“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.
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.
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.
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 predictable 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.
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.
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 [email protected] 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.
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.
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.
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?