Jim Vesper not impressed with officials honoring each other over “clean” audits

This morning I (Tona Monroe) received the following text about mine and Karen Miller’s standing apart from politicians honoring other politicians, in an election year, for receiving “clean” audits at last night’s commission meeting.

“I appreciated you standing apart with Karen last night. The self-congratulations show the other commissioners held last night was embarrassing.  Audited returns do not reflect monies well spent, or assets well managed! I wish every commissioner had your integrity and respect for their constituents wallets.  Blessings to you my friend.”

Jim Vesper – Blount County citizen and businessman

Commissioner Karen Miller and I voted against honoring elected officials and department heads for receiving clean audits.  Mr. Vesper is spot on.  These audits do not reflect the quality of spending or management of assets.  These audits are more a reflection of following accounting standards.  Money can be wasted on many things, but if it is properly accounted for it usually won’t result in an audit finding.

Keep in mind that the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office gave the sheriff and county a free pass for the sheriff signing the federal inmates contract without first obtaining commission approval possibly because its auditors hadn’t caught it the entire time (well over a decade) the contracts have been in effect.  The Comptroller’s Office also gave the mayor, finance director and county a free pass for the $2 million that the mayor and finance director claimed authority to assign.  The mayor and finance director lacked the authority to express the county’s intent with that $2 million “assignment.” Only the commission had the authority to assign those funds with the county’s intent.  The Comptroller’s Office chose not to recognize the mayor and finance director’s $2 million assignments but failed to mention their actions in the audit reports.  Even two failures to properly prove authority did not result in audit findings.

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office seems to be handing clean audits out like candy.  It’s important that the citizens of Blount County, and ultimately Tennessee, understand the limited scope of these audits and that they don’t reflect the quality of spending.  Clean audits do not mean that elected officials are good stewards of your taxpayer monies.

Important questions you need to ask about the salaries of elected officials before voting in the local May 1st and state and federal August 2nd 2018 primary elections

State mandated minimum salaries and additional pay supplements for local elected officials vs what taxpayers are making

When you look at important economic indicators such as median household income and average annual income, Blount County taxpayers haven’t fared well in recent years.  When adjusted for inflation, 2014 numbers show that average pay in Blount County actually dropped and that household income averages a double digit drop.

The State of Tennessee mandates very generous salaries for elected officials that are 2, 3 and 4 times what the average Tennessee taxpayer is making.  I (Tona Monroe) have written the state legislature for a couple of years on this matter but this matter has largely fallen on deaf ears when it comes to taking action.  A few lawmakers have agreed with me that the mandated minimums are too high but none have taken action to provide reform.

You can view the state mandated minimum salaries for local elected officials here.
2018-2019  2017-2018   2016-2017  2015-2016  2014-2015  2013-2014
2012-2013   2010-2011  2009-2010  2008-2009  2007-2008  2006-2007

This figures show huge increases to the base pay for local elected officials being mandated by state law.  Despite being paid double and triple, and in the case of judges almost quadruple what the average taxpayer is making, 4 of these local elected officials are receiving pay supplements above the already large state mandated minimums.  Blount County taxpayers are paying $96,717 more than state minimum for the circuit court clerk, highway superintendent, sheriff and mayor.  It’s obvious these people don’t feel the same economic pain that many Blount Countians are feeling.

2 important primary elections will be held this year.  The local government primary election will be May 1, 2018 and the state and federal primary election will be held August 2, 2018.  All office holders elected in partisan elections are Republicans in Blount County.  There isn’t a single Democrat or independent in office in Blount County, excluding the school board which has nonpartisan elections.  Thus, it is highly likely that all upcoming offices, excluding the school board, will be decided in the primary elections.  If you wait to vote in November, you will miss your best opportunities to have an impact on who governs at the local and state levels.  There will be no county elections in November and only state and federal general elections occur in November.

The May 1 and August 2 primary elections provide opportunities for you to clean house of these state and local officials who refuse to hold the line on these outrageous salaries.  Only Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and myself have voted to cut the pay of these 4 elected officials down to the state minimum, which is already much higher than it should be.

Questions to ask before heading to the polls on May 1 and August 2:
1) Why have local elected officials refused to cut the pay of these officials to the state mandated minimums?
2) Why have the state legislators continued funding huge increases for elected officials?
3) Why did Jerome Moon try to lead the commission to believe that these pay supplements weren’t optional?

Please consider these questions before casting your votes in the May 1 and August 2 elections.

East Tennessee Index 2014 figures for median household income:

What does this measure?
Median household income, adjusted for inflation. Half of households earn below the median, and half are above.

Why is this important?
Median household income is a gauge of overall economic health of the region and the financial resources of households.

How is our region performing?
In 2010-14, median household income in the region was $45,100, slightly higher than the state ($44,600) but lower than the nation ($53,500). Among local counties, median household income was highest in Loudon ($50,600) and Knox ($47,500) and lowest in Union ($36,000) and Monroe ($37,200). The region, state, and nation all saw their median income fall by double digits from 2000 to 2010-14 (down 12% in the region, 14% in the state, and 10% in the nation). Median income fell much faster in the region from 2005-09 to 2010-14 than in the nation and state (16% decrease in the region compared to a 6% decrease for the state and the nation). Among the counties, median household incomes decreased most from 2000 to 2010-14 in Sevier, Monroe and Blount (all 14%). Union experienced the smallest rate of decline (7%), but still has the lowest median household income in the region.

Notes about the data
Figures are presented in 2014 dollars. The multiyear figures are from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The bureau combined five years of responses to the survey to provide estimates for smaller geographic areas and increase the precision of its estimates. The survey provides data on characteristics of the population that used to be collected only during the decennial census. 2014 figures for average annual salary:

What does this measure?
The average annual salary in a region in a given year, adjusted for inflation.

Why is this important?
Salaries are a gauge of overall economic health and a measure of the degree to which employees are sharing in the prosperity of a community. They also indicate the vitality of a region and its ability to compete and attract workers.

How is our region performing?
In 2014, the region’s average salary was $43,000, below the average for the state ($45,200) and the nation ($51,400). Since 2000, the region’s average salary increased by 6%, on par with growth nationally and but below statewide (7%). Roane County’s average annual pay grew by 26% over the same time period, more than any other county, while average salary fell in Blount and Sevier counties over that period (both less than 1% respectively). Between 2013 and 2014, the region’s average annual salary increased by 1%, on par with the state increase.

Notes about the data
Data presented in 2014 dollars.

May 1, 2018 Local Election Issues

Harry Grothjahn of Truth Radio AM 1470 invited me to speak on his Sunday morning radio show to discuss important issues that you need to know about before voting in the upcoming May 1, 2018 local government primary election.  The interview was recorded so that you can listen to it and the slide show presentation is attached for your information and review.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of important local issues.  This is a good starting point in becoming informed for the upcoming May 1st primary election.

Let freedom ring!
Tona Monroe
Blount County Commissioner

May 1, 2017 local government primary election issues slides

14 machine commissioners make Art Swann state senator

Blount County Commissioners Andy Allen, Dave Bennett, Shawn Carter, Rick Carver, Grady Caskey, Mike Caylor, Dodd Crowe, Gary Farmer, Ron French, Scott King, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton, Jerome Moon and Tom Stinnett voted to replace Doug Overbey who recently resigned from the Tennessee Senate with (now former) Representative Art Swann.  Swann was nominated by Commissioner Carver.

Commissioner Tona Monroe nominated Scott Williams.  Commissioners Archie Archer, Karen Miller and Monroe voted for Williams.

Commissioners Mike Akard, Brad Bowers, Tom Cole and Jamie Daly were absent from the meeting.

Only Commissioners Miller and Monroe spoke during the discussion portion of the meeting with both sharing why they were voting for Williams.  Monroe shared that Williams served his country through military service, is a gentleman and a class act.  She said Swann had never returned any of her emails about concerns she had related to state laws and matters impacting local governments.

After the meeting, Jim Hammontree, who has picked up a petition to run for the seat currently held by district 2 Commissioner Mike Lewis, shared with BC Public Record and the local paper that the commission took a do nothing state representative and turned him into a do nothing state senator.

Blount County Commissioner Tona Monroe and state Senate candidate Scott Williams

Many links on this site are broken due to county’s new website

Blount County government recently launched a new website.  As a result, many of the links to the Blount County government website ( found on this website ( 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:

Meeting Archives

Commission Meetings

Budget and Finance Committee Meetings

Agenda and Work Session Meetings

Insurance Committee Meetings

HR Committee Meetings

Blount County’s YouTube Channel containing meeting recordings

June 2017 Commission Report

“Last year we said, ‘Things can’t go on like this,’ and they didn’t, they got worse.”  Will Rogers

Annual Budget
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.

Chromebooks lease
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.

Interruptions continue
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.

Up next:
The commission will look at hiring an architectural firm to renovate and/or expand the jail.

May 2017 Commission Report

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.

Copy fees
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.

Commission meeting
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.

Up next:
While there is no tax rate increase proposed in the upcoming budget, spending will increase.  The revenues recommend by the Budget Committee are available hereThe 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

Pastor and The Daily Times editor Buzz Trexler compares Christian belief to penguin sex

The press has many important functions that can be invaluable.  As such, it’s important to know the people who are doing the reporting as it can give insight into the mindsets and biases that occur in journalism.

Buzz Trexler is the pastor at Green Meadow United Methodist Church and an editor at The Daily Times.  His blog/website can help readers glean information about his approach to journalism and preaching.

There you will find that he preached a sermon at the Friendsville United Methodist Church entitled, “Christian Belief Is Like Penguin Sex.”

And that folks is who is editing your daily source of written news in the Bible belt.

Tennessee County Services Association tells local elected officials to support gas tax increase

The Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) sends local elected officials a newsletter, called Capitol Update, while the Tennessee General Assembly is in session.  The TCSA failed to mention the purchasing secrecy legislation in the six issues that it sent to me in 2016.  When I asked TCSA Executive Director David Connor why he didn’t include bills that made an open process a secret government process he wrote, “Since it was mirroring the process used at the state, I didn’t see a problem with it.”  Two wrongs apparently make a right.

This year the TCSA has sent newsletter with a headline telling local officials to call their state lawmakers and tell them to support the gas tax increase included in the slyly named IMPROVE act.  TCSA seem more interested in telling local officials what to do rather than keeping them informed of legislation that creates local government secrecy.  Is the tail wagging the dog?

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?


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