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January 2015 Commission Report

Throughout the month, I (Tona Monroe) publish stories on local government matters prior to publication of my monthly commission report.  Some of those articles will be linked to in the monthly reports.  Please be sure to click on those links to read in greater detail matters that I only touch briefly on in these reports.  Thanks for reading!

Agenda Committee
The commission voted down my resolution to hear from the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) consultant hired to do a criminal justice system assessment.  Please read more about that here.

Commission meeting
Commissioner Ron French was absent.

Human Resources (HR) Committee resolution pulled by sponsor
Commissioner Grady Caskey pulled his resolution to expand the membership of the HR Committee without explanation.  Commissioner Archie Archer has expressed concern at the Agenda Committee meeting that the resolution may swing the HR Committee in favor of the schools.

Budget Committee members reappointed
The commission approved the Mayor’s nominees to the Budget Committee.  There are no changes because the same 4 people were reappointed.  These members did not deserve to be reappointed for a variety of reasons.

Last year, this same Budget Committee recommended one the largest property tax increases in history, possibly the largest. This came after the county received a 22% increase in the local option sales tax. To add insult to injury the Budget Committee sent to the commission a resolution to implement a wheel tax, a measure rejected twice by our citizenry. Only one member of the Budget Committee voted against those increases but he has voted for increased spending throughout the year making it hard to reconcile his no vote on tax increases.  Jerome Moon couldn’t even bring himself to vote for the wheel tax, after voting to send the recommendation to the Commission the day before.

You can read my statement on the matter here.  I wasn’t able to finish reading my statement because Robert’s Rules of Order prohibits a member from reading without permission from the body.  This rule is rarely enforced but  members were not happy with me shedding light on the poor decisions of the Budget Committee.  Thus, I continued referring to my notes, without directly reading my statement, and drove home the tax and spend ways of the Budget Committee.

Schools budget requests
There were four budget amendments for the Schools.  Commissioner Steve Samples made a motion to approve all 4 budget amendments in one vote.  I moved to divide the question so that the commission could vote on each amendment separately.  My motion failed and the commission voted on all four requests at once.

One of the requests was to fix the damages resulting from vandalism at Porter Elementary School.  There was no opposition to fixing Porter.  However, ponder the money management of the schools for a moment.  If you were given an $85 million+ budget, would you have to come back midyear for a request for an additional appropriation?  Most citizens would be able to find this money in an enormous budget without asking for more money, but not the government.

The reason that I voted no on all four (because we were forced to vote on them together and not individually) is because of a midyear budget increase request for $475,000.  The Schools received an increase of over $3.5 million in local taxes in their budget this year.  To come back for a nearly half million spending increase is insulting to the taxpayers.  This commission, over all, is very weak.  There is no fiscal discipline as evidenced by the huge property tax increase that followed a huge sales tax increase and repeated approval of increased spending requests.  Only Commissioners Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Karen Miller and I voted no on this huge spending increase.

I wouldn’t run a business this way; therefore, I am not going to spend your money this way.  The Schools, like every other Department/Office, have a budget.  They should live by it.  The commission was willing to give a small increase to cover the Porter vandalism but approving nearly another half million increase, added to a budget that already has a huge increase, is allowing spending to spiral out of control.

The taxpaying citizens of Blount County have already had their budgets cut with repeated tax increases.  The commission should respect the sacrifices that the citizens have made by making Offices/Departments hold the line on their already increased budgets.

The way the paper reported the comments regarding this matter made it look like this wasn’t a budget increase.  When a budget amendment request is submitted, there are two boxes at the top of the paperwork designating the type of amendment being requested: transfer and increase/decrease.  The increase/decrease box is checked.  See page 49.  Mark Twain said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”

What did the School Board spend the big budget increase on?
The $3.5 million increase is not an exact number.  Fund 141, General Purpose Schools, increased $3,688,469.  Local tax dollars through sales tax and property tax increased more than $3.5 million while federal money, Fund 142, is budgeted to drop over a million dollars this year.  The four funds related to schools show the schools starting the fiscal year with an increase of $2,509,579.

The adopted FY 2016 budget (July 1, 2015 – June 30, 2016) shows that the amended FY 15 Schools budget Fund 141 had $81,911,531 in revenue while FY 16 is projected to have $85,600,000 in revenue.  See page 148.  However, sales tax is coming in higher than projected.  What the exact FY 16 revenue will be remains to be seen.

At the time the FY 16 budget was adopted, the Schools were projected to receive a $2,625,000 increase from the local option sales tax.  The Schools were projected to receive a $510,000 increase from property tax plus an additional $1,270,000 from property tax from the newly created capital projects fund for a total property tax increase of $1,780,000.  These are local taxes and don’t reflect state or federal tax dollars.  Additionally, tax revenue projections aren’t actual expenditures.  The School Board could spend less than approved and they can request to use additional fund balance, thereby increasing the Schools budget.

$1,270,000 million of the property tax money is earmarked specifically for capital updates.  It can’t be used for anything else.  This capital fund was created this year, in response to a lawsuit filed in McMinn County based on a state law that allows for capital expenditure dollars to not have to be split with city school systems.  For many years the School Board has neglected the infrastructure of the schools, instead focusing more on keeping people on the payroll.  The capital fund is a good way to ensure that some money is actually spent fixing the schools.

I have requested a list of new hires for the current fiscal year and had hoped to have this information in time for this report.  However, it is now February and I don’t want to delay this report any further.  Hopefully I will have more information to share with you soon.

School Funds 15 Amended 16 Adopted
141 81,911,531 85,600,000
142 6,827,552 5,577,662
143 5,793,000 5,862,000
146 1,628,000 1,630,000
TOTAL 96,160,083 98,669,662

141 General Purpose School
142 School Federal Projects
143 Central Cafeteria
146 Extended School Program
Figures are from the FY 2016 adopted budget available on the county’s website under accounting.

Audit Committee
The first meeting of the Audit Committee was rushed through in a way where few would notice.  Each month the Commission Secretary issues a monthly calendar with all the scheduled meetings.  After the calendar was published, Jerome Moon called a meeting.  A notice was published in the paper but if you don’t get the paper or you don’t read it with an eagle eye you can easily miss the public notices.

There are times when meetings need to be called without having a lot of advanced notice.  However, one would think that the first meeting of the Audit Committee, which is suppose to be all about transparency and accountability in government, would be planned well in advance for citizens to attend.  That was not the case.  After several months of not meeting, it was rushed through when few were paying attention right after the holidays.

Thankfully not much happened.  The Audit Committee elected its officers.  The annual audit was not released in time, so there was no discussion and the meeting adjourned.

Don’t expect much good from the 2 commissioners on the Audit Committee.  One is a local government employee who spends your money faster than a drunken sailor.  The other works for a company that gets government contracts.  Neither should be on the Audit Committee because they could have conflicts of interest.  These two rarely ask questions related to spending your money.

The makeup of an Audit Committee has to be approved by the Comptroller’s Office.  County employees are prohibited from serving but not government employees working for other governments having relationships with Blount County.  People who have business dealings with the county are allowed to serve on the Audit Committee.  Why the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury would approve an Audit Committee allowing government employees or business people with government contracts is beyond me.

Past experiences have left me with little confidence in the Comptroller’s Office.  Other elected officials and citizen watchdogs have expressed to me that they also have little or no confidence that the Comptroller’s Office is looking out for the taxpayers.  Hopefully the citizens on the Audit Committee will step up to the plate to ensure that the taxpaying citizens are protected against waste, fraud and abuse.

Recycling Committee
The time of authorization for the ad hoc Recycling Committee expired last year.  The Committee voted to ask to commission to allow the Committee to continue meeting quarterly to monitor the recycling opportunities.  A resolution was drawn up but it was not presented to the commission.  Chairman Grady Caskey wrote a report on the Committee’s findings.  The report was never reviewed or forwarded from the Recycling Committee members.  A member had volunteered to write the report but I don’t know if he contributed to the report or not.  If not, then Chairman Caskey likely acted unilaterally.

Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP)
The BCCP heard from County Technical Advisory Services (CTAS) Jail Management Consultant Jim Hart.  Hart had previously conducted a jail study.  He was asked to do a staffing analysis for the Sheriff’s Office and he issued a report that brought us up to date on available data and reviewed the his prior study and the ILPP study.

Several recommendations have been made by CTAS and ILPP.  I hope that the BCCP will take these recommendations seriously.  More jail and criminal justice system information is available here.

Information Technology (IT) Committee
The IT Committee met briefly to hear from the Purchasing Agent on the status of hiring an IT firm to oversee the IT needs of the county, using the funds set aside in a rush last month during the special called meeting.  There is more to report on the matter and I intend to write on the matter in the future.

Highway Superintended Bill Dunlap retires
Bill Dunlap retired at the end January.  A wrongful termination lawsuit has been filed by a former Highway Department employee.  The Commission has 120 days to appoint a replacement.

Up next
The commission will vote to choose a replacement for the Highway Superintendent.  The commission will also have to look at refinancing nearly $80 million in variable rate debt, which has 4 swaps attached.  These matters may not be addressed in February but will need to be addressed in the next couple of months.

Lack of Transparency Poll
In order to shed light on Blount County government secrets, I’ve posted an online poll giving you to the opportunity to choose which issue was the most top secret action in local government.  Based on feedback, several people aren’t voting because they find all the options to be bad and can’t choose.  However, I’d still appreciate your participation in the poll.  Next year, an “All of the above option” may be included.

Lack of Transparency Poll: Choose your top secret of 2015

Transparency Poll: Which is the most secretive action related to Blount County government in 2015?

10 commissioners vote down entire meeting agenda without explanation
Blount Partnership blocks commissioners Jamie Daly and Tona Monroe
Commission approves Department of “Denny Garner” $32,988 budget increase request with explanation line left blank
Commission votes on Evergreen study 7 months before final report is released
Mayor Ed Mitchell’s secret handling of ambulance contract
Mayor and Finance Director secretly earmark $1 million for jail; Sheriff tells TCI Board of Control about plan for another million
Mayor Ed Mitchell threatens to sue jail consultant and commission refuses to hear results of $94,580 study

Poll Maker

Learn more about these Blount County government secrets:
Did commissioner Shawn Carter let the plan slip ahead of time?
Blount Partnership admits its blocking two county commissioners
County paperwork lists “Denny Garner” as County Department
Evergreen Employee Classification and Compensation Study Final Report made public 7 months after vote
Mayor, finance chief set aside $1 million, much to commissioner’s dismay
Ambulance Contract: May 2015 Commission Report
Commission rejects hearing from jail consultant: Mayor praised consultant’s ideas

If you feel that something was more secretive than those listed here, you can leave your choice in the comments section.

Commission rejects hearing from jail consultant: Mayor praised consultant’s ideas

The Blount County Commission rejected hearing from Alan Kalmanoff of the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP), the consultant paid to do a criminal justice system assessment.  There hasn’t been a word about it in the local newspapers or TV stations.

The final report, commonly referred to as the jail study, was issued on May 31, 2014.  The report was suppose to be sent to the commission and made available to the public pending some requested changes to a couple of data errors.  The motion was made at the July 29, 2014 Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) meeting.  The race statistics were reversed.  The white numbers were actually the black numbers and vice versa (page 8).  There was also a request for clarification about a citation in lieu of arrest policy.  You can watch that meeting here.

There was some discussion by then Chairman Tab Burkhalter about whether the BCCP should hear from the consultant or whether it should be the commission.  Burkhalter felt it best for the full commission to hear the presentation.  The next BCCP meeting took place after the new commission took office.

The new members of the BCCP were told at the October 28, 2014 meeting that the consultant felt that the final report was the final report and that any errors could be noted during the presentation on the findings and conclusions of the study.  As a result, the report had not been fowarded to the commission or made publically available online.

My first motion, after election of officers, as a new member of the BCCP was to send the report to the full commission, thereby making the report readily available to the public because it would be in the commission packet.  I didn’t move to have a hearing from the consultant at that meeting but did so at the next meeting on January 27, 2015.  The motion passed 5-0 with 1 absent.

When the matter was presented to the commission, Jerome Moon complicated the situation.  He wanted the BCCP to hold the teleconference hearing, ignoring the request of the BCCP that the commission hold the teleconference.  I reluctantly agreed to postpone the request and said that the matter could be pulled from the future Commission agenda if the BCCP held the teleconference.

That teleconference never happened.  The BCCP meeting where the teleconference was scheduled, was canceled by BCCP Chairman Jeff Headrick.  Headrick did not reschedule the meeting, that he canceled, to hear from the consultant.  His wife is a relative of the Sheriff.

When the matter was back before the commission, the Mayor emerged on the scene with a letter encouraging us to not talk about the matter because the county might sue the jail consultant.  See page 34 for the letter.  The commission fail for this obstructionist tactic, rejecting hearing from the consultant 8-12 with Jerome Moon abstaining.

The Mayor’s position seemed to be at odds with a prior statement on the consultant’s ideas.  Mayor Ed Mitchell was quoted in the Knoxville News Sentinel on page 4A of the May 1, 2014 newspaper as saying, “I think he (Alan Kalmanoff) has good ideas and I liked what he was saying.”  The reporter who wrote that story and later wrote about failure to discuss the report was given a county job, in a field that he had no experience in.

There was/is no lawsuit.  In November, I filed a resolution to proceed with hearing from the jail consultant because there was no lawsuit and it makes common sense to hear from the consultant that you paid to do a study.  See page 68 for the resolution.  The commission (Agenda Committee) voted to postpone the matter until January.

This month the commission, rejected hearing from the jail consultant 9-10 with 2 absent.  Commissioner Andy Allen asked Chairman Headrick what the BCCP’s recommendation was on hearing from the jail consultant. BCCP Chairman told the commission that the recommendation was to wait until we heard from the author of a new jail report.  The BCCP made no such recommendation.  In fact, the only recommendation that the BCCP had made was for the commission to hear from the jail consultant.  Apparently it’s acceptable, to some, to completely misstate the actions of a committee to justify your position.  I am left wondering why anyone would trust what some of these commissioners say and do.

Commissioners voting yes: Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Tom Cole, Dodd Crowe, Jamie Daly, Ron French, Karen Miller, Tona Monroe and Steve Samples
Commissioners voting no: Andy Allen, Rick Carver, Grady Caskey, Mike Caylor, Gary Farmer, Jeff Headrick, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton, Jerome Moon and Tom Stinnett.
Commissioners Brad Bowers and Shawn Carter were absent.

With no lawsuit filed commissioners Crowe, French and Samples decided to proceed with the hearing after previously voting no.  Tom Stinnett flip-flopped voting no after previously voting yes and Mr. Abstain Jerome Moon voted no.  The rest voted the same or were absent.

What I have learned from this
Throughout this whole unproductive process I repeatedly tried working with commissioners, reluctantly agreeing to unnecessary delays.  Giving people the benefit of the doubt did not prove fruitful.  The reasons for the delays and obstructionist tactics were nothing more than excuses to avoid public discussion on the study.

What the public needs to know
The taxpayers paid $94,580 for a study on their Blount County criminal justice system.  You were denied a fair public hearing and opportunity for your elected officials to publically question the jail consultant that you paid because some of the powers that be didn’t like what the report said.  That did not stop General Sessions Judge Mike Gallegos from using his position on the BCCP to try to discredit the ILPP study.

Where will the jail crowding issue go from here?
This is an important public safety question that effects your wallet and one that you should be paying close attention to.  My diligence on hearing from the jail consultant should not be taken as an endorsement of every word contained in the ILPP report.  I don’t agree 100% with the report.  However, it does provide a good framework for us to use in reforming our criminal justice system and reducing our jail population.

The BCCP just heard form County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) Jail Management Consultant, Jim Hart.  He had previously conducted a study on the Blount County Adult Detention Facility (jail) and had written a report.  He was asked to do a staffing analysis.  He followed that with a report on his report and the ILPP report.

Hart’s report provided an update on jail numbers since the ILPP report.  This is good information to have.  However, it would have made sense to hear from the ILPP consultant before hearing from Hart.  It’s as if some thought the ILPP report was written in Chinese and that they needed an interpreter, to explain the report to them by doing a report on the report.

Hart encouraged the BCCP to follow some of the ILPP report recommendations.  Hopefully the BCCP will get to work discussing and recommending adoption of some the recommendations from the Hart and ILPP studies.

Some possible good news
The State of Tennessee is planning to open a new male prison that will have around 2,500 beds.  This is good news because Blount County typically holds over 100 state sentenced inmates.  I’ve been told that Blount County is near the top of the list for relief due to overcrowding in our local jail.  The state hasn’t given me anything saying that but hopefully we will see a reduction soon in the state sentenced male inmates. The state is also currently renovating a facility to house state sentenced female inmates.  The state is culpable in some of the overcrowding issues throughout the state; therefore, the state should be working with local jails to reduce their inmate populations.

For more information on the history of the BCCP, see my November 2015 Blount County Commission Report.

Tax and spend Budget Committee members reappointed

Discussion January 21, 2016 Blount County Commission meeting

Item D1a Budget Committee

Thank you Mr. Chairman. It’s a new year but we are starting with the same old tax and spend ways. All of the same people have been recommended for reappointment to the Budget Committee. Let’s look at the results of those Budget Committee members.

Last year the Budget Committee conducted a series of budget workshops. There were many requested increases yet there were few if any questions answered on those increases. I attended several of those meetings. There were times that you could hear a pin drop, despite massive increases. The Budget Committee waited until the last minute to make any changes to the budget and removed few of the increases.

The Budget Committee recommended one the largest property tax increases in history, possibly the largest. This came after the county received a 22% increase in the local option sales tax. To add insult to injury the Budget Committee sent to us a resolution to implement a wheel tax, a measure rejected twice by our citizenry. Only one member of the Budget Committee voted against those increases but when you vote for increased spending throughout the year it is hard to reconcile your no vote on tax increases. One member couldn’t even bring himself to vote for the wheel tax, after voting to send the recommendation to the Commission the day before. The member abstained. Do we need such uncertainty and weakness on the Budget Committee?

Did any member of the Budget Committee ever ask why the 15 Sheriff’s vehicles that were listed as being scrapped in the September 1, 2015 Budget Committee packet were taken to a recycling company that had been given a cease and desist court order two months before the check was written? Did any members ever ask why the pay to line of the check written by the company given the cease and desist order was left blank?

Grants are often presented to the Budget Committee after the deadline is passed. Did any member of the Budget Committee ever ask why a grant with a deadline of January was not presented to the Budget Committee until June? Do the members of the Budget Committee even read the dates on the paperwork before they vote?

Has any member of the Budget Committee asked why there have been so many errors made by the Finance Director and his staff? The Budget Committee should be questioning the volume of mistakes and the quality of our Finance Director who has been routinely presenting us with budget amendments to fix these errors.

The FY 16 budget was built around the recommendations of the then unfinished Evergreen Employee Classification and Compensation Study. Did any member of the Budget Committee ask to see a copy of the unfinished study during the budget hearings?

Why did no member of the Budget Committee ask any questions about an October budget increase request listing a false department name and that left the explanation for the expenditure blank? Did any member of the Budget Committee actually read the paperwork for the increase request before lumping it together with the rest of the Agenda items to rush the items through in one vote rather than taking the time to examine each request separately? Why did one of those members become agitated with me for trying to find out what those funds would be spent on? Why did no member of the Budget Committee ask this Department head why the Department was going to be over budget?

This month in our packets we finally have a letter from Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher explaining the use of computer funds paid for with court costs. The letter came at my repeated requests for more information, not because of the Budget Committee asking for more information.

Did any member ask why the federal inmates revenue projections were cut in the current budget? Did any member know about the million dollars that had been earmarked? Does any member know if there was a plan to earmark another million dollars? Has any Budget Committee member wondered whether revenues were intentionally cut so that funds could be set aside to build? When I asked the Budget Committee about the million dollar jail earmark one member leaned over and said to the Mayor, this isn’t on the agenda. One member, the Mayor, told me to book and appointment with the Finance Director. Why didn’t the Budget Committee members ask for more information, for the benefit of the public, when the Finance Director said that there was about $1.5 million in that fund?

Blount County will address some serious financial issues this year. We don’t need to start the new year by reappointing the same people who are the rubber stamps that contributed to financial issues that we will face.

###

Note: The Budget Committee consists of Mayor Ed Mitchell, Commissioners Tom Cole, Mike Lewis and Jerome Moon and Sharon Hannum.  The Mayor automatically serves per state law.  He nominates the other 4 members and the commission votes to confirm the appointments.  The commission voted 12-5 to confirm the same people as last year.  Commissioners Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and Tona Monroe voted no.  Commissioners Tom Cole, Mike Lewis and Jerome Moon are required to abstain on their own nominations.  Commissioners Ron French was absent.  The rest voted for the same old tax and spend guard.

Why were federal inmates removed from the Blount County jail?

The Blount County Adult Detention Facility has been housing federal inmates for over a decade.  We have been told that the reason for doing so is because the county “makes money” housing the inmates because the county receives a per diem from the federal government.  In the last year, the rhetoric has changed from making money to offsetting fixed expenditures.

Some of the federal inmates were removed from the Blount County jail in 2015.  The question remains: why?

On November 11, The Daily Times reported Deputy Chief Jarrod Millsaps saying, “We’ve had to decrease our population in the facility in regards to federal inmates just because of the overcrowding issue.”  However, at November 30th Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) meeting, I (Tona Monroe) asked Sheriff James Berrong why some of the federal inmates had been removed.  He refused to tell me saying that was between him and them (the US Marshals Service).

The reason that I asked is because Commissioners Tom Stinnett and Rick Carver have stated publically that the jail consultant that the county hired to do a criminal justice system assessment called Washington DC to have the federal inmates removed from the jail.  Did these two parrot what the Sheriff told them?  It appears to me that the Sheriff was trying to sour them on the jail consultant, possibly to get them to vote no on hearing from the jail consultant on his findings and conclusions about the study that we taxpayers paid him to do.  The consultant Alan Kalmanoff said he did not call Washington DC to have the federal prisoners removed.

The sheriff also said at the November BCCP meeting that the inmates could have been removed because I called Washington DC to have them removed.  I did not.  I did call the US Marshals Service Knoxville office after some of the inmates were removed to inquire why they were removed.

The man I spoke with told me that he couldn’t tell me because their agreement was with the Sheriff.  He told me that the US Marshals Service conducts its own jail inspection and that the inspection was not subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act.

More questions emerge from this situation.  Should such secrecy exist?  Should the sheriff be allowed to contract with the US Marshal’s Service without approval from the commission and mayor?  Should federal inmates be housed if the population exceeds the bed capacity?  Why were some of the federal inmates removed but not all?

If it is just due to the overcrowding issue as Deputy Chief Millsaps said, why didn’t the Sheriff just say so when I asked him?  Why would the US Marshals Service refuse to say that it was overcrowding?  If it is overcrowding, is there a number above bed capacity that triggers removal of federal inmates?

The Sheriff mentioned people calling Washington DC more than once at the Nov. 30th BCCP meeting.  Based on his response to my questions, it’s easy to speculate that someone called Washington DC to have the federal inmates removed.  However, I don’t know too many people who can pick up the phone and easily make things move with the federal government.

It’s not exactly clear exactly how many inmates (prisoners) were removed.  A letter from the Sheriff’s Office to the Tennessee Corrections Institute says that the federal government removed 47 inmates but the US Marshals Service told me that 36 inmates were removed.  One possible explanation given was the way the US Marshals Service accounts for inmates going to court.  The US Marshals Service said that was possible but didn’t deny or confirm that as an explanation for the difference.

headbashwallIs there something more to this story?  I don’t know.  The Sheriff and the US Marshals Service have refused to say and everyone else that I have talked with doesn’t know anymore than I do.  I have tried to find out but I’ve hit a wall of secrecy and the head banging is unproductive.

What would be productive is for the state legislature to limit the risks to the county associated with housing discretionary inmates in an overcrowded facility by prohibiting anyone from having unilateral authority to make this decision.  The state legislature should require that any such contract be approved by the legislative body of the county and should prohibit a facility exceeding capacity from housing discretionary inmates.

For more information read these posts:
December 2015 Commission Report
TCI Board of Control member: Blount County could use a nice 100,000 person jail
November 2015 Commission Report
Jail and Criminal Justice System Info

Congress is Writing the President a Blank Check for War

by Ron Paul

While the Washington snowstorm dominated news coverage this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was operating behind the scenes to rush through the Senate what may be the most massive transfer of power from the Legislative to the Executive branch in our history. The senior Senator from Kentucky is scheming, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, to bypass normal Senate procedure to fast-track legislation to grant the president the authority to wage unlimited war for as long as he or his successors may wish.

The legislation makes the unconstitutional Iraq War authorization of 2002 look like a walk in the park. It will allow this president and future presidents to wage war against ISIS without restrictions on time, geographic scope, or the use of ground troops. It is a completely open-ended authorization for the president to use the military as he wishes for as long as he (or she) wishes. Even President Obama has expressed concern over how willing Congress is to hand him unlimited power to wage war.

President Obama has already far surpassed even his predecessor, George W. Bush, in taking the country to war without even the fig leaf of an authorization. In 2011 the president invaded Libya, overthrew its government, and oversaw the assassination of its leader, without even bothering to ask for Congressional approval. Instead of impeachment, which he deserved for the disastrous Libya invasion, Congress said nothing. House Republicans only managed to bring the subject up when they thought they might gain political points exploiting the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.

It is becoming more clear that Washington plans to expand its war in the Middle East. Last week the media reported that the US military had taken over an air base in eastern Syria, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the US would send in the 101st Airborne Division to retake Mosul in Iraq and to attack ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. Then on Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden said that if the upcoming peace talks in Geneva are not successful, the US is prepared for a massive military intervention in Syria. Such an action would likely place the US military face to face with the Russian military, whose assistance was requested by the Syrian government. In contrast, we must remember that the US military is operating in Syria in violation of international law.

The prospects of such an escalation are not all that far-fetched. At the insistence of Saudi Arabia and with US backing, the representatives of the Syrian opposition at the Geneva peace talks will include members of the Army of Islam, which has fought with al-Qaeda in Syria. Does anyone expect these kinds of people to compromise? Isn’t al-Qaeda supposed to be our enemy?

The purpose of the Legislative branch of our government is to restrict the Executive branch’s power. The Founders understood that an all-powerful king who could wage war at will was the greatest threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is why they created a people’s branch, the Congress, to prevent the emergence of an all-powerful autocrat to drag the country to endless war. Sadly, Congress is surrendering its power to declare war.

Let’s be clear: If Senate Majority Leader McConnell succeeds in passing this open-ended war authorization, the US Constitution will be all but a dead letter.

Copyright © 2016 by RonPaul Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit and a live link are given.

Read online: http://bit.ly/1OQVxqf

Back in the good old Reagan days…when we knew who our enemies were

Shaking Hands: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.

Shaking Hands: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983 – NSA Archives.

By Horatio Bunce

As I listened this week to Marco Rubio whining about Barry Sotero’s deal with Iran to return the funds we stole from them with our “economic sanctions” and how weak Obama’s response was to the “terrible” treatment of our soldiers who were only in “international waters”, etc., I was first reminded that:

A) It is the Congress that declares war against foreign enemies (though we apparently stopped doing that in spring 1942). Marco Rubio is in Congress. What is he doing about it? Why was our military in Iranian waters without a declaration of war from Congress?

B) If Sotero’s “weak” positioning of military craft in Iranian waters (apparently with no action from Congress) is a problem, then it is Congress that has the power to impeach him. Marco Rubio is in Congress. What is he doing about it?

Then as the pentagon re-re-revised their version of their excuses in the next days as to why we have these watercraft in Iranian waters and are still in 2016 apparently unable to competently navigate our military watercraft , it reminded me of other dealings with Iran when Republicans were in charge. Back when the internet was still being invented by Algore and it was easier to control the “news”. The GOP golden era of Reagan – when special envoy (and future Sect. of Defense) Rumsfeld was buddied up to Saddam Hussein, the CIA was training/arming Osama Bin Laden and the Afghani mujaheddin vs. evil Russia (don’t you remember Red Dawn, Rocky IV, Firefox, Top Gun, Rambo III – there was some great anti-Russia propaganda entertainment back then).

Remember when we conspired with Israel to pay them to ship US weapons to Iran (you know, their mortal enemy that wants to “wipe them off the map”) – but these weapons would only go to the  “moderate” Iranian “contras” we could trust to oust the “bad” Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (ISIS storyline anyone?). Was that also a “weak deal with Iranians” trading our arms for hostages? Did they learn they could “kidnap Americans” and name their price back then too?

How about shooting down innocent Iranian civilians in a passenger airliner over their own airspace as we did in 1988? We “got confused” back then too – really couldn’t remember why we actually were in Iranian waters instead of international waters and why our top-notch defense systems “identified” a commercial passenger jet on its routine, on-time route as an Iranian F-14 (and guess where they bought those). $61.8 million tax dollars went to pay off the victims. Apparently “wage-earning” Iranians were worth $300,000 each while “non-wage earners” (aka children) were only worth $150,000. The perpetrators? They received awards.

I don’t know about you, but forking over $150k for murdering my child just wouldn’t cut it.

When Peace Breaks Out With Iran

Written by Ron Paul

This has been the most dramatic week in US/Iranian relations since 1979.

Last weekend ten US Navy personnel were caught in Iranian waters, as the Pentagon kept changing its story on how they got there. It could have been a disaster for President Obama’s big gamble on diplomacy over conflict with Iran. But after several rounds of telephone diplomacy between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, the Iranian leadership – which we are told by the neocons is too irrational to even talk to – did a most rational thing: weighing the costs and benefits they decided it made more sense not to belabor the question of what an armed US Naval vessel was doing just miles from an Iranian military base. Instead of escalating, the Iranian government fed the sailors and sent them back to their base in Bahrain.

Then on Saturday, the Iranians released four Iranian-Americans from prison, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. On the US side, seven Iranians held in US prisons, including six who were dual citizens, were granted clemency. The seven were in prison for seeking to trade with Iran in violation of the decades-old US economic sanctions.

This mutual release came just hours before the United Nations certified that Iran had met its obligations under the nuclear treaty signed last summer and that, accordingly, US and international sanctions would be lifted against the country.

How did the “irrational” Iranians celebrate being allowed back into the international community? They immediately announced a massive purchase of more than 100 passenger planes from the European Airbus company, and that they would also purchase spare parts from Seattle-based Boeing. Additionally, US oil executives have been in Tehran negotiating trade deals to be finalized as soon as it is legal to do so. The jobs created by this peaceful trade will be beneficial to all parties concerned. The only jobs that should be lost are the Washington advocates of re-introducing sanctions on Iran.

Events this week have dealt a harsh blow to Washington’s neocons, who for decades have been warning against any engagement with Iran. These true isolationists were determined that only regime change and a puppet government in Tehran could produce peaceful relations between the US and Iran. Instead, engagement has worked to the benefit of the US and Iran.

Proven wrong, however, we should not expect the neocons to apologize or even pause to reflect on their failed ideology. Instead, they will continue to call for new sanctions on any pretext. They even found a way to complain about the release of the US sailors – they should have never been confronted in the first place even if they were in Iranian waters. And they even found a way to complain about the return of the four Iranian-Americans to their families and loved ones – the US should have never negotiated with the Iranians to coordinate the release of prisoners, they grumbled. It was a show of weakness to negotiate! Tell that to the families on both sides who can now enjoy the company of their loved ones once again!

I have often said that the neocons’ greatest fear is for peace to break out. Their well-paid jobs are dependent on conflict, sanctions, and pre-emptive war. They grow wealthy on conflict, which only drains our economy. Let’s hope that this new opening with Iran will allow many other productive Americans to grow wealthy through trade and business ties. Let’s hope many new productive jobs will be created on both sides. Peace is prosperous!

Copyright © 2015 by RonPaul Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit and a live link are given.
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$1.7M of 2011 debt was for library

Conversations about Blount County’s debt have centered around the Schools and the Justice Center.  However, as of 2011, $1.7 million of the outstanding debt was Library debt.  In 2011 it was refinanced along with other debt, to become part of the Series 2011 bonds.

People have been expressing to me that they are tired of paying for the library since they don’t use it.  This email was interesting because it provided some statistics that show how few people are using libraries and discusses how technology is changing the way people access books and movies.

The statistics are from the UK.  We should look at statistics here.

Question: Should the people who don’t use the library continue to pay for it?

“Well that explains why the library sent us messages last summer asking us to contact the commissioners to approve the property tax increase!

Libraries are great but we have to be honest, they aren’t going to last much longer in their current state.  More and more people are reading books and watching movies on hand held devices.  In 2004 there were about 38,000 bookstores in the US but in 2015 that has dropped to about 25,000.  Bookstores will not last much longer, nor will libraries whose fundamental mission is reading paper books.

The number of people visiting libraries at least once a year has declined by at least 25% since records started being kept in 2005.  Also the number of libraries declined 9% between 2005 and 2012.  In another study nearly 64% of people surveyed had not visited a library a single time in the last year.  How much funding should be dedicated to  something that only 36% of the public uses?

It’s time to be proactive and shape the library into something that can sustain itself.  What’s wrong with charging for library cards or movie rentals?  There are probably many ways to generate revenue for those who actually use the library.  I know the argument is going to be “I pay my taxes and I should have the library for free.”  But conversely, lots of people pay their taxes and get nothing from the library.

With budget issues, it seems like there are more urgent needs.”
Vickie

Sources: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/27/library-visits-down-closures-continue

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/16/can-the-american-library-_n_1096484.html?utm_hp_ref=libraries-in-crisis

Thought of the day: gas prices at “historic lows”

by Horatio Bunce

As Tennessee Republicans continue to float the idea of an increase in the motor fuel tax, I keep seeing a phrase along the lines of “it might be the right time since gas prices are at historic lows”.

I am not sure how “historic” or “low” they mean. Regular unleaded gasoline in Knoxville was $1.46/gallon when Barry Sotero was elected in 2008. Today it is $1.58/gallon, an 8.2% increase. If the fraudulent 2.1% inflation rate reported by our government actually included housing, food and fuels, then a 2.1% inflation rate since 2008 should put gasoline at $1.69/gallon where it has been in the last month. However, we all knew the days of $110/bbl oil and $3.50/gallon gasoline in this same window. And why should we believe there will not be an equal, non-market fundamental, skyrocketing of price in the next 7 years?

How much tax is enough? Of the current $1.58/gallon, $0.214 is state tax and another $0.184 is federal tax. That’s over 25% of the total revenue going to taxes already. The same government that has coddled hybrids and electric cars, their buyers and manufacturers, and mandated increased fuel efficiencies now seems to be suffering the consequences of its own mandates. What did they expect after forcing manufacture of more fuel efficient vehicles? More fuel use to keep padding their coffers?

Of course it is readily apparent to anyone paying attention the last seven years that fuel price apparently has nearly nothing to do with cost of oil production or even demand. Crude Oil price per barrel today ($37) is far less now than when gasoline was $1.46 per gallon ($46). Have you noticed the price of motor oil dropping 50% like gasoline has the last couple of years? Why hasn’t it moved? Are we to believe there is less demand and an inventory surplus of crude oil lowering the price of gasoline, but the same surplus doesn’t affect price for the oil used in the gasoline engine?

There are many games being played with the oil market, our OPEC agreement for exports only in US dollars, EFT (electronically traded funds) or futures (not actual barrels of oil) trading, economic sanctions (economic warfare) with certain foreign countries. Retaliation by other countries in response, etc. It is a false market. Republicans should stop relying on its instantaneous position to justify tax increases.