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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?

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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

July 2016 Commission Report

Proverbs 23:  1When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee:  And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite.  Be not desirous of his dainties: for they are deceitful meat.  Labour not to be rich: cease from thine own wisdom.

Agenda Committee
Commissioners Mike Akard, Mike Caylor, Peggy Lambert and Tona Monroe were absent.

Commissioner Jamie Daly put forward a resolution to say that citizens aren’t out of order for citing sources and should be allowed to speak rather than being declared out of order.  This came as a result of Commission Chairman Jerome Moon shutting down citizens during public input at the special called commission meeting in April.  Commissioner Mike Caylor objected to me citing the Institute for Law and Policy Planning study.  Moon declared me out of order as well as the citizens when the study was referenced.  Daly’s resolution said “the Commission Chairman and the Blount County Legislative Body will not prohibit citizens from citing supporting references during public input.”  You can read the resolution here on page 108.

The commission voted to table this.  Only commissioners Archie Archer, Jamie Daly and Karen Miller voted against the motion to table the resolution.  I would have voted for the resolution had I been present.  The majority of commissioners are now on record saying that they don’t want you to come to commission meetings prepared with references that support your positions.

Commission meeting
Commissioner Peggy Lambert was absent.

Zoning request for storage units was voted down
The commission rejected a request to rezone a parcel of land from residential to commercial.  I have to wonder if the request would have been approved if the man making it had been politically connected.

Commissioner Ron French led an effort to amend the zoning regulations so that a politically connected office holder could have his land rezoned to commercial to put in a commercial business.  The regulations were written such that one of the few intersections that could be rezoned belonged to an office holder.  Would you and I be able to get the zoning regulations amended to put a commercial development on our property?  Why would commissioner French work so hard for one of the good ole’ boys but vote against this request?

After serving nearly two years, I’ve come to the conclusion that zoning has destroyed the private property rights of the people of Blount County and is nothing more than a tool of the political machine to limit competition.  Unfortunately, there are some in the community who play right into the hands of the political machine, thinking that they are keeping Blount County safe from developers while preserving the scenic beauty.  However, the machine gets what they want, competition is limited and property rights are nothing more than property privileges granted by government.

I’ve been asked what I like best about being a county commissioner and what I like least about being a county commissioner.  What I enjoy best is advocating for the liberty of the people that I represent.  Government should be limited and justice should be blind.  The most disappointing thing is the lack of citizen participation in government.  I’d love to see more involvement from the people.  What I dislike the most about being a county commissioner is voting on zoning regulations and requests for rezoning.  21 people sit as a board of overlords and micromanage land use regulations.  We’re suppose to protect property rights, not eliminate your rights and grant special privileges to a select few.

It is ridiculous that we don’t have more small businesses such as restaurants out in the county.  People shouldn’t be forced to drive into the cities for small businesses that could be readily available in the county without destroying the scenic beauty.  We should stop to think about the pollution created by people driving into cities for simple household items and a meal that could easily be obtained in the county.  Small businesses aren’t going to destroy the scenic beauty of Blount County anymore than new subdivisions, yet subdivisions have been placed all around the county.  Have you noticed that it is usually the large chain that can work through this complicated, political process?

We’re always told that the roads can’t handle any more traffic.  It is true that we have some roads that are in bad shape and some that are in need of expansion.  However, we need to ask if private property rights are dependent upon which road you live on.  We’re told that roads are too narrow for trucks to travel through.  If that is the case then then trucks should be prohibited from traveling on these narrow roads, but this is often not the case.  Rather than talking about how bad roads are to limit development, we should work to fix the roads that are dangerous.

Furthermore, the economic consequences of zoning has resulted in the cities getting the lion’s share of sales tax because the county’s zoning regulations are so restrictive toward development.  The last time I inquired, I was told that roughly 85% of businesses were in the cities

Zoning was started 100 years ago in New York City to deal with skyscrapers.  The County doesn’t have skyscrapers.  The only building that might fit that definition is in the City of Maryville.  However,  zoning regulations have been expanded through the last century to impact nearly all development.

What we have in place with zoning is a system that is suppose to protect property rights but it doesn’t.  Connected people get what they want and those who aren’t connected don’t get what they want.  No one that I talk with thinks the system is fair, even if they strongly support having zoning.  It’s just a system and not a very good one at that.

Some land use regulations are good, such as setbacks from roads and flowing water.  However, I think it is time for Blount County to have a discussion on whether zoning is serving us well.  For reasons stated here and many more, I conclude that the county is not well served by the system in place and that we should look at taking a different approach to land use regulations.

Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP)
The BCCP met and did nothing other than approve the meeting minutes of the last meeting and receive and briefly discuss some paperwork that is submitted monthly to the Tennessee Corrections Institute as a part of the Plan of Action to address issues related to overcrowding.  The updated Plan of Action was not included in the paperwork provided to the BCCP.  I had to request that.

The resolution that I introduced in May to request that the sheriff stop housing federal inmates in the local jail was sent by the Agenda Committee to the BCCP after the courthouse clique failed to kill the resolution through parliamentary procedure.  None of the sheriff’s employees, friends and relatives would second my motion; therefore it died for a lack of a second.

I wasn’t able to offer discussion on the matter.  If I had been able, I would have referenced the response that I received from the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury that says their legal staff could find no specific law that says the sheriff can sign a contract to house federal inmates without commission approval.

Commission Secretary Rhonda Pitts continued her failure to accurately record the meeting minutes.  The minutes of the April 7, 2016 BCCP meeting say, “Tona Monroe made a motion to amend the motion.  There was no second.”  The minutes do not reflect what my motion would have done to the recommendation that the BCCP sent to the commission.  However, I made the same motion at the commission meeting that the mayor called to authorize the purchasing agent to issue an RFQ related to the jail.  That motion is reflected in the commission minutes.  Why was my motion fully recorded in the minutes of one meeting and not the other?

The one good thing that is happening is the Sheriff’s Office request for guidance in establishing a reentry program for those who are incarcerated to integrate back into society.  This is something that I would have liked to have seen several years ago.  Furthermore, this is something that  I would have tried to get the BCCP to look into if the BCCP had been meeting regularly and without interference from people like Commissioner Rick Carver.  The BCCP and County Commission should have listened to the findings and conclusions of the author of the jail study.  A reentry program would have been a logical step forward after hearing from the author who could have helped us get started on this process much sooner.

Information Technology (IT) Committee
The IT Committee meeting was canceled with no explanation given for the cancellation.  With $1.3M having been put into a fund in a rush last year, these meetings should not be canceled.

Up next
The Agenda Committee meeting will be held at the courthouse at 6:30 PM in room 430 on Tuesday the 9th.  The commission meeting will be held in the same room at 7 PM in the same room on Thursday the 18th.

June 2016 Commission Report

When I (Tona Monroe) envisioned writing monthly reports on county government, I thought that the reports would be published within a few days of the monthly commission meetings, which are held on the 3rd Thursday of each month.  However, I quickly realized that it was better to wait until the end of the month to more fully report on your local government.  This is because there are important meetings after the monthly commission meeting and the meetings can create more questions than answers.  Thus, I usually follow up after these meetings by seeking answers.

Sometimes I get answers and sometimes it is difficult to get answers.  As such, these monthly reports are intended to provide a review of the monthly activities of your local government.  If you desire to learn about important matters before the commission votes on them, please be sure to visit this site at least a couple of times a month because I write about issues throughout the month.  Additionally, I also have an email list that you can subscribe to which will keep you informed.  If you’d like to join the email list, please send me an email.  tona@breezeair.net

Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control meeting
On June 1, I drove to Nashville to attend the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) Board of Control meeting.  Commissioners Jamie Daly and Karen Miller also attended the meeting.

My reasons for attending are manifold.  Please search this website, if you are new to the site, to learn those reasons.  My statement to the board is available here.

A county should strive to meet minimum standards and be certified by the TCI.  However, after reading prior Board of Control minutes and watching the process in action, I’ve concluded that obtaining certification can be political rather than an objective recognition of compliance with standards.

I had intended to write about the meeting before now but haven’t been able to obtain all the documents that I wanted to review before writing about the meeting.  This may be something that I will write about in the future.

Agenda Committee
Commissioners Tom Cole, Steve Samples and Tom Stinnett were absent.

At the Agenda Committee meeting, I offered two taxpayer protection amendments.  Both were rejected.

One amendment would have amended the annual budget resolution to prohibit the mayor and finance director from assigning fund balance money without commission approval.  My intention was to ensure that there would be no more secret plans for your tax money as there has been in the past.

The other amendment was intended to ensure that no monies appropriated for pay raises would be expended for any other purpose without commission approval.  The budget funds 1.8% pay raises for all county employees, excluding the Highway Department and schools that set their own raises, and office holders who receive raises based on state mandates.  However, not all the amounts budgeted for pay raises will be expended for that purpose.

Raises are suppose to be awarded based on satisfactory job performance.  This will leave money in funds that won’t be awarded as pay raises.  This means that office holders can transfer money not awarded for pay raises for use elsewhere in their budgets.  This is a misuse of the public trust.  Office holders should not be requesting money that isn’t needed and no office holder should use the funds for any other purpose.

Pay raises are not uniform throughout local government.  Office holders will receive state mandated pay raises.  Some school employees will receive 5% pay raises.  General county employees will receive 1.8% pay raises.  I don’t know what the Highway Department employees will receive.

Only commissioners Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted to protect the taxpayers with these two amendments.

Commission meeting
Commissioner Mike Akard was absent.

Tax rate is set for $2.47
The property tax rate will remain at $2.47.  The powers that be are patting themselves on the back for a job well done because they’ve put together a budget where they get nice pay raises and much of what they want, without increasing the property tax rate.  However, that doesn’t mean that local government held the line on spending.

The budget is up $6,789,571 million over the previous year’s original adopted budget.  The adopted budget for fiscal year (FY) 15-16 is $174,477,835 while the adopted budget for FY 16-17 is $181,267,406.  Not all of this is local money.  The schools will receive a sizeable increase from the state and $1,250,000 of this money came from fund balance that was approved as a budget increase in December for the IT fund that was rushed through.  It is money that hasn’t yet been spent and has to be budgeted in the new year.

More of your money is projected to be collected due to tax revenue growth but pay has not keeping up with inflation.  The local government hasn’t done you any favors by keeping the tax rate that is 15% higher than it was 2 years ago.

Only commissioners Miller and I voted no.  That means that there are only 3 commissioners left who haven’t supported a tax rate that is higher than when they took office, or in the case of Peggy Lambert, left office.   The commissioners who voted no on the tax increase last year, among other things, have now supported it and everything in the budget a year later.

What good is it to oppose something for one year and then rubber stamp it a year later?  The property tax rate was $2.15 when I took my oath of office.  When I ran for office, many people told me that they didn’t want another property tax increase.  I made a campaign promise not to raise property taxes and I will stick by that.  I will never vote for a budget that requires a tax rate that is higher than when I took office.

Someone said to me what good does it do to focus on a tax increase when the entire tax amount is being wasted.  That’s a valid point.  People often get upset about a tax increase, but that is often just a small amount of what you are paying.  The entire amount is important, not just the increase.  We should look at every penny the government wants and spends.

Capital fund amendment failed
I offered an amendment to the tax rate that would have moved one penny of the schools general fund to the schools capital fund.  This amendment would have saved county taxpayers about $127,500 because capital fund money doesn’t have to be split with Alcoa and Maryville schools.

Blount County Schools teacher and County Commissioner Dodd Crowe spoke against the amendment although he didn’t actually give a precise reason why he opposed the amendment.  Fiscal Administrator for the schools, Troy Logan, said the amendment wouldn’t align with the school board’s goals.  Ask your school board member if he or she thinks that one of their goals should include giving $127,500 in tax money to Maryville and Alcoa, when the county doesn’t have to.

The School Board is planning on spending over $2 million to fix roofs this budget year.  This will consume the entire capital fund and the rest will be paid for with fund balance in the schools general purpose fund.  The shift in the penny would have given the schools additional funds, thereby reducing use of fund balance, without increasing the county property tax rate.

Commissioners and teachers Grady Caskey and Dodd Crowe voted against the amendment, as did Commissioner Tom Cole whose wife works for the schools.  These three gave about $127,500 to the cities when they didn’t have to.  Commissioner and school employee Gary Farmer abstained.  Only commissioners Andy Allen, Archie Archer, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I thought it makes good fiscal sense to use the money to fix the roofs instead of giving it to the two cities.

I don’t like using the term penny to describe the tax rate because it makes the amount you are paying sound so much smaller than it really is.  A penny on the tax rate is estimated to be worth $327,500 in property tax money.  Because of split dollars, the amount given to the schools for each penny is about $200,000 according to fiscal administrator Troy Logan.  The schools capital fund receives the entire amount of $327,500 per penny, excluding the Trustee’s Fees that are deducted from property taxes.

Budget Committee’s recommended budget is rubber stamped
The commission rubber stamped the budget recommended by the Budget Committee without any changes.  Only commissioners Karen Miller and I offered amendments to the budget.

Commissioner Miller offered an amendment to gut the budget given to the Industrial Development Board, which is used to dole out corporate welfare.  The IDB receives over $1 million.  Miller’s amendment would have cut the IDB budget to $1 and given the money to the Highway Department.

The finance director said that Miller’s amendment would have required the commission to amend the tax rate resolution.  This is a good example of why it doesn’t make sense to set the tax rate in advance of setting the budget.  How can the commission properly budget the rate when it hasn’t determined the amounts that will be spent from each fund?

Commissioner Miller requested permission of the body to read her prepared remarks on the amendment.  The commission rejected allowing her to read her statement.  This is appalling.  Commissioners are given the power to be heard and the duty to look out for taxpayers.  Apparently the majority of commissioners don’t want a commissioner to come prepared with the facts and their reasons for advocating positions.  The commission rejected allowing me to read a statement last month.

Miller did speak briefly without reading her statement.  She said she didn’t think tax money should be given for corporate welfare, that she was upset with the way Bryan Daniels and the Blount Partnership had blocked commissioner Jamie Daly and me and that the money should be used to fix the pot holes in the road.  I seconded Miller’s amendment but it was rejected by the commission with only Commissioners Daly, Miller and myself supporting it.

4 officials are paid above the state mandated minimum
State law mandates minimum salaries for elected officials.  The salaries range from being nearly double to near quadruple the average salary in Blount County.

State law allows the commission to pay elected officials more than the state mandated minimums.  With the salaries already being so much more than what the majority of households live on, I moved to cut the salaries of the court clerk, highway superintendent, sheriff and mayor to the state mandated minimums.

The cut would have saved the taxpayers $91,713 but it was rejected with only commissioners Daly, Miller and myself voting for it.  Chairman Jerome Moon gave one of the typical reasons to rubber stamp the matter and move on.  He said that state law requires us to give the sheriff a pay supplement above his base pay.   However, when I asked what state law said we have to give the sheriff more than the state minimum, he couldn’t name the law.  The sheriff couldn’t state the law either.  Moon them passed the buck to Commissioner Steve Samples, because he is the longest serving commissioner.  Samples didn’t know the law either.

I am researching the matter to see exactly what the county is required to pay the sheriff.

No one read a conflict of interest statement but several have conflicts of interest.

Meeting minutes missing wording of a motion
The meeting minutes for the May commission meeting did not include the wording of a motion that I made.  I moved to amend the minutes to include the wording of the amendment that I had offered but the commission rejected the amendment.  The minutes should reflect any change that a commissioner tries to make to public policy and government documents.

Highway Grant
There was a reimbursement grant for highway funds expended during an emergency with begin and end dates that spans five years.  The new Highway Superintendent (HS) Jeff Headrick couldn’t explain these dates.  He said it was handled before he became HS but his name is on the budget amendment request.  I often wonder if anyone in local government understands what they are signing up for, with state and federal grants.

IT Meeting
A special Information Technology (IT) Committee was called by the mayor, to have the new IT consulting firm Mindboard give a presentation on its IT assessment of the county.  A previous assessment was done.  The Mindboard consultant referred to it as the 10,000 foot view.  He referred to his assessment as the 3,000 foot view.  The county is in need of some IT improvements but we need to tread carefully.

Kronos, the $2.3M time keeping, payroll and HR IT software project, is several months behind schedule.  This was rushed through without fully examining whether the county was ready for the project.

The estimated capital costs of about $2.5M, in the Mindboard presentation, are nearly double what the commission approved last year for the updates.  Furthermore, the annual costs to maintain these updates will greatly increase the IT budget.  The committee was given a figure that was over $600,000.

These aren’t exact numbers.  The costs for computers was listed as zero.  The former IT Director John Herron, who now works for the schools, pointed out that this wasn’t realistic.

I wondered why this was listed as zero and I may have learned why.  In the commission packet, there are budget transfers to purchase computers in both the Finance and Accounting and Data Processing (IT) budgets. (See pages 330 and 334)  Finance Director Vineyard told me that all IT needs would come out of the IT fund but apparently both had money left over at the end of the year to use to buy new computers.

It is amazing how much money is moved around (transferred) at the end of the year.  I may write more about the subject in the future.

The IT Committee took no action on the presentation.  However, the mayor and finance director usually proceed with their big spending plans without a recommendation from the IT Committee.

State to remove 99 felons from jail
The best news of the month is that the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) is going to remove 99 felons to state facilities.  This reduces the chance of a tax increase for jail expansion.  However, we should be ever vigilant of the matter.  We need to ensure that TDOC and the sheriff actively work to move felons, with a continuous sentence of more than a year, to state facilities in the future.

The sheriff stated that I have “offered no realistic or legal solutions.”  That’s false.  One realistic and legal solution that I offered was to have the state sentenced felons moved to state facilities.  It’s good to see this solution will happen.

Up next
The commission will consider reforming the Human Resources and Insurance Committee.

Happy Independence Day!

Blount County pay still not keeping up with the rate of inflation

Mayor Ed Mitchell is bragging about a budget without a tax increase and Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher said the budget process was easy this year.  It’s no wonder that both are happy because they will both get nice raises and be paid substantially more than state law requires.  Hatcher will make 2.13 times the average 2014 salary of Blount County citizens.  Mitchell will make 2.95 times the 2014 average of $42,728.  Does anyone think that the Circuit Court Clerk and Mayor do double and triple the work of the average taxpayer struggling to pay their bills?

These two are patting each other on the back and padding their pockets with your money, while Blount County pay continues to fall below the rate of inflation.  With the 2014 numbers in, Blount County pay actually averaged a $3 drop compared to 2013, when adjusted for inflation.

From the East Tennessee Index:

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.

In past years, Blount County was the only county in the region to average pay below the rate of inflation.  With Sevier County joining Blount, two counties that heavily promote tourism, we should be questioning how the governments’ heavy involvement in tourism promotion is actually benefiting its citizens.

With the repeated failures of the Blount Partnership, Chamber, Industrial Development Board and Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority (SMTDA) to foster an environment where average pay keeps up with the rate of inflation, it’s time for the commission to look at abolishing the SMTDA and letting the private sector promote its own tourist attractions.  The roughly $1.5 million that the SMTDA authority is getting from the hotel/motel tax should be used to help the citizens of Blount County by paying down some of the $232.8 million in liabilities (page 24) instead of being used to train gas station attendants (yes the former Tourism Director bragged about training gas station attendants) and give corporate welfare to a select few.

Don’t look for reform anytime soon though.  Commissioner and county school employee Gary Farmer was wearing his Blount Partnership shirt at the commission meeting Thursday evening.  As a commissioner, he gets to vote to fund money that is used for his regular pay raises as a school employee.  What’s inflation to someone with that power?

It’s down to 3: Only Commissioners Akard, Miller and Monroe have not supported increased tax rate

The Blount County Commission consists entirely of Republicans who claim to espouse positions of low tax and small government but actions speak louder than words.  There are now only 3 commissioners who have not voted for a property tax rate that is 15% higher than when they took office in September of 2014, or in the case of Peggy Lambert, left office.

The tax rate for fiscal year (FY) 2015 (July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2015) was $2.15.  In FY 16 the commission raised the tax rate to $2.47.  The tax rate approved for FY 17 is also $2.47.

Last year (FY 16) commissioners Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Tom Cole, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and Tona Monroe voted no on both the tax rate (increase) and the annual budget resolutions.  Commissioner Brad Bowers pulled a Steve Hargis by voting for the budget resolution while voting no on the tax rate resolution.  Commissioner Tom Stinnett took the courageous position of abstaining on the tax rate resolution while voting for the budget resolution.  Neither Bowers or Stinnett should be taken seriously by voters in the future because you can’t vote for most, or all, of the spending without voting for the taxes to pay for the spending.

This year leaves no doubt on their tax and spend ways.  Commissioner Mike Akard was absent from the Commission meeting but he voted no on the tax rate and budget resolutions at the Agenda Committee meeting.  Commissioners Karen Miller and Tona Monroe voted no on both the tax rate resolution and budget resolutions at both the Agenda Committee meeting and Commission meeting.

Commissioners Archie Archer, Brad Bowers, Tom Cole, Jamie Daly, Peggy Lambert and Tom Stinnett all joined the tax and spend crowd this year by voting yes to both the $2.47 tax rate resolution and the annual budget resolution that is partially funded by the $2.47 property tax rate.

Commissioners Archer, Cole and Daly showed the people that they lack firm principles by voting against the tax rate last year and then turning the other way and voting for it this year.  Commissioners Bowers and Stinnett showed last year that they have no principles by their contradictory and cowardly votes last year, respectively.  Peggy Lambert recently wrote that she never voted a tax increase in comments on BC Public Record’s website but a few days later voted for a tax rate that was 15% higher than when she left office in 2014.  Her hypocrisy is clear.  The rest of the commissioners reaffirmed their tax and spend ways.  These commissioners include Andy Allen, Shawn Carter, Rick Carver, Grady Caskey, Mike Caylor, Dodd Crowe, Gary Farmer, Ron French, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton, Jerome Moon and Steve Samples.

Should government “servants” make 2, 3 and 4 times what the taxpayers make?

After looking at the salaries of several state government employees and having reviewed the payrolls of local governments, I sent this email to the Tennessee General Assembly.

Legislators,

As you hit the campaign trails, think about the impact that your actions have on the people that you are suppose to represent.

You’ve passed state mandated minimum salaries for office holders, including local elected officials and judges.  Those state mandated minimums are double, triple and even quadruple what the average salaries of taxpayers are.

For example: County Clerk, Register of Deeds, Trustee and the Property Assessor in Blount County will receive a salary of $82,801.

http://ctas.tennessee.edu/sites/default/files/2017%20Salary%20Schedule%20Final.pdf

Compare that to the working taxpayers of Blount County.  The average salary in 2013 was $42,731.  That means that your state mandated minimums are almost double the average salary.  Other elected officials such as the Highway Superintendent, Sheriff and Mayor will receive more than $82,801 and make more than double the average salary.

Perhaps the most disgusting salaries are those of the judges.  You’ve come up with a way to hide calling what you do a pay raise by saying they receive a cost of living increase.  Does someone making $161K need a cost of living increase, when the average salary is slightly more than 1/4 of what the judges are paid?

Why are the judges special?  Please don’t tell me that they have to be well paid to attract the best people.  The best people are often the ones who help people without compensation or for far less.  Those who run private practices may make more but they have no guaranteed salaries and also don’t have standard hours.  Please don’t tell me that judges work all the time because they have all kinds of staff doing work for them.  These judges locally, always have time to make all the special dinners to be treated as elite people in society.  There are plenty of people who work as many or more hours than judges and receive far less pay.

You passed legislation to add more to the court costs to fund these outrageous salaries when what you should have done is said these people already make enough and stop giving increases under a different description.

These salaries don’t reflect that in Blount County, they receive one of the best health care plans on the planet.  It is far better than what most private companies are offering.

What you have done with these state mandated minimums that are far more than the people earn is create a privileged class who have forgotten that it is their roles to serve, not to live lavish lifestyles off the hard work of the people.  Many of the people of Blount County, and likely of the entire state, resent that government officials are being paid far more than they make.

Stop the pay increases and the cost of living increases for these “servants” who are already making double, triple and quadruple what the people they are suppose to be serving are making.  These positions could easily go 5 years without a pay raise/cost of living increase and still make FAR MORE than the people that they are suppose to be serving.

Let freedom ring!

Where do you want to cut the budget?

What budget(s) would you like to see cut?

Library
Mayor’s Office
Parks and Rec
Schools
Sheriff’s Office
Something else
Cut it all
Don’t cut anything

Poll Maker

State law limits what can be cut. However, please express where you would like to see budget cuts.

March 2016 Commission Report

Special called meeting to appoint Blount County Clerk
Commission Chairman Jerome Moon called a meeting to appoint a replacement for former Blount County Clerk Roy Crawford who passed away last month.  Former Deputy Clerk Margaret Flynn was chosen unanimously by all members present.  Ms. Flynn will serve until a new office holder is elected and sworn in.

There was at least one good person interested in the position who did not seek it after they learned that there would be no primary election.  State law allows the Parties to choose their nominees for the county general election in August since there is no time for a primary election.

Ms. Flynn is probably a good choice for the position because she worked in the clerk’s office for many years.  However, the commission was not given any information prior to the meeting and only told who she was and what her experience was at the meeting.  At the very least we should have been given a resume a few days in advance of the meeting.

Agenda Committee
Chairman Jerome Moon pulled a resolution that he had sponsored and voted for the day before in the Budget Committee that would have allowed General County office holders and their employees to lease new cars.  This may come back in the future.

Commission meeting
I was unable to attend the commission meeting because my husband suffered an injury and spent the afternoon in ER.  He is doing well, all things considered.

Commissioners Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Dodd Crowe and I were absent.  The meeting was really short, primarily because I wasn’t there to ask questions.

Mike Caylor added to Budget Committee
The commission approved adding City of Maryville employee and Blount County Commissioner Mike Caylor to the Budget Committee, to replace commissioner Tom Cole who resigned from the committee.  Commissioner Karen Miller was the only no vote.

I can count on one hand the number of spending questions that Caylor has asked since I’ve been on the commission and still have fingers left over.  He will make a great government of the government, for the government and by the government member of the Budget Committee.  There is no one on the Budget Committee who will look out for the taxpaying citizens.

Commission votes on all new business in one motion
The other reason the meeting was so quick, besides my absence, is the commission voted on all 8 items under new business in one motion.  Cramming as many items as you can under one vote is the Washington DC approach to government.  Local government politicians appear to be learning the tricks of the trade from Washington DC.

Commissioner Jamie Daly was the only commissioner to ask any questions related to any of the items.  She inquired about the $65,000 that the commission was being asked to approved to pay a consultant for renegotiating the rate paid to the county to house the federal inmates awaiting trial.

No one from the Sheriff’s Office was at the meeting to answer questions.  The commission packet didn’t even name the consultant being paid.  See pages 18-21 to see what the commission was given regarding the budget amendment request.  The commission never voted to approve housing federal prisoners.  I’ve written about that in the past.  Furthermore, the commission was never told that the rate was being renegotiated, although I did learn about it and posted it along with more jail information.  (See Summerhill Group)

Taxpayers paying for legal agreements to be written
One of the items under new business that was rubber stamped without discussion was renewal of a lease agreement for a community club.  Community clubs have historically been important parts of the community.  It would be wonderful to see them grow again.

My only concern is that the taxpayers, for the second month in a row, are paying to draw up legal agreements for organizations who are getting something for nearly nothing.  Lawyers usually aren’t cheap.

Last month when I asked what the costs were to the taxpayers of Blount County, the mayor and finance director didn’t know.  However, the company benefiting from the agreement said they would pay the legal costs to prepare the agreement.  I had hoped to see the same thing this month.

At the Agenda Committee meeting, I asked the finance director to provide the commission with the cost of preparing the lease agreement.  However, nothing was provided in the packet and no commissioner asked for that information.  The county needs to adopt a policy that will reimburse the taxpayers for the costs of the legal fees for preparing these legal documents.

Conflicts of Interest
Commissioner Karen Miller abstained on the vote for all 8 items because she has a relative who works for one of the companies doing work for the county.  That is the only time that she has ever had any conflict of interest and she did what someone in her position should do: abstain.  However, another commissioner, Andy Allen, works for a man who owns a company who was awarded a county project that was included in the 8 items.  However, he voted for the budget increase rather than abstaining.

Blount County Corrections Partnership – rush to get bids to build
The most alarming thing of the month was the push to rush through a bid process to look at the costs of building another jail pod or new facility.  If you haven’t been paying attention to this issue, now is a good time to start because this could get expensive, quickly.  If you are new to the website, please read some of the history on the jail overcrowding and much more here.  There are several articles to read.

The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) was finally given some important numbers related to Recovery Court, which was previously called Drug Court.  The information wasn’t joyfully provided.

I’ve asked for more information on Recovery Court for over a year.  Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington, who serves as the judge of Recovery Court, was curt, telling me she didn’t have time to gather the information.  What I had actually wanted was for the Program Director to gather the information and present it to us.  However, the Director did not attend the meeting, or any since I’ve been on the BCCP.

At the Budget Committee Workshop last week, Budget Committee member Mike Lewis asked for more information related to the staff costs for Recovery Court vs incarceration costs.  His requested information was included in the information given to the BCCP.

Harrington’s demeanor before the Budget Committee was more pleasant than it has been before the BCCP, probably due to her request for another budget increase.  The increase would be used to fund more staff and training to accommodate more participates.  In general, I support providing more financial resources for Recovery Court but it not responsible to just throw money at something without proper planning.  This was the first time that we were given anything in writing about Recovery Court.

The BCCP was presented with this information after it was presented to the Budget Committee, not before.  The BCCP has been treated as a formality rather than a place to work to reduce the overcrowding in the jail and thereby improve society.

Very few citizens attend the BCCP meetings.  However, a few that have attended have spoken to me after the meetings about Tammy Harrington’s behavior at the meetings.  After the meeting a citizen described her as hostile.  After a previous meeting a citizen described her as condescending.

Harrington told the BCCP that we were dysfunctional because we didn’t immediately settle on a meeting date.  The people of Blount County should be questioning whether someone with that kind of impatience should be sitting as a judge with authority to make life altering decisions.

The Chairman has traditionally announced a date to the BCCP to see if it is agreeable to the members.  No one said they couldn’t attend but the date was rejected because it wasn’t soon enough to ram through a process to seek bids for building estimates.  The BCCP settled on a meeting date after consulting with the members, as it usually does.

She pontificated that she didn’t want to be a part of the BCCP if we weren’t going to take action (while we were talking about seeking an architect to build) but then spoke out of the other side of her mouth saying later that it shouldn’t be assumed that she wanted to build.  Of course, she hasn’t offered much in the way of solutions, so what else is there to conclude from her pompous lecture?

Early into my commission term, I reached out to her to invite her to attend the BCCP to share what she does as a judge and what her goals are for the future.  I also supported adding her as a non-voting member to the BCCP.  However, given how little she has actually brought to the table and her overbearing attitude, it may be best if she does step aside and just occasionally attends.  Perhaps then we might actually hear from the Director of Recovery Court.

Judges Tammy Harrington and Robert Headrick have never faced opponents in contested elections.  Both judges were appointed to their positions.  Headrick was appointed by the county commission to replace judge David Duggan when he vacated the General Sessions judgeship.  Judge Harrington was appointed by Governor Haslam to replace judge Dale Young.

These two are in their positions because they were good at convincing politicians to choose them rather than the people choosing them.  It would be healthy for these two to face opponents in our democratic process rather than remaining in office for life because people are afraid to challenge incumbent judges.

Bob Bass of TCI pushed seeking architect
It became clear to me last year that Bob Bass of the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) intended to push the BCCP to expand the jail.  He popped off that he would have our jail shut down if we didn’t toe the line.  However, he is more mouth than authority.  He doesn’t have the authority to shut a jail down.  He also doesn’t have authority to make us build.  He toed the line at the January BCCP meeting after I spoke with his supervisor about what authority he actually has.  However, he was back true to form this month.

After the meeting a citizen said to me, I didn’t understand what point Bass was making when he spoke.  At the heart of his rant is a bully pushing to build.

Bass knows that he can’t order the county to build and he knows that I know that.  His tactic was to tell us that if we get some estimates on building that the jail may be recertified.  He implied that the jail will lose its certification if we don’t get bids.  That was enough for sheriff’s minions, commissioners Mike Caylor and Rick Carver, to jump on board and proceed full steam ahead without asking the many necessary questions that should be asked. The first question that should be asked, regarding building is build what exactly?  That important detail was not discussed.

The one thing that stopped them from rubber stamping a recommendation to seek building proposals was that that I pointed out that seeking bid proposals wasn’t on our agenda and we couldn’t vote to do something that wasn’t on our published agenda.  That’s the only thing that stopped them from sending that recommendation forward to the commission.  However, that won’t stop them for long.  A meeting has been scheduled for April 7th at 5:30 in room 315 at the courthouse.

The machine has wanted to move the meetings back to a smaller room, where the meetings aren’t video recorded and there is less space for the public to attend.  The only reason they haven’t all been moved downstairs away from the cameras is because I have insisted that the meetings remain in the commission chamber with the cameras rolling.  However, Bob Bass wants them in smaller rooms away from cameras as well, because he doesn’t like being on cameras either.

BCCP is dysfunctional – 5 of 6 voting members are Sheriff’s pals or employees
In her impatience about setting a meeting date Harrington said the BCCP is dysfunctional.  She is right, but for the wrong reason.  The BCCP is dysfunctional and unproductive, as I have written in the past.  The BCCP is dysfunctional because most of the members are closely affiliated with the Sheriff.

There are 6 voting members:
Chairman Jeff Headrick – married to a relative of the Sheriff
Vice Chairman Rick Carver – Sheriff donated to his first commission campaign
Jeff French – Chief Deputy of Sheriff’s Office
John Adams – Captain in the jail
Commissioner Mike Caylor – City of Maryville employee who serves on Boards with the Sheriff.
Commissioner Tona Monroe – no affiliation with the Sheriff

Minions or a couple of Blount County Corrections Partnership members?
Photo: www.designbolts.com

The BCCP is dysfunctional because it was never designed to work in the first place.  The BCCP was originally an ad hoc committee to study jail overcrowding.  This was the second time a committee had been created to look at the matter.

The first ad hoc committee recommended building but the economy tanked; therefore, jail expansion didn’t happen.  The second ad hoc committee was chaired by Tab Burkhalter who actually wanted to explore all options before building.  That threw a kink in the machine’s plan to build.

Rather than getting a quick recommendation to build, a study was commissioned to look at all our options.  That has been buried.  Furthermore, the TCI wanted the ad hoc committee to continue under the new name, the Blount County Corrections Partnership.  It has continued to exist to appease the state and because it can be used as a tool to achieve the goal of expanding the jail.

The machine has been working behind the scenes to make building happen.  The powers that be succeeded in getting Bob Bass to do for them what they lacked the guts to do themselves: push the BCCP to recommend seeking quotes to build.

The political machine really shows what gutless cowards they are on this matter.  The sheriff controls the mayor.  He controls the commission.  He controls the BCCP.  He is good friends with the judges.  He is well connected with the feds.  There has been no groundswell of public opposition against expanding the jail.  Yet, despite being well connected and firmly in control, the sheriff can’t pull the trigger (figuratively speaking).

What the sheriff and his minions have done is get Bob Bass and William Robert Kane to come in and issue a tough sounding, empty fiat, that we need to do something (build).  It is just that, tough sounding talk from bureaucrats, but the sheriff’s minions are treating it as though it has the force and effect of law.

Summary
A study was done that said jail expansion wasn’t necessary.  That study was buried with the false threat of a lawsuit by the mayor, to silence discussion on the matter.  There has never been a meeting to hear the conclusions, findings and recommendations of the final report.

The Finance Director and sheriff cut the budget revenue projections on federal inmates which allowed money to accumulate, for possible building without telling the commission or the public about their plan.

The county has been losing money on the federal inmates for many years.  Costs are higher than the Sheriff’s Office has been saying.

The Tennessee Corrections Institute does not have authority to make Blount County expand its jail.  Bob Bass of the TCI is a bully and his words mean little or nothing.  He has no vote on the Board of Control.  Neither does the Detention Facility Manger William R, Kane, who is actually recommending to the Board of Control that the county’s formal Plan of Action be updated and approved by the TCI Board of Control.

There is more to cover on this matter.  I will write more about this in the future.

Should Blount County expand its jail?  Vote now.

Rick Carver acts as dictator
The Chairman, Jeff Headrick, was absent from the BCCP meeting because he was attending the Republican Party Executive Committee meeting, where he was chosen as the Republican Party’s nominee for Highway Superintendent.

Vice Chairman, Rick Carver, chaired the meeting.  He used the meeting to practice his skills as a dictator.  I requested that discussion and possible action of housing federal inmates be added to the agenda.  Rick Carver said the BCCP couldn’t do anything about it so he wasn’t going to allow it on the agenda.  I asked him if he had authority to stop me from putting anything on the agenda.  He said he didn’t know.  That was a cop-out.  He knows that he can’t stop a commissioner from putting an item on the agenda.  However, the public notice was issued with the agenda item that I requested.

If you would like to tell the BCCP members that the Chairman is not a dictator, here are the email addresses for the BCCP members.

“Jeff French” <jfrench@bcso.com>, “Jeff Headrick” <jheadrick@blounttn.org>, “John Adams” <jadams@bcso.com>, “Michael Gallegos” <mgallegos@blounttn.org>, “Mike Caylor” <bmcaylor@maryville-tn.gov>, “Randy Vineyard” <rvineyard@blounttn.org>, “Richard Carver” <rcarver@blounttn.org>, tharrington@blounttn.org, “Tona Monroe” <tmonroe@blounttn.org>

The bottom line
The only thing that can be done to bring accountability to this matter is YOU.  I am shining light on the matter but I need your help.  If you don’t want your wonderful community to become the next Brushy Mountain prison then you need to rise up and say no to turning the beautiful mountains into the Smoky Mountains mega jail.

Up next
Annual budget hearings are underway.  The next one is April 1, 8:30 AM-4:30 PM at the Blount County Public Library.

Where do you want to cut the budget?  Vote now.

BCCP meeting April 7, 5:30 in room 315 – to ram through a request for cost estimates on building

Is a tax increase coming?
People are asking that question.  Politicians in Blount County can’t keep wasting money the way they have been doing without eventually treating the people as nothing more than ATM machines to withdraw money anytime they want.  I don’t know if there will be a tax increase this year or not.  There have already been several tax increase and there will be more in the future if you don’t get involved.

Please get involved.  That is the only thing that can truly let freedom ring!

February 2016 Commission Report

2 special called commission meetings
The Mayor called two commission meetings this month.  Mayor Ed Mitchell has decided that his role is to cut ribbons and attend every breakfast and dinner that he can rather than running the courthouse.  He has entrusted too many things to his Finance Director, Randy Vineyard, who is not even a good finance person, let alone qualified to run the courthouse.  This has lead to poor management decisions, which have been costly to the taxpayers.

1st meeting to offer a new insurance plan
The first called meeting was to offer a new health care plan to county employees because the state deemed the current plan to be inferior to the state plan.  The state provides some funding for health insurance for teachers.  The local plan has to be as good or better than the state plan or the county can lose those funds.

The problem is that the state offers several plans while the local government offers only one plan.  The comparison wasn’t done to all state plans, which I was told would have likely showed that the single plan overall is just as good as the state plan and costs substantially less.  The broker shared that the state has miscalculated its costs and is actually going to have to significantly raise employee costs next year.

The new plan isn’t much different than the old plan.  You can see them both on page 2 here.  This situation was bureaucratic red tape and the people who went to Nashville seemed hopeful that the state won’t require unnecessary hoops to jump through next year.

I took the opportunity to ask the Finance Director, Randy Vineyard, to provide the commission with a monthly report on the financial status of the self insurance fund.  He wasn’t happy about that and told the commission we could look the numbers up in the general ledger if we wanted them.  The Finance Director didn’t realize why the fund was losing large sums of money until state auditors pointed it out to him.  A good quality financial person would be tracking this and providing regular updates on the fund to the board.

2nd meeting to hire an IT consultant
Commissioners Archie Archer and Gary Farmer were absent.

A meeting was called in December, after the commission canceled its scheduled meeting, to ram through the creation of a $1.3M Information Technology (IT) capital fund.  This month an IT consulting firm was rushed through in a called meeting.

Blount County has several IT needs.  It is why I sought to be added to the IT Committee.  However, after serving on the IT Committee for over a year, I am left wondering why we have an IT Committee.  The Mayor and his Finance Director have no respect for the authority of the IT Committee.  They have bypassed the IT Committee for all major IT decisions.

The Mayor’s Finance Director got the cart before the horse.  He pushed for Kronos before upgrading the county’s IT infrastructure.  A good analogy is that the Mayor and Finance Director went out and bought the most expensive wheels that they could find and put them on a car with engine problems.

The Kronos software project is likely the largest and most costly IT project in county history.  Read more about that project here.  It has been mismanaged and is behind schedule.  It is generally not a good idea to start more IT projects when your current project is behind, but that doesn’t seem to concern the mayor and finance director who are proceeding full steam ahead with your money.

When the Kronos project was first presented to the commission in 2014, then commissioner Jim Folts warned of the problems that would happen if Vineyard was allowed to proceed with the Kronos project as planned.  One of his biggest concerns was that a volunteer from the Sheriff’s Office, an attorney, would be in charge of the project.  The attorney quit the project, early into it.  Folts’ concerns have been realized.

Vineyard realized that attempting a major IT project without a dedicated manager/director was a big mistake but has failed to acknowledge that he was forewarned of the problem.  His solution for upcoming IT projects is to hire expensive consultants to manage the projects.  However, there are problems with this approach as well.

The county had a good IT Director who ran the county’s IT Department on a shoe string budget while using old technology.  John Herron had managed the IT Department for 30 years.  He left last year to work for Blount County Schools.

The county has been operating with an Interim IT Director since August.  I was stunned when the Interim Director told me that the mayor isn’t looking to hire an IT Director.  Instead the mayor (and finance director) sought to employ an IT consulting firm to manage the county’s IT projects.

Mindboard Inc. was presented to the commission.  The Purchasing Agent, Katie Branham, chose this company based on the scores of a team that she chose to evaluate prospective companies and because of their references.

The evaluation team consisted of select members of the IT Committee.  I am on the IT Committee and she never told me that she was going to choose member of the IT Committee.  She did not invite me to listen to the interviews either.  It would have taken her about 1 minute to send me an invitation by email.   She smugly told me that the meeting was advertised in the paper.  Apparently she thinks that county commissioners should have to subscribe to the newspaper to know what their government is doing.  One of the people she chose was Jimmy Cox from the Highway Department.  I asked her what his IT experience is.  She told me that she didn’t know.

In Mindboard’s response to the Request for Qualifications (RFQ), they give 5 references.  Only one of those lists a project budget over $60,000.  The capital fund (budget) is over 22 times this amount.  With a capital fund containing over $1.3 million, having only one project with a budget anywhere close to this is not very assuring.

This company, and some of its employees, are currently being sued.  The representative (Principal) for the company said the suit is frivolous.  I hope for the sake of the taxpayers that none of the allegations are true.

The company has applied for several H1B visas to employ foreign workers.  These are good paying jobs that could be going to workers who are not US citizens.  Blount County government should not be taxing citizens making minimum wage or living on social security checks to pay foreign workers far more than the taxpayers are making and living on.

The agreement (contract) looked like a boiler plate document that hadn’t been reviewed by an attorney because of obvious mistakes that should have been fixed.  However, the agreement was actually reviewed by two attorneys, who apparently don’t pay close attention to details.

The agreement lists Blount County government as a company rather than a county.  The principal office line in the first paragraph was blank in our packets.  These two items are what made me think it was a boiler plate document.  It turns out that it is.  The Purchasing Agent told me that the agreement was written by Mindboard with input from the county.  Apparently the county gave so little input that it didn’t even request to be called a county or have its address typed into the document.

There is no mention of software in the agreement.  Article 5 defines work product but does not mention software.

Perhaps the most alarming thing is the blank page in the contract.  Page 13 is blank.  Usually pages that are blank say they are intentionally left blank.  Frankly, the taxpayers should ask for their money back from attorney Craig Garrett who supposedly reviewed the agreement for form.

The resolution refers to him as the County Attorney but there is no official position of County Attorney.  That office/position has never been created.  Commissioner Karen Miller made a motion to correct the description of Craig Garrett but her motion failed.  Apparently the commission is OK with someone misrepresenting who they are.

The Purchasing Agent should not be given a pass for these errors either.  She is an attorney.  This agreement was reviewed by two people who are attorneys.  There is no excuse for such poor quality work.

The agreement does not give actual project expenses.  All it gives are hourly rates.  The Finance Director said that we don’t have the actual costs because we don’t know how much these projects will cost.  We’re suppose to turn these consultants lose at hourly rates exceeding $100 so that they can provide us with the costs.  The Purchasing Agent told us that Mindboard thinks it will take about 2 months for them to analyze the county’s IT needs.

In the private sector, if a financial person came to a board and said we don’t know what this will cost, give us some time with some expensive consultants and we’ll figure it out, he/she would be laughed out of the room and possibly offered a mental health evaluation on the way out.  I felt like I had entered the land of Oz with Vineyard as the man behind the curtain, listening to this nonsense.

The former IT Director had actually provided a list of capital needs in 2014 but it was not acted upon.   The county paid an IT consulting firm to examine the county’s IT needs last year.  The Mayor’s Finance Director described that study as the 10,000 foot view.  What was the point of that study, if we’re going to have to pay consultants big hourly rates to study the situation again?

The contract manager said he will be moving to Blount County for a couple of years.  He will be one of the $100+ an hour consultants.  If he works full time at 40 hours a week, that one position could cost over $450,000 over a 2 year period.  There are too many unknown variable with this agreement and capital fund.

Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted no.  These are the commissioners watching out for you the taxpayers.  It’s a short list but an important list.  Share these names with the people you know because these are the commissioners worth reelecting.

Commissioner Archie Archer voted no on the creation of the capital fund in December but he was absent for this vote.

The better approach – hire an IT Director
The better approach for the county would be to hire a top notch IT Director.  I suggested to the commission that an IT Director be hired on a salary and that he/she be given a bonus, along with the staff, for successful completion of IT projects that are on time and under budget.

Some of the IT projects will still need to be outsourced.  However, an IT Director who plans to stay with the county for several years would be motivated to see that things are done correctly.  Additionally, outside consultants may end up doing things that an IT Director may not find useful for the county.  It boggles the mind that Blount County has embarked upon over $4 million in IT projects without an IT Director to lead the way.

Commission Meeting
Commissioners Archie Archer and Gary Farmer were absent.

Nominations finally where they should be
At the January commission meeting, I spoke against the practice of putting important nominations under the consent calendar to rush the process through with little discussion.  The consent calendar is suppose to be for non-controversial items that require no discussion.  The commission has been doing a great disservice by putting these names on the consent calendar and offering no discussion.  This practice has allowed the commission to vote on the people being nominated, appointed or elected before public input is allowed.  You can see the order of the agenda here.

For several months I have been trying to get Agenda Committee Chairman Steve Samples and Commission Chairman Jerome Moon to place appointments and confirmations to important boards under the correct agenda item where they belong.  I am pleased to announce that the appointments were on the agenda in the correct place this month, under Elections, Appointments and Confirmations.  The public can now offer comments and concerns about elections, appointments and confirmations during the time for public input on the agenda.

Federal grants
I attended commission meetings for several years before being elected to office.  While I was aware that the county applied for and received many federal grants, I didn’t realize just how many grants the county received until I took office.

The first thing that I did was raise my right hand and take an oath to support the constitutions of Tennessee and the United States of America.  The subject matters of most of the grants are not found in the delegated powers given to the federal government in the constitution.  Congress does not have authority to spend money on most of these projects and programs.  Therefore, in order to remain true to my oath of office I have and will continue to vote no on these unconstitutional grants.

Furthermore, many grants have strings attached.  The commission is given little, if any, information about the conditions that come with these grants.  While many talk about the 10th amendment and the power of the states, that talk quickly goes out the window when federal money is involved.

Cost of feeding inmates is higher than the numbers the sheriff gives
One of the selling points for keeping federal prisoners is the low cost of feeding the inmates.  The Sheriff told the Blount County Corrections Partnership at its November meeting that it costs $2.50-3 a day to feed an inmate.

The adopted food budget for the jail is $430,000.  The Sheriff’s Office requested a $250,000 increase which would bring the food budget total to $680,000.

The average daily inmate total for 2015 was 528.  At $2.50 a day, with an extra day for the leap year the cost of feeding 528 inmates a day would be $483,120.  The cost at $3 a day is $579,744.

Both of these numbers are less than $680,000.  At 528 inmates per day, the cost would be about $3.52 a day.  Food costs are rising.  $3.52 is not an unreasonable price but it should no longer be said that the inmates are being fed for $2.50-3 a day.

Budget amendments form updated
Last month, there was some confusion about the actual impact that budget amendments had on the budget.  Each time a budget request is made throughout the year, after the annual budget is adopted, a form has to be filled out explaining the amendment.  The form had two boxes to check, one for transfers and one for increases and decreases.

A new form was presented providing four options: transfer, decrease, increase and adjustment.  The example that the Finance Director gave for an adjustment was actually an increase because it would spend more of you local tax money.  The description given, on the new form, for an adjustment says, “(correction to adopted budget due to “grant award” or “budgetary adjustment”).”  An increase, using local tax money, should not be recorded as an adjustment; therefore, I moved to strike the words budgetary adjustment and replace them with the word reimbursements.  An example of a reimbursement is the money that the county received from CSX for work done during the train derailment.  It is technically an increase to the budget, but it is not an increase in the use of tax dollars.  My amendment failed.

Commissioner Mike Akard said the changes still leave the water muddy.  I agree.  Allowing increases in spending of your local tax money should not be classified as adjustments.  The commission could have fixed this but didn’t when it rejected my amendment.  Commissioners Mike Akard, Brad Bowers, Karen Miller and I voted no.

Chairman Moon allows return to old, bad ways
In the past, it was common for commissioners to blurt out call the question, without being recognized, in order to shut debate down.  Commissioner Steve Samples did that this month.  Chairman Moon told him that he would recognize him if he would turn his light on.  Samples turned his light on and Chairman Moon recognized him, even though there was a commissioner who was had been waiting to speak.  This is a dangerous practice to return to, allowing a commissioner to blurt out call the question to end discussion and ignore those who have been patiently waiting their turns.

Up next:
A meeting has been called for the commission to appointment a replacement for Roy Crawford who recently passed away.  Roy was the only elected official in the courthouse who did a good job, would give you a straight answer and actually deserved to be reelected so many times, like he was.  Richard Hutchens gave him the first Statesmen Award.  He will be missed.

The commission will also be tasked with finding a replacement for Bill Dunlap who retired at the end of January.