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 has a conflict of interest. They make 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.