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Paper fails to mention that Comptroller’s Office doesn’t recognize $2 million in assignments

The article in today’s paper (Feb. 15, 2017) fails to mention that the Comptroller’s Office doesn’t recognize the assignments totaling $2 million related to the jail.  One would think that the paper would want the public to know this considering last year on September 7, 2016 the paper reported on the front page that the funds were assigned and not committed, trying to distinguish accounting terms.

From that story,

“’Assigned — not committed,’ Commissioner Chairman Jerome Moon said.”

and

“Vineyard said during Tuesday’s Blount County Budget Committee meeting. ‘I have assigned $1 million to public safety for the commission and this body to address whatever they need to address toward jail overcrowding.’”

The mayor and “management” don’t have the authority to express the county’s intent in assigning funds.  The paper should distinguish who has authority to express the county’s intent through assignments in the General Fund.

 

January 2017 Commission Report

Commission meeting
The agenda was light this month.  The same Budget Committee members were reappointed for another year.  Members include Commissioner Mike Caylor, Sharon Hannum, Commissioner Mike Lewis, Mayor Ed Mitchell and Commissioner Jerome Moon.  These are the same people who presented a “balanced” budget to the commission by upping the revenue projections for housing state inmates rather than reducing spending.  The current budget is funded with a property tax rate that is 16% higher than it was two years ago and a local option sales tax that that is 22% higher than it was 2 years ago.

The commission got its first official meeting experience with the new IT system.  The old system was much simpler to use.  We’re told this will make it easier for the county to do business in the long run.

Information Technology (IT) Committee meeting
The IT Committee meeting was canceled.  I still haven’t received the IT timeline that I asked for many months back.

Up next
The mayor has called a commission meeting to be held in the training room of the Highway Department at the Operations Center on February 6th at noon.  The Highway Superintendent is requesting approval to spend $800,000 of fund balance for an “Emergency Purchase” of 4 equipment floats and 8 dump trucks.

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

Remember that time when the President….

by Horatio Bunce

…said Americans were rightly disturbed about the large number of illegal aliens entering our country and we were going to ratchet up border security, cut back on illegal immigrants stealing jobs from citizens and legal immigrants, consuming social services they didn’t pay for, deporting twice as many criminal illegals, barring welfare services from illegals, etc. and then the “bi-partisan” Congress and Fake News Media went all bonkers?

Yeah, me neither.

https://www.c-span.org/video/standalone/?c4351026/clinton-1995-immigration-sotu&popoutPlayer

Interview on new RFQ/RFP exemption to Tennessee Open Records Act

In response to the stonewalling related to my (Tona Monroe) request for information and records related to the Screening Committee/Evaluation Team for the request for qualifications related to jail expansion, David Tulis interviewed me and Deborah Fischer today about a new exemption to the Open Records Act.  I learned that what was previously public information is now sealed until there is an intent to award a contract.

There is a point in the interview when I said proposal where I should have said qualifications.  Also, the person who shared concerns about purchasing policies said that the policies “may” not comply with law. He did not state definitely that didn’t comply with law.

David Tulis interviewed Blount County Commissioner Tona Monroe

 

David Tulis interviewed Deborah Fisher of the Tennessee Coalition of Open Government
https://www.facebook.com/hotnews1240/videos/1211086112291916/

Sad day for dogs: Court says barking warrants execution by police state death squad

Why do we put up with this?  We need better judges.  A warrant is not a license to murder.  People to stand up and push back against this tyranny.  Laws need to be put in place to require protocols to deal with barking dogs instead of just murdering them for barking in their homes.

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/court-police-can-shoot-dog-if-it-moves-or-barks-when-cop-enters-home/article/2610097

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/court-rules-it-was-reasonable-for-cop-to-shoot-dog-for-barking_us_585c4bc9e4b0eb586485d619

My mother was awarded Citizen of the Year by her local Chamber of Commerce

My mother, Wanda Monroe, was awarded Citizen of the Year by her local Chamber of Commerce for her 20 years of volunteer leadership in Girl Scouts.  Compare that to the actions of the local Blount County Chamber of Commerce/Blount Partnership, in particular Bryan Daniels, who blocked me.  Upon inquiring who it was that had nominated me for a local Best of Blount Award, I learned that Daniels had blocked me.

The Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky Jenean Hampton with my mother Wanda Monroe after she received the 2016 Citizen of the Year Award from her local chamber.

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 makes 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?

mcaylor101215

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?

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

Happy Thanksgiving

Troy and I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.  We have much to be grateful for.

One thing that I am thankful for is the opportunity to call out government officials for wrong doing and advocate for reform.  In some parts of the world people face severe repercussions for rebuking their government “leaders”.  Sadly I too often hear from people who are afraid of retaliation if they challenge that courthouse clique that exists in local government.  Good people who initiate no harm should not live in fear of their governments.

I encourage everyone during this time of thanksgiving to give serious consideration to your knowledge and involvement in state and local governments.  In general people are too focused on federal politics.  The main stream media bombards us with drama and endless controversy in Washington DC.

Give some consideration to taking a break from media sources that focus solely or mostly on national politics and put some time and energy into learning what your local and state governments are doing.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the majority of people can’t even name their local and state officials.

While I stood in a very long line to vote in the November election, I noticed someone willing to wait in the long line to vote in the Presidential race who hadn’t voted in the local government primary election held in May of 2014.  The reason this stood out to me is because this person had my sign in their yard but they didn’t actual take the time to vote in the local election.

If you voted in the presidential race this year, your vote was one in over 120 million votes.  If you voted in a county commission race in the local government election in May of 2014, your vote was about 1 in a thousand.  Some districts had more than 1,000 votes and some had less.  Many people don’t vote because they don’t feel that their votes matter.  Where does your vote have the most impact, a race with over 120 million votes or a race with about 1,000 votes?

If you still aren’t convinced that your vote matters tremendously in local elections, let me put it another way for you.  3 of the 21 county commission races were decided by less than 25 votes in the May primary election in 2014.  Jamie Daly won her race by 21 votes.  Archie Archer won his race by 12 votes.  Kenneth Melton won reelection to the Blount County Commission by receiving 6 more vote than his challenger.

These local races are often very close.  Do you vote in the local elections?  If not, why?

The unofficial results on the county’s website show 53,260 votes in the November election while only 12,061 voted in the August election.  If you are one of the many people who voted in November but not in August, please reflect upon why you didn’t vote in August.

Yesterday and today I posted several articles about the difficulties and unresponsiveness that I deal with on a regular basis as an elected official serving the community through local government.  Contact information for the appropriate people is provided in these posts if you feel so inclined to provide input on any of these matters.

It has been said that serving as a county commissioner is a thankless job.  Actually its not.  I receive several thanks on a fairly regular basis.  What is more accurate is to describe it as a helpless job because there are so few willing to help promote better government locally.

What would make me even more thankful this Thanksgiving Day would be to see more people take an active role in what is happening right here in our county.

Sincerely,
Tona Monroe
Blount County Commissioner

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!