only one possible winner that meets our federally-mandated testing consortia requirement: SBAC. However the multiple middle-men of AIR and Measurement Inc. help to conceal this fact. But here is AIR’s press release from 2012 claiming their partnership with SBAC to deliver online testing to states, so make no mistake, Tennessee maintains her status as federal welfare queen pleasing Uncle Sugar. Federally mandated online testing right along with Common Core for taking that $500M+ bribe. The Common Core Whores can rename it all they want – it is still the same.

Tennessee is currently paying Utah $2.3M per year to rent test questions from their SAGE Assessments.

I hate to say I told you so on these tests, but from October 2013:

Note that some believe the sudden pullback from PARCC by these states is orchestrated, that other opportunists are now positioning themselves to create a “state-led” assessment model to test the same Common Core “state” Standards without the obvious, blatant, federal appearance that PARCC and SBAC have. Time will tell. Of course, this is merely treating a symptom and not the disease. They would likely rely on the same test makers – or copy “big” states like Florida, the same way they do with textbook selection.

I ask you to remember back to Bredesen/Woodson/Haslam/Frist et al rationalizing the Common Core “State” Standards and the wonderful multi-state testing consortia and how it was so hard to compare student achievement from state to state because we all had our different tests and how great this “common” thing was going to be (after they all cash in).

Doesn’t it seem, well, contradictory that now we are paying the same two Washington DC testing corporations to make different tests for each state that allegedly are all aligned to the same academic standards?

Remember, there is a $5,000 fine for leaking out any of Utah’s rented test questions – per question “regardless of whether the release is accidental, intentional or required by law.” It sure would be a shame if that happened, especially since it is now on paper.

Tennessee and local taxpayers paid over $800 million to Volkswagen

The people in government who orchestrated giving away over $800 million to a company should never be allowed to touch another penny of tax money.

http://www.beacontn.org/tennesseans-volkswagens-involuntary-investors/

Government subsidies aren’t improving the economy.

http://www.bcpublicrecord.com/?p=7156

Understanding Tennessee’s Maintenance of Effort in Education Laws

The Comptroller has issued a report on Maintenance of Effort Laws governing education in Tennessee.

http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/OREA/PublicationDetails.aspx?ReportKey=739a119e-8e4d-4583-a122-f0a514a321f5

http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/Repository/RE/MOE%20Final.pdf