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Two wrongs don’t make a right: State RFP purchasing process shouldn’t be secret either

One of the points that some will make in defending the recent change to the open records law, exempting qualifications and proposals while they’re being evaluated by a secret screening committee, is that the state has been operating that way.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Here is a good example of a controversial issue that has been shrouded in secrecy.  The state should open it’s purchasing procedures to the public.  The fact that the state has been operating in secret is not a good reason to justify allowing local government purchasing procedures to operate in secret.

The Yager/Calfee exemption law should be repealed.  The law allowing secret state purchasing procedures should also be repealed.

Contact Senator Ken Yager sen.ken.yager@capitol.tn.gov and Representative Kent Calfee rep.kent.calfee@capitol.tn.gov to repeal the secret purchasing practices.

 

Comptroller’s Office says it doesn’t recognize assignments totaling $2 million in funds for jail

Regarding the jail we’ve learned of a secret $2 million plan, a contract signed without commission approval, inmates filling our jail that we don’t have to keep, a company being paid 3.5 times more than the lowest offer, a purchasing agent writing a resolution about the jail that failed to mention the word jail in the resolutionthe inspecting authority (TCI) having no authority to shut the jail down but pushing the county to build and its Corrections Partnership Coordinator bullying people attending public meetings.  Now we learn that the $2 million in assignments for the jail are not recognized by the Comptroller’s Office (see below).

Is there anything regarding the jail that can be trusted?  The public trust has been broken.  The public has good reason to be very skeptical and cautious of anything presented to it regarding the jail, regardless of what the courthouse clique calls it (i.e. Transitional Facility).

What we see now is that there are essentially two sets of books: the lawful set of books recognized by the state and a second set of books by the courthouse clique.  How many other slush funds are there in the courthouse clique’s 2nd set of books?

This all makes the case of why one more layer of secret bureaucracy through the Purchasing Department should not be tolerated.  The evaluation process of qualifications should not be done in secret and the Yager/Calfee exemption law should be repealed.

Contact Senator Ken Yager sen.ken.yager@capitol.tn.gov and Representative Kent Calfee rep.kent.calfee@capitol.tn.gov to repeal the secret purchasing practices.

 

Here is my correspondence with Jim Arnette, the Director of the Division of Local Government Audit in the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury.

—–Original Message—–
From: “Jim Arnette” <Jim.Arnette@cot.tn.gov>
Sent: Thursday, January 5, 2017 2:07pm
To: “tona@breezeair.net” <tona@breezeair.net>
Cc: “Justin Wilson” <Justin.Wilson@cot.tn.gov>, “Bryan Burklin” <Bryan.Burklin@cot.tn.gov>, “Mark Treece” <Mark.Treece@cot.tn.gov> Subject: RE: Who authorized assigning this $2 million?

Ms. Monroe,

We found no documentation that the county commission has adopted a resolution or policy clearly giving management the authority to assign fund balance for external reporting purposes. Therefore, we have not recognized these assignments in the financial statements in the annual financial report that we issue with our audit opinion. Although we do not recognize the authority for management to assign fund balance for external reporting purposes, this would not necessarily preclude management from recognizing assignments on their internal records as a management planning tool.

Jim Arnette, CGFM, CISA
Director
Comptroller of the Treasury
Division of Local Government Audit
1500 James K. Polk Building
Nashville, Tennessee  37243-1402
615.401.7841 

From: tona@breezeair.net [mailto:tona@breezeair.net]
Sent: Thursday, December 29, 2016 12:57 PM
To: Jim Arnette <Jim.Arnette@cot.tn.gov>
Cc: Justin Wilson <Justin.Wilson@cot.tn.gov>
Subject: Who authorized assigning this $2 million?

Dear Director Arnette,

Last year, I learned about a secret plan by Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell and Sheriff James Lee Berrong to set aside $2 million, $1 million last year and another $1 million this year, through contact with and in records of the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI).  The September 2, 2015 meeting minutes of the TCI Board of Control are attached for your review.  The part relevant to Blount County is found on page 7.  

“Since that time, the mayor is on board 100 percent and called the sheriff the previous day and told the sheriff that one million dollars had been escrowed and earmarked for a new jail and plan to do the same thing next year.”   

When I inquired about whether $1 million had been set aside by the Mayor without telling the public or the Blount County Commission, Blount County Finance Director Randy Vineyard informed me that yes $1 million had been assigned.  He provided me a paper copy of the March 2009 Governmental Accounting Standards Board Document referencing Statement 54.  That document is found here:  http://www.gasb.org/cs/BlobServer?blobkey=id&blobwhere=1175820452832&blobheader=application/pdf&blobcol=urldata&blobtable=MungoBlobs  

Under the classification Assigned is says,  

“Assigned fund balance comprises amounts intended to be used by the government for specific purposes. Intent can be expressed by the governing body or by an official or body to which the governing body delegates the authority. In governmental funds other than the general fund, assigned fund balance represents the amount that is not restricted or committed. This indicates that resources in other governmental funds are, at a minimum, intended to be used for the purpose of that fund.”

The words “or by an official or body” are underlined because they were underlined on the copy provided to me. 

Paragraph 13 of Statement 54 says much the same thing.

“Assigned Fund Balance

  1. Amounts that are constrained by the government‘s intent to be used for specific purposes, but are neither restricted nor committed, should be reported as assigned fund balance, except for stabilization arrangements, as discussed in paragraph 21. Intent should be expressed by (a) the governing body itself or (b) a body (a budget or finance committee, for example) or official to which the governing body has delegated the authority to assign amounts to be used for specific purposes.

What I want to know and hope that your office will tell me is when did the governing body delegate the authority to assign these funds to the Mayor and/or Finance Director?  Please let me know if there is a state statute that allows for this.  If there is no state law, when did the Blount County Commission delegate this authority to the Mayor and/or Finance Director.

 

I await your response and wish you a happy new year.

 

Sincerely,
Tona Monroe

Blount County Commissioner

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

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

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

David Tulis interviewed Blount County Commissioner Tona Monroe

 

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

Stop loss policy claim limit

In the montly December Commission Report, I reported on the premiums and the claims of the stop loss policy for the county’s health care plan.  FYI here is the claim limit amount where the stop loss policy kicks in.

From broker Cole Harris:

“It used to be $250,000 until July of 2015 when it was raised to $300,000. I requested for rates higher than $300,000, but the largest the carrier would go was $350,000 due to your size. The rates for $350,000 did not justify the increase in liability.”

December 2016 Commission Report

Commission meeting
Commissioners Shawn Carter, Tom Cole, Mike Lewis and Karen Miller were absent.

$5 million of debt service fund used to pay debt
After the commission voted to authorize an additional $5 million in debt, the Mayor and Finance Director went ahead and used $5 million from the debt service fund rather than borrowing it.  I (Tona Monroe) am glad that they did and don’t understand why the additional $5 million was authorized by a majority of the commissioners.

Stop Loss Policy
The county self insures its health care plan, excluding additional insurance products like dental and vision insurance.  However, it has maintained a stop loss policy through a private vendor for large medical claims.

The commission was provided with the cost of the policy for the current year and for the new year but wasn’t given any information about the amount of claims paid out under this policy.  I asked to be given the cost of the policy and the claims paid with the stop loss policy.

The numbers showed that the county has spent about $900,000* more in premiums than the stop policy has paid out in claims since July 1, 2013.  I was the only commission present who voted no.

Underwriting Year Premium Claims
07/01/2013 554,961 601,535
07/01/2014-01/01/16 883,339 331,093
01/01/2016 446,922 46,982*

*These amount could change before the end of the year.  These figures were provided on December 12, 2016.

Industrial Development Board
There has been some much needed discussion about crony capitalism or corporate welfare surrounding the Carrier deal that President Elect Donald Trump negotiated.  At the state level, the Beacon Center has been calling for an end to corporate welfare.  I and others, here locally, have been calling for an end to these special deals.

The Industrial Development Board (IDB), often with the help of the state of Tennessee, fosters crony deals for a few connected and chosen businesses.  The public is usually in the dark during the negotiations.  When the deals are made public, cheerleaders consisting of the local press try to convince us that the gods of government and the Blount Partnership have done something great by giving the farm away.

Neither tax deals nor land incentives for a few select businesses is equal protection under the law.  All businesses should operate under tax laws that apply equally to all businesses.  There should be no corporate handouts.  Businesses should succeed or fail on their own merits or lack thereof.

The best thing the government can do to promote a business friendly environment is ensure that taxes are uniform and that regulations have a legitimate, useful purpose.  Unfortunately the situation isn’t likely to change with the Blount County state legislators.   The poster child for corporate welfare is State Senator Doug Overbey, who sponsored the TN Investco program which has been a big flop.

The commission was given 3 nominees from the IDB to serve on the IDB.  Yes, the IDB sends us the list of who it wants to serve on the IDB and in the order of preference (see page 40).  The state of Tennessee has set many of these boards up so that they can do their own nominating.

Greg Wilson, President of First Tennessee Bank was the first choice of the IDB Chairman Fred Lawson and Blount Partnership President Bryan Daniels and the nominee that the commission chose.  I called Mr. Wilson and spoke to him.  He was largely ignorant of special deals being dolled out through the IDB.  He told me that he only know what he had read in the papers about the Advanced Munitions Inc. deal.  I asked how he would determine which businesses should be given special development deals.  He said it depended on the return on the investment.  That sounds like code for, only the big boys will get the special deals.  Of course many of the local establishment will benefit as well.

Bankers and construction people are often the members of this Board.  It’s good for business to know who is coming into you county and where the special deals are handed out.  These business people may have conflicts of interest.  The whole set up of the IDB makes little sense, unless you are benefiting from it.

It would make much more sense for local elected officials to have an advisory committee to offer suggestions in creating a business friendly environment.  Tax policies should be set by the state and by the county commission and applied equally to all businesses.  It would be far better to reduce the tax burden on all businesses than for the government to keep picking winners and losers.  It is high time to reform this process.

Commissioner Jamie Daly and I, who were blocked by Bryan Daniels Blount Partnership/Chamber of Commerce/IDB/Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority, were the only two to vote no on confirmation of Mr. Wilson.  My mother received much better treatment from her local chamber, which recently awarded her citizen of the year.

Ho Ho Ho and No No No: Learning to use the NO button 
At the end of the meeting, I gave the commissioners a Christmas gift that they can use to practice protecting you the taxpayers.

Up next: Two big issues may be discussed in January.  You absolutely need to pay close attention to your local government and become involved as these could both be very costly issues.

The Blount County School Board passed a budget amendment request that will be presented to the Budget Committee to provide more funding for an architect to look at expanding the high schools.

Important decisions surrounding the jail are or will soon be discussed in secret through the Purchasing Department.  The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law earlier this year allowing local governments to operate in secret during the evaluation process for professional services.  This new law is an affront to the citizens who deserve to know how the evaluators are vetted and how and why the make their decisions.  All of this will remain a secret until the Purchasing Agent starts the negotiation process with the chosen company.  Good luck at learning how the now secret evaluators reached their decisions after the fact.

The process was already flawed by allowing the appointments to be political rather than being based on the knowledge and expertise of the subject matter.  Now you aren’t even allowed to know who they are until after the fact, thanks to the state legislature.  If these secret evaluators are really knowledgeable on what Blount County needs, then they should have been discussing their ideas and suggestions with the Blount County Corrections Partnership.  Blount County government put the cart before the horse.

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Resolutions for Donald Trump and Congress

By Ron Paul

In the spirit of New Year’s, here are four resolutions for president-elect Trump and Congress that will enable them to really make America great again:

1) Audit the Fed….and then end it: The Federal Reserve Bank’s easy money polices have eroded the American people’s standard of living and facilitated the growth of the welfare-warfare state. The Fed is also responsible for the growth in income inequality. Yet Congress still refuses to pass Audit the Fed, much less end it.

During the campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump promised that Audit the Fed would be part of his first 100 days agenda. Unfortunately, he has not spoken of auditing the Fed or another aspect of monetary policy since the election. President-elect Trump should keep his promise and work with Congress to pass Audit the Fed and finally let the American people know the truth about the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy. Then, of course, end the Fed.

2) Bring the troops home: President Barack Obama has not only failed to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, he has further destabilized the Middle East with reckless interventions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. The Obama administration has also brought us to the brink of a new Cold War.

President-elect Trump has criticized the 2003 Iraq war and promised to end nation-building. However, he has also made hawkish statements such as his recent endorsement of increased US military intervention in Syria and has appointed several hawks to key foreign policy positions. President-elect Trump also supported increasing the Pentagon’s already bloated budget.

America cannot afford to continue wasting trillions of dollars in a futile effort to act as the world’s policeman. Rejecting the neocon polices of nation-building and spreading democracy by force of arms is a good start. However, if Donald Trump is serious about charting a new course in foreign policy, his first act as president should be to withdraw US troops from around the globe. He should also veto any budget that does not drastically cut spending on militarism.

3) Repeal ObamaCare: ObamaCare has raised healthcare costs for millions of Americans while denying them access to the providers of their choice. Public dissatisfaction with ObamaCare played a major role in Donald Trump’s election.

Unfortunately, since the election president-elect Trump and the Republican Congress have talked about retaining key parts of Obamacare! While it is reasonable to have a transition to a new healthcare system, Congress must avoid the temptation to replace ObamaCare with “ObamaCare lite.” Congress must pass, and President Trump must sign, a true free-market health care plan that restores control over healthcare to individuals.

4) Cut Taxes and Spending: President-elect Trump and Congressional leadership both favor tax reform. However, some leading Republicans have recently said they will not support any tax reform plan that is not “revenue neutral.” A true pro-liberty tax reform would reduce government revenue by eliminating the income tax. Fiscal hawks concerned with increasing federal deficits should stop trying to increase tax revenues and join with supporters of limited government to drastically cut federal spending. Congress should prioritize ending corporate welfare, reducing military spending, and shutting down unconstitutional federal agencies like the Department of Education.

If President Trump and Congress spend the next six months passing Audit the Fed, ending our militaristic foreign policy, repealing ObamaCare and replacing it with a true free-market health care system, and cutting both spending and taxes, they will begin to make America great again. If they fail to take these steps, then the American people will know they have been fooled again.

Source: http://ronpaulinstitute.org/archives/featured-articles/2016/december/26/new-year-s-resolutions-for-donald-trump-and-congress/

Blount County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have open records policy

On two occasions*, I have requested help from the Office of Open Records Counsel with obtaining public records from the Blount County Sherriff’s Office.  Both times have been met with letters from the Mayor’s attorney Craig Garrett.  Mr. Garrett has attempted to school me on what constitutes a valid open records request.  Thus to try to avoid delays on future requests and the need to consult a state office, I asked for a copy of the open records policy for the Blount County Sheriff’s Office.  It turns out that the office doesn’t have a local open records policy.

*The follow up request to the Office of Open Records Counsel to obtain the open records policy could constitute a third occasion if counted separately from the original request for records related to housing federal inmates in the local jail.

For more information on previous requests see:
How the Sheriff’s Office wastes your money: Open Records request gets the interrogation room
A response to a nonresponse: Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have form used to determine inmate costs

—–Original Message—–
From: “Jeff French” <jfrench@bcso.com>
Sent: Thursday, December 1, 2016 9:03am
To: “tona@breezeair.net” <tona@breezeair.net>
Cc: open.records@cot.tn.gov, “Jill Reed” <jreed@cgarrettlaw.com>
Subject: FW: Blount County Sheriff’s Office – Open Records Request of Tona Monroe

Mrs. Monroe,

This is message I sent to you on November 16, 2016.  I apologize if you did not receive.

Thank you,

Jeff

From: Jeff French <jfrench@bcso.com>
Date: Wednesday, November 16, 2016 8:29 AM
To: Jeff French <jfrench@bcso.com>
Cc: Jill Reed <jreed@cgarrettlaw.com>
Subject: Re: Blount County Sheriff’s Office – Open Records Request of Tona Monroe

Mrs. Monroe,

The Blount County Sheriff’s Office does not have any such policy pertaining specifically to open records requests.

Thank you,

Jeff French

From: Jeff French <jfrench@bcso.com>
Date: Wednesday, November 16, 2016 9:54 AM
To: Jeff French <jfrench@bcso.com>
Subject: Fwd: Blount County Sheriff’s Office – Open Records Request of Tona Monroe

Jeff French

Begin forwarded message:

From: tona@breezeair.net
Date: November 15, 2016 at 3:13:33 PM EST
To: “Jeff French” <jfrench@bcso.com>
Cc: “open.records@cot.tn.gov” <open.records@cot.tn.gov>, “Jill Reed” <jreed@cgarrettlaw.com>
Subject: RE: Blount County Sheriff’s Office – Open Records Request of Tona Monroe

Dear Chief Deputy,

It is amazing what great lengths some will go to in a response to explain why they haven’t responded.  If just a fraction of effort was put into to responding in the first place, there wouldn’t be a need to contact an attorney, at taxpayer expense, to explain your lack of response.

Pursuant to the Open Records Act of Tennessee, I request a copy of the open records policy of Blount County Sheriff’s Office.  An electronic copy is preferred if available.

If you want me come to the Justice Center and give a copy of my drivers license I can but you should have a copy of my drivers license on file from the request when Chief Deputy Jimmy Long made a copy of it while I was placed in the interrogation room during a request some years back.

Sincerely,

Tona Monroe

—–Original Message—–
From: “Jill Reed” <jreed@cgarrettlaw.com>
Sent: Tuesday, November 15, 2016 2:22pm
To: “open.records@cot.tn.gov” <open.records@cot.tn.gov>
Cc: “Jeff French” <jfrench@bcso.com>, “tona@breezeair.net” <tona@breezeair.net>
Subject: Blount County Sheriff’s Office – Open Records Request of Tona Monroe

Please see attached from Attorney Craig Garrett.

Thank-you,

Jill A. Reed-Chaney

Legal Assistant

Law Office of Craig L. Garrett, Attorney at Law, PLLC

607 Smithview Drive

Maryville, Tennessee  37803

(865) 984-8200

(865) 981-2833 fax

Ho Ho Ho and No No No: Learning to use the NO button

Each year Gary Farmer reads a resolution welcoming Santa Claus and his 8 reindeer through Blount County.  The tradition was started by the late Richard Williams, a former Blount County Commissioner.  You can hear Commissioner Farmer read the resolution in the video below.

In January the commission will start using a new voting system.  We had a practice session on the new system last week.  Thus in the spirit of Ho Ho Ho, I decided to make it easy for the commissioners to practice some No No No.  For Christmas, I gave each of the commissioners their very own NO! button to take home so that they can practice voting NO in the coming new year.  You can listen to my presentation after Farmer finishes declaring that Blount County welcomes a visitor from the North Pole.

Sarah Palin questions Carrier deal and says Republicans oppose crony capitalism

http://www.youngcons.com/sarah-palin-but-wait-the-good-guys-wont-win-with-more-crony-capitalism/

I’ve been pointing out that here locally the Blount Partnership and Industrial Development Board of Blount County, Tennessee promote corporate welfare through crony deals as well.

Two of the commissioners that simply asked a few questions were blocked by Bryan Daniels and the Blount Partnership.  Blount Partnership admits its blocking two county commissioners

For all this central planning Blount County pay is still not keeping up with the rate of inflation.

AMI and other special incentives deals
No contract yet: Transparent Tennessee strikes again
Local Incentives Agreements
Chamber has article against EPA Water Rule
Does this look like someone who should be blocked?
All hail King Daniels!
How do the Mayor and Bryan Daniels explain these economic indicators?

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