Nervous about traffic stops? John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute is and says you should be too.
Blount County government recently launched a new website. As a result, many of the links to the Blount County government website (www.blounttn.org) found on this website (www.bcpublicrecord.com) will no longer work because the files are now in different locations. If you read past articles and find that the links aren’t working, there is a good starting point page to look for the references found throughout this site. Please start here: http://www.blounttn.org/926/Meeting-Archives
“Last year we said, ‘Things can’t go on like this,’ and they didn’t, they got worse.” Will Rogers
Traditionally, each June, the Blount County Commission adopts an annual budget and sets the property tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year (FY). A fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30th, which is why the commission usually adopts the budget in June. A fiscal year is denoted by the calendar year in which the fiscal year ends. For example FY 2017 ran July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017. Accordingly FY 2018 runs July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.
The Blount County Commission approved an annual budget in June of 2016 for FY17 that was $181,267,406 (see pages 105-107). In June of this year, the commission adopted a budget for FY18 that is $195,958,364 (see pages 534-536).
Not all of this was an actual increase. According to the county’s Finance Director (FD), Randy Vineyard, governmental accounting standards require some expenditures to be recorded twice. Troy Logan, the fiscal administrator for Blount County School District told me that he couldn’t think of any expenditures that were recorded twice in the school’s budget. Upon my request, FD Vineyard provided this spread sheet outlining the use of fund balance and the monies that are being accounted for twice.
According to the numbers provided by FD Vineyard, $5,381,930 is accounted for twice. Based on these figures, that means that the commission adopted a budget that is $9,309,028 more than what it initially approved for the previous year, when the double accounting amounts are removed. This is a huge increase for local government that will not be sustainable in the future without either growth in tax revenues or more tax increases.
The spreadsheet shows the county using $7,087,000 of fund balances from the various funds. Some of the increase is for nonrecurring capital expenditures. You can read my questions and FD Vineyard’s responses related to the use of fund balances here. Please take the time to read this as it shows that $1.1M of fund balance may be used for corporate welfare for one company.
At the Agenda Committee meeting, I asked Mayor Ed Mitchell how much this secret company would receive from local governments (City of Maryville and Blount County) and the state of Tennessee. He only knew what the county’s contribution will be. Thus, local elected officials walk into these types of “deals” without knowing how much public money will actually be spent.
According to FD Vineyard the county’s General Fund grew to about $15M at the end of FY16 and an estimate for the end of FY17 had not been calculated in early June. Property tax and federal inmate revenues may have been sandbagged in FY16. Both came in higher than projected, and you were slammed with a higher property tax rate than necessary. Some local elected officials may feel good about having accumulated such a large General Fund, but it came about as a result of two large tax increases (sales tax and property tax) not from being good stewards with your tax dollars.
$1.85M of fund balance will be used for Information Technology (IT) updates. This is addition to the $4.1M that has already been spent for IT improvements and huge software purchases since 2014. This new budget brings the total to nearly $6M that has or will be spent from 2014 through the end of June in 2018.
One would think that with such large expenditures that the IT Committee would be keeping a close watch on the various IT projects but it is not. From June 2016 through June 2017 the IT Committee only met twice and during one of those meetings it lacked a quorum. The Mayor canceled the other two meetings that were scheduled.
Blount County taxpayers will be forced to pay $96,717 in additional salaries and benefits to four office holders beyond the state mandated minimums. These office holders are already some of the highest paid employees in county government and have been paid nearly double or triple the average salary of a Blount County citizen.
The commission approved a 3 year lease agreement for Chromebooks for the schools. I voted against this because the county will be paying interest when it does not have to. The funds are available to purchase the computers without wasting any money on interest.
Medical plan changes
The commission voted to reduce the out of pocket maximum from $4,000 to $3,000 for health care and to charge $5 for the employee only dental plan. The dental plan for the employee only is currently free. The cost of the dental family plan is currently the difference between the price of the premium of the employee only plan and the family plan. The dental family plan was also increases $5 and will become the difference between the employee only premium and the family premium, plus $5. The county will be paying $22.14 a month for employees that are enrolled in either the employee only or family dental plans. These changes will take effect January 1, 2018. The health care plans run the calendar year, rather than the fiscal year.
Commissioner Mike Caylor continued interrupting commissioners by twice declaring a point of order. He appears to be abusing the power to raise a point of order to stifle discussion that challenges the status quo.
The commission will look at hiring an architectural firm to renovate and/or expand the jail.
Edwards’ death was ruled a homicide yet no one is facing criminal charges.
If the commission votes to approve the budget on its agenda next week, the taxpaying citizens of Blount County will be paying $96,717 more in salaries and benefits than the state mandated minimums for four elected officials. Blount County Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher and Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick will make 10% above the state minimums. Sheriff James Lee Berrong and Mayor Marvin Ed Mitchell will both make 32% more than the state mandated minimums. The sheriff’s additional pay of $30,603 could be used to fund an additional deputy or give $1,000 pay raise to 30 employees.
During the last two annual budget discussions, I (Tona Monroe) tried to cut the salary supplements from the budget bringing the pay for these 4 elected officials down to the state minimums. Both times only Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted to reduce the pay. Last year Jerome Moon argued that the commission had to pay the sheriff more but did not state the law requiring an additional pay supplement. These pay supplements aren’t required.
Meanwhile the mayor, Governor Bill Halsam, Lord of Croynism Randy Boyd and Gentlemen of the Bedchamber Byran Daniels have been busy getting their pictures in the paper for job creation. The local rag is happy to serve as their PR firm.
The Tennessee General Assembly has been largely nonresponsive to reforming salaries that are double, triple and quadruple the average annual salary. Most of them don’t feel your pain. Many voted for the gas tax and most voted for Haslam’s bloated budget.
|Mayor – Mitchell||132,550||must make 5% more than Sheriff||100,416||32,134||6207||38,341||101|
|Circuit Court Clerk* – Hatcher||95,635||other elected officials plus 10% for more than 1 court||86,941||8,694||1716||10,410||101|
|Sheriff – Berrong||105,199||must make 10% more than highest general elected official (CCC)||95,635||30,603||5914||36,517||101|
|Highway – Headrick||105,199||must make 10% more than highest general elected official (CCC)||95,635||9,564||1885||11,449||131|
Figures provided by Angelie Shankle, Budget Manager for Blount County government.
Open Records Policy
The majority of commissioners showed themselves to be overlords rather than servants of the people by adopting an open records policy with a process making it difficult for people to obtain their government records. The policy speaks for itself. Only those with disdain for the people they are suppose to serve would make it as difficult to obtain your records as this commission just did. These people can claim they’re there to serve you but actions speak louder than words.
The policy was designed by an ad hoc committee comprised of 3 county commissioners and 2 citizens. 2 of the commission members, Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor, are local government employees who consistently support government of the government, for the government, and by the government rather than government of the people, for the people and by the people.
The ad hoc committee proposed charging 50 cents per copy, for both black and white and color copies. The fee for black and white copies in the Schedule of Reasonable Charges produced by the state Office of Open Records Counsel, within the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, is 15 cents. Jerome Moon, the Chairman of the committee that wrote the policy, took the extraordinary measure of changing the fee for black and white copies in the policy before presenting it to the commission. Rather than respecting the process by proposing an amendment, he actually changed the policy that the ad hoc committee had recommended.
Commissioners Moon and Grady Caskey sponsored the resolution that adopted the open records policy. These two falsely claimed in their resolution that the commission was adopting the policy as recommended by the ad hoc committee. The fourth whereas statement in the resolution reads:
“WHEREAS, the Blount County legislative body finds that it is mandated to establish a written public records policy and hereby adopts and approves the proposed written public records policy as recommended by the ad hoc committee and attached hereto as Exhibit A.”
This is a false statement because the policy presented to the Agenda Committee, which consists of all members of the commission, was changed. Commissioner Moon is the Chairman of the Blount County Commission. He is well versed in parliamentary procedure. There is absolutely no excuse for what he did. All he had to do was present an amendment and explain his reasoning for the amendment. Instead he changed what was presented to the commission.
Appointments for records inspections – take a number
From the Office of Open Records Counsel’s website, see the 3rd paragraph:
“Under the Tennessee Public Records Act, a records custodian cannot require a request for inspection of public records to be in writing. However, other provisions of law may permit or require such written request. A records custodian can require a request for copies of records to be in writing, or to be made on the Records Request Form, and to include that requirement in their public records policy. If a request must be on a specific form, a copy of the required form must be included in their public records policy and should be readily available for public use. If a governmental entity does not require a specific form, requestors may use the Records Request Form.”
The policy approved by the commission requires an appointment for records inspections, although a section below it makes it sound like it is the decision of the Public Records Request Coordinator (PRRC).
“IV. Inspection of Records
A. There shall be no charge for inspection of open public records. An appointment is required for inspection.
B. The location for inspection of records within the offices of Blount County Government should be determined by either the PRRC or the records custodian.
C. Under reasonable circumstances, the PRRC or a records custodian may require an appointment for inspection or may require inspection of records at an alternate location. The time for appointments should be made with in normal business hours unless mutually agreed upon by PRRC and the requestor.”
For clarity on the matter, I asked the Office of Open Records Counsel for its opinion on Section IV, Part A and Part C. This was the response I received:
“Good Afternoon Ms. Monroe:
I assume your question is regarding Section IV, Part A of the draft policy, which provides: “There shall be no charge for inspection of open public records. An appointment is required for inspection.” However, Part C of the same section provides that the PRRC may require an appointment for inspection of records “under reasonable circumstances.”
Whether requiring an appointment to inspect the records is reasonable will ultimately be left to a court to decide, based upon the particular facts and circumstances of each case. However, to the extent that a county’s public records policy provides a blanket rule that an appointment is required for the inspection of any records in any situation, we find it difficult to imagine that a court would find it reasonable to require an appointment for inspection under the facts and circumstances of each and every situation.”
To resolve the confusion and to reduce the burden upon those requesting records, I offered an amendment to remove the sentence in A that required an appointment for all records inspections. This would have left in place the flexibility of requiring an appointment when circumstances warrant it. The commission rejected this. Only commissioners Akard, Archer, Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted to resolve this issue. If the county is ever sued over the matter of requiring an appointment, it will be the fault of the commissioners who opposed the amendment and voted for the policy. They have sufficient knowledge to know that the matter needed to be resolved.
Proof of citizenship and a photo ID – Papers “please”
You will have to prove that you are a Tennessee citizen and may have to provide a photo ID for records request. These two impediments can really slow things down. This isn’t papers “please.” This is papers demanded and just to see or obtain records. Karen Miller and I were placed in an interrogation room at the justice center when a photo ID was demanded of me when I make a records request of the Sheriff’s Office .
I offered an amendment that would have required that proof of citizenship only be required when someone is requesting a fee waiver with their records request. It was rejected.
Proof of citizenship should only be obtained to verify that the person receiving a waiver of fees is actually a citizen and once is it provided it should be destroyed. How is the county going to keep your citizenship and photo ID records? These records may contain sensitive information that Blount County has no legitimate reason in demanding, other than to provide a waiver of the costs/fees to its citizenry.
A photo ID should not be required just to see or get copies of public records. This is not Nazi Germany.
Requests request must go to Blount County Records Manager and Archivist
Jackie Glenn, the Blount County Records Manager and Archivist, will serve as the PRRC. This concerns me because some years back I asked her to provide me with copies of some records. She wrote that it would cost a couple hundred dollars to provide the records but I was able to make copies of the records for a few dollars on my own. I hope that no one finds themselves in a similar situation where a request for copies of records turns into hundreds of dollars when the records can be copied for a few dollars.
Only Commissioners Akard, Daly, Miller and I rejected a policy that put in place with nearly as many unnecessary impediments to obtaining records as the courthouse clique could get away with. While Daly was absent from the commission meeting, she voted against it at the Agenda Committee meeting.
Cutting commissioners off
It has become standard operating procedure for Commissioners Dave Bennett and Mike Caylor to call a point of order while I am speaking to shut me down. This makes it difficult for me to do the job that I was elected to do.
Some have suggested that this is occurring because I am a woman. It’s possible. Commissioner Karen Miller has been questioned about her income and statements have been made about my employment.
A study of the Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS) found that women justices are interrupted more frequently than men by male justices. Male advocates arguing cases are much more likely to interrupt than female advocates. The article says, “gender is 30 times more powerful in explaining interruptions than seniority.”
Agenda Committee meeting
Commissioner Dave Bennett was absent.
Commission pay raise rejected
Commissioners Ron French and Grady Caskey proposed giving the commission a pay raise. Currently Blount County Commissioners make a salary of $405 a month. There are no official benefits such as health care. However, taxpayer funded meals are provided before and after some special meetings. Additionally, some commissioners are county employees and already receive benefits from the county.
The proposal would have increased the salary to $450 a month and pay commissioners $200 for their attendance at the Agenda Committee meeting. This would have increased the pay from $405 to $650 a month.
I offered an amendment to remove the $200 for attending the Agenda Committee meeting but that amendment failed. Only commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller, Steve Sample and I supported the amendment. Commissioner Tom Stinnett abstained.
The resolution failed in a 9-10-1 vote. Commissioners Archie Archer, Brad Bowers, Shawn Carter, Grady Caskey, Gary Farmer, Ron French, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton and Jerome Moon voted yes to placing the resolution to increase their pay on the commission agenda. Commissioners Mike Akard, Andy Allen, Rick Carver, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Dodd Crowe, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller, Tona Monroe and Steve Samples voted against sending the resolution forward. Commissioner Tom Stinnett abstained.
This is a hot button political issue that gets a lot of attention but its best to view the voting records of commissioners in their entirety. Some of the commissioners who voted against increasing their pay rarely, if ever, look out for you the taxpayers.
The issue was simple for me. This is public service and I am not going to vote to increase my own pay. I tried to turn down my commission salary but was forced to take it after great resistance on my part.
Commissioners Cole, Daly and Lewis were absent.
Planning Commission appointment
The Blount County Commission rubber stamped Mayor Ed Mitchell’s latest nomination to the Planning Commission. Some rural districts of the county still have no representation on the Planning Commission, despite it having authority to propose regulations that impact the rural areas of the county. I was the only commissioner that voted against the mayor’s appointment.
$350,000 more for equipment for the Highway Department
The new Highway Superintendent Jeff Headrick has gone on a spending spree, purchasing new equipment. Previous equipment purchases totaled more than $1.4M.
This month the commission approved a request for $350,000 to purchase a new 8′ paver. The county already has a 10′ paver.
The memo accompanying the request said that this will save the county money since the county will be able to do more of its own paving. However, there were no documents or figures to support this claim. Some counties contract this out as it costs less to pay companies to do the paving but I was cut off from fully expressing this and further reasons why I couldn’t support this issue.
Without any information to support the claim that it will save the county money, I wasn’t comfortable with spending the money. I made motion to postpone this for a month so that the commission could be provided with numbers to back up the claim that this purchase will save money. The motion failed. Commissioner Akard made an amendment, which I seconded, to reduce the amount to $200,000 so that the county could purchase a used paver. That failed as well. The commission approved the purchase with only commissioners Akard, Miller and myself voting against it.
Road for Denso
Unfortunately, corporate welfare is ingrained in local and state governments. Blount County government already spends $1,062,200 annualy on “economic development”, without the commission being provided any info on how the money is spent. Commissioners aren’t even given a budget showing how this $1M will be spent. After asking for the budget in 2015, Bryan Daniels of the Blount Partnership/Blount Chamber of Commerce/Industrial Development Board/Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority blocked me.
Despite spending $1M+ on “economic development”, the commission was asked to approve an additional $60,425 to build a road for Denso. The letter from the Tennessee Department of Transportation accompanying the contract is dated September 16, 2016 but the commission was not told about this or provided anything until this month.
$1M is enough of your money for secret, crony, corporate welfare deals. Only commissioners Miller and I voted against giving more of your money to another special deal.
I am all for business friendly tax policies but tax breaks should be fair to all and apply equally to similar businesses. Giving one business the farm (literally), another a building, building a road for another, or a tax abatement for another should stop. Tax policies could be written to provide incentives to all businesses, not just those that cozy up to the courthouse clique and the swamp in Nashville.
Watch out for Randy Boyd, who is running in the Republican primary for Governor of Tennessee. He is the king of corporate welfare, having spent two years as the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development. During that time he traveled the state giving corporate handouts to businesses while he and local elected officials could get their pictures in papers for “creating jobs” with your money. As such, 22 east Tennessee mayors recently endorsed him. Multiple media outlets serve as PR firms rather than news reporters, promoting how wonder these special, secret deals are. That’s how powerful the corporate welfare, special interests have become. Boyd has been well groomed to be the next big government governor, next in line after Bill Haslam.
Highway Dept. agreement with 4 local cities
The majority of commissioners rubber stamped local agreements between the Blount County Highway Department and the cities of Friendsville, Louisville, Rockford and Townsend. The agreements were simple, only 1-2 pages each. However, there was no mention of liability for the parties. I inquired as to who would pay for what should an accident occur and was met with silence rather than answers. Only commissioners Akard, Miller and I voted against taking the risk of the unknown with these agreements.
While there is no tax rate increase proposed in the upcoming budget, spending will increase. The revenues recommend by the Budget Committee are available here. The expenditures recommended by the Budget Committee are available here.
Local government elections
“The future has a way of arriving unannounced.” George F. Will
In many of these monthly commission reports I encourage you, the public, to get involved. The 2018 local government primary election is less than one year away. All partisan elected officials in Blount County are Republicans. Thus all county government races, with the exception of the school board and Property Assessor, were determined in the May 6, 2014 primary election and the races will likely be determined in the May 1, 2018 election. School board races are nonpartisan and the Property Assessor election occurs in the same year as a presidential election.
If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, please give consideration to running and/or supporting good candidates for local office next year. It is not to early to start preparing.
“A year from now you will wish you had started today.” Karen Lamb
“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Will Rogers
According to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, the average daily cost to house an inmate in state prison is $76 a day. That is more than twice what the state pays counties to house state felons. The state currently pays counties a daily per diem of $37. It’s no wonder that the state is content with letting their felons be housed in local jails. It makes their costs lower, their books look better and it frees up more money to spend elsewhere.
But don’t worry the state is here to help local governments out by increasing the daily per diem rate for housing state felons in local jails to $39 a day. That’s a whopping $2 daily increase. Never mind that, at $39 a day, the state still averages saving $37 a day.* State lawmakers and officials need to be able brag about being good stewards of taxpayer money by keeping the state budget lower and having a $2 billion surplus of your money.
Some good news: statewide recidivism was down in 2016.
*The cost savings to the state may be less in counties with a contract for state sentenced felons.
Agenda and Commission Meetings
This was a light month for the Blount County Commission. The agenda was short. There was a zoning request that was had no objections and the commission voted to approve its minutes and receive reports.
The only thing of significance that happened was the commission moved the regular meeting time of 7 PM to 4 PM. This was likely because the Republican Party of Blount County scheduled its Lincoln Day dinner for the same night at 6 PM. Commissioner Dave Bennett had the item placed on the agenda for the Agenda Committee but he wasn’t present at the meeting to explain his request. He is the former chairman of the local Republican Party.
Would the all Republican commission change the meeting time for the Blount County Democratic or Libertarian Parties? The Information Technology Committee meeting, which was scheduled for 6 PM the same night, was also canceled. I was the only commissioner present to vote against catering to the local Republican Party.
Paper takes down a story related to jail expansion
Last month I wrote about the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) cutting me off and not letting me do the job that I was elected to do: ask questions and get answers related to jail expansion in order to make an informed decision. This month the paper removed a story from its website that it wrote related to my research and questions about this endeavor.
Blount County Tax Revolt, a local citizens group, asked me to come speak about the BCCP cutting me off and explain what I was prohibited from asking and what I had hoped to learn by asking questions. A reporter for The Daily Times was present at the meeting and a story was written. The story did not appear in the print edition but it was online with a link on the homepage of the paper’s website until the early afternoon when it was taken down.
The Daily Times has twice published that the Purchasing Department had an open meeting related to the jail RFQ. This cherry picked reporting is a disservice to this community. Most of the purchasing process related to the selection of a firm was done in secret because of a new state law. It seems that the paper is more interested in publishing the talking points of the courthouse clique than it is evaluating a new law that made what was formerly an open process largely secret. This law coupled with the actions of the BCCP have made my job more difficult than it should be.
At the March BCCP meeting, Purchasing Agent Katie Branham Kerr said that she would have to refer to her notes when I asked her who she had contacted in Loudon County when consulting references for the architectural firm Michael Brady Inc. (MBI). I requested a copy of her notes and all communications records that she had with other governmental entities related to MBI. Kerr informed me that she has no communications records related to MBI.
She says that she did contact someone at Loudon County regarding MBI but can’t remember who she spoke with or what office/department this person works in. I checked with the Loudon County Mayor’s Office to see if anyone had any recollection of speaking to Kerr or anyone from Blount County related to MBI. Anita Green with the Loudon County Mayor’s Office responded with, “I have spoken with several department heads and none have any recollection of speaking with anyone from Blount County.”
I’ll likely write more on this in the future.
Spectra Recycling Center to close
Blount County has been fortunate to enjoy having recycling services provided free of charge by a private company. Spectra will be closing its recycling center on May 1st. Spectra has provided recycling services free to city and county residents for 17 years.
While some recycling materials are profitable others are not. The demand for glass is low and many governments that provide recycling services have stopped collecting it during garbage pick up.
In 2015, I served on an ad hoc committee that looked at recycling options for Blount County. You can read the report issued by the chairman of that committee here.
If the county were to provide recycling, there will be costs associated with that service. We had a valuable service being provided by a private business. I don’t know if that service could have continued but I do wish that possibility had been fully explored before looking to provide a new county service. Do you support using your tax dollars for the county to provide recycling?
Open Records Policy
The commission will soon vote on an open records policy. Those who are interested in open government and obtaining or inspecting records will want to pay close attention to this.
Last week I wrote about the Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) sending a newsletter telling local elected officials to call their legislators in support of the IMPROVE act. This legislation increases the gas tax and raises the non-commercial vehicle registration fee $5 annually.
This organization is funded by you, the taxpayers. Here is a copy of the meeting minutes for the meeting that the TCSA voted to support the IMPROVE act. The TCSA website says the board endorsed the legislation. Since the meeting minutes don’t give a roll call vote of the TCSA Board, I asked if any voted against supporting the legislation that will soon be law. Executive Director David Connor wrote, “The board vote was a voice vote. No members voted against supporting the measure and no one asked to be recorded as a no.” The minutes contain a listing of the members that were present and absent from the meeting.
Do you think your tax money should be spent to fund an association that supports/endorses raises taxes and fees on you?