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Audit report says Blount County Commission has the authority to assign General Fund

Page 57 of the recently released audit for fiscal year 2016 (July 1, 2015-June 30, 2016) says that Blount County Commission has the authority to assign the General Fund and that the School Board has the authority to assign the General Purpose Schools Funds Fund.  There is no mention of the Director of Accounts and Budgets, commonly referred to as the Finance Director, or the Fiscal Administrator for Blount County Schools having or sharing the authority to assign fund balance.

“Assigned Fund Balance – includes amounts that are constrained by the county’s intent to be used for specific purposes, but are neither restricted nor committed (excluding stabilization arrangements). The County Commission and the Board of Education are authorized bodies to make assignments for the primary government and the School Department, respectively. Assigned fund balance in the General Fund and the General Purpose School Fund consists of amounts assigned for encumbrances at June 30, 2016.”

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!

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?

mcaylor101215

This website is frequently visited by government employees.  Will the time spent on this website be prohibited under the new policy?  Or will local government employees continue surfing this website while on taxpayers’ time?

Cell phone usage
The cell phone policy for personal use limits talking but it doesn’t limit texting or use of the phone to surf the internet.  I pointed this out and tried to fix this by offering an amendment.  Discussion then turned to job performance and the amendment was defeated.  Commissioner Mike Akard pointed out that if everything hinges on job performance then why have any statement about cell phone usage in the handbook.  Commissioner Caylor made a statement about the Blount County Commission becoming the phone police.

It is a shame that sincere concerns of commissioners are treated with such sarcastic statements.  Commissioners were sighing during discussion.  Commissioner Steve Samples moved to cut off debate and told the commission that he was sure that the commissioners already had their minds made up on how they would vote.  He made a similar statement regarding a matter last year.

Another question that I asked is what the policy is on using county phones for personal use.  Human Resources (HR) Director Jenny Morgan said, “I am not aware of a policy pertaining to personal use on work phones.”  This is another matter that the HR Committee should look at and a good reason that it should have been sent back to the HR Committee.

At the end of the meeting Register of Deeds Phyllis Crisp, admonished the commission for trying to take the time to get the answers needed to make good policy decisions saying, “Be ready to make a decision whether is the right decision or the wrong decision.  You know in your heart when you come here that you are going to vote yes or your going to vote no.  It doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter?  What is the point in having meetings if commissioners show up with their minds already made up and aren’t open to discussion or possible improvements to public policy?  While she was talking one of the Blount County Sheriff’s Office deputies was nodding in agreement.

Rather than take the time to get answers to the concerns of the few commissioners who look out for the taxpayers, the commission was dismissive of these concerns.  There are many problems with the handbook.  It wouldn’t have hurt to wait a month to get some answers and amend the handbook to resolve any concerns.

Conflicts of interest
A major problem in Blount County government is the huge number of conflicts of interest within the Blount County Commission.  Commissioners Grady Caskey, Dodd Crowe and Gary Farmer are employees of Blount County Schools.  Commissioners Brad Bowers and Tom Cole have relatives working for the schools.  Commissioner Kenneth Melton previously said that he has a relative working for the county.  Should any of these commissioners vote on the employee handbook?

The handbook was 41 pages prior to the revisions.  Some Departments/Offices have their own page employee handbooks.  The Highway Department Handbook is available online here and is 39 pages.  The handbook for the Schools is available here.

Commissioner Rick Carver works for East Tennessee Medical Group which is owned by BMH but he voted to use the credit of the county, guaranteed by you, to continue variable rate financing for BMH.  He should have abstained.

Commissioners Andy Allen and Dave Bennett work for companies owned by the same individual.  Some of these companies do work for the county.  You can read their employee handbook here.  At 94 pages, it is much more detailed than the county’s handbook which was 41 pages prior to the revisions.

Obviously the content is more important than the number of pages.  Compare what it says about storage of weapons in vehicles, liability for personal use of vehicles and use of social media.  One would think that as businessmen they would strive to have a county handbook that is as thorough as there employers handbook to protect the taxpayers of Blount County.

If you pull up the IT capital fund through the county’s account system (189-91110) you will see that the county is utilizing Cherokee Millwright this fiscal year and used Massey Construction Inc. last fiscal year.  Both of these commissioners should have abstained on the IT budget amendment.

There are plenty more conflicts in Blount County, Tennessee government.  Do these conflicts serve you the taxpayers well?  If not, in the May 2018 primary election vote for people who don’t have conflicts of interest.  All 21 of the commission races were determined in the Republican primary in May 2014 election.  Please don’t wait until the general election in August because most or all of the races will be determined in the May primary election.

After the commission meeting
After the meeting Register of Deeds Phyllis Crisp told Commissioners Jamie Daly and Miller that if they were going to dish it out they should be prepared to take it.  You can watch the commission meeting to see if you think that Daly or Miller did anything to warrant a lecture from Crisp.

Up next:
As I wrote in my Thanksgiving message, please consider taking a more active role in local government.  You don’t have to be a full time activist.  Do what you can, when you can.

A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. - Thomas Jefferson

Happy Thanksgiving

Troy and I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.  We have much to be grateful for.

One thing that I am thankful for is the opportunity to call out government officials for wrong doing and advocate for reform.  In some parts of the world people face severe repercussions for rebuking their government “leaders”.  Sadly I too often hear from people who are afraid of retaliation if they challenge that courthouse clique that exists in local government.  Good people who initiate no harm should not live in fear of their governments.

I encourage everyone during this time of thanksgiving to give serious consideration to your knowledge and involvement in state and local governments.  In general people are too focused on federal politics.  The main stream media bombards us with drama and endless controversy in Washington DC.

Give some consideration to taking a break from media sources that focus solely or mostly on national politics and put some time and energy into learning what your local and state governments are doing.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the majority of people can’t even name their local and state officials.

While I stood in a very long line to vote in the November election, I noticed someone willing to wait in the long line to vote in the Presidential race who hadn’t voted in the local government primary election held in May of 2014.  The reason this stood out to me is because this person had my sign in their yard but they didn’t actual take the time to vote in the local election.

If you voted in the presidential race this year, your vote was one in over 120 million votes.  If you voted in a county commission race in the local government election in May of 2014, your vote was about 1 in a thousand.  Some districts had more than 1,000 votes and some had less.  Many people don’t vote because they don’t feel that their votes matter.  Where does your vote have the most impact, a race with over 120 million votes or a race with about 1,000 votes?

If you still aren’t convinced that your vote matters tremendously in local elections, let me put it another way for you.  3 of the 21 county commission races were decided by less than 25 votes in the May primary election in 2014.  Jamie Daly won her race by 21 votes.  Archie Archer won his race by 12 votes.  Kenneth Melton won reelection to the Blount County Commission by receiving 6 more vote than his challenger.

These local races are often very close.  Do you vote in the local elections?  If not, why?

The unofficial results on the county’s website show 53,260 votes in the November election while only 12,061 voted in the August election.  If you are one of the many people who voted in November but not in August, please reflect upon why you didn’t vote in August.

Yesterday and today I posted several articles about the difficulties and unresponsiveness that I deal with on a regular basis as an elected official serving the community through local government.  Contact information for the appropriate people is provided in these posts if you feel so inclined to provide input on any of these matters.

It has been said that serving as a county commissioner is a thankless job.  Actually its not.  I receive several thanks on a fairly regular basis.  What is more accurate is to describe it as a helpless job because there are so few willing to help promote better government locally.

What would make me even more thankful this Thanksgiving Day would be to see more people take an active role in what is happening right here in our county.

Sincerely,
Tona Monroe
Blount County Commissioner

It has been 8 months and Director of General Services has provided nothing on lawsuits against the county

You’ve probably noticed that there have been several lawsuits brought against the county.  People have been asking me about the status of several lawsuits against the county.  In order to be informed and answer their questions, I wrote Mr. Don Stallions, the Director of General Services, in March of this year to learn about the lawsuits.  To date, 8 months later, I have been provided nothing on the lawsuits.

Don Stallions: 865-273-5772 dstallions@blounttn.org
Mayor Ed Mitchell:  (865) 273-5700 emitchell@blounttn.org
Administration Assistant Amy Cowden:  (865) 273-5703 acowden@blounttn.org

October 2016 Commission Report

“The real destroyers of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations, and benefits.”  Plutarch

Plutarch’s statement could be rewritten to more accurately reflect our society and the politics of today by saying, “The real destroyers of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them government services, government approved education, and benefits.”

Agenda Committee
There were seven commissioners absent from the agenda meeting.  This is one third of the twenty one members commission.  Since this meeting ran smoothly without one third of its membership now is a good time to ask how many commissioners you think Blount County should have.  State law requires a minimum of nine and a maximum of twenty four.

How many commissioners should Blount County have?

9-11
12-15
16-20
Keep it at 21
22-24

Poll Maker

Commission meeting
Commissioner Brad Bowers was absent from the commission meeting.

Transfer turned into political theater
On the agenda was a transfer in the Sherriff’s Office that Finance Director (FD) Randy Vineyard described as being an accounting change to simply recording of employees’ pay in the new Kronos payroll system.  Commissioner Dave Bennett used this transfer as an opportunity for political theater with the jail.

There was no resolution for the matter.  All that was in the packet is a budget amendment form with the transfer box checked with a one sentence explanation.  See Item F1 on page 16.

Dave Bennett made the motion to require the FD to provide the commission with an update on the loss of revenue for housing state inmates.  In the packet you will find that the Sheriff’s Office has been providing the FD, who then forwards to the commission, a letter stating how much revenue the county is receiving for state inmates compared to the monthly average last year.  See page 92 of the commission packet for the letter from Deputy Chief Jarrod Millsaps to the FD.

The letter does not show how much the Sherriff’s Office projected in revenue for the year compared to what the county is actually receiving.  However, you can obtain that information by looking at the monthly financial report that the FD is required to prepare for the commission.  See page 158, line item 101 00000 46915 00000 CONTRACTED PRISONER BOARD.

Chairman Jerome Moon declared Bennett’s motion out of order.  Commissioner Steve Samples immediately challenged the rule of the chair.  The commission chose to override the chair, forcing a vote on the matter.

From the draft minutes of the meeting:

Commissioner Samples appealed the ruling of the Chair. Commissioner Carter seconded the motion. Chairman Moon instructed the members to vote yes if they agree with the ruling of the Chair, and to vote no if they disagree with the ruling of the Chair. An electronic vote was taken on the appeal.

AkardYes,       AllenNo
ArcherYes,     Bennett‐No
Caskey
Yes,     Carter‐No
Cole‐Yes,
         Carver‐No
Crowe‐Yes,      Caylor‐No
Daly‐Yes,
          Farmer‐No
French- Yes,     Mike Lewis‐No
Miller‐Yes,        Melton‐No

Monroe‐Yes,    Samples‐No
                           Stinnett‐No

BowersAbsent,    Moon‐Abstain

There were 9 voting yes, 10 voting no, 1 abstain, and 1 absent.
Chairman Moon declared the ruling of the Chair was not upheld.

Commission Mike Akard moved to require the reduction in expenses, related to housing less state inmates, be included in the report.  The courthouse clique didn’t want the whole truth, just the distorted, incomplete statement on revenue.  Only commissioners Akard, Archie Archer, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted to be given the whole truth on housing state inmates.

Dave Bennett, the maker of the motion, Andy Allen, quick to provide a second to the motion, and Steve Samples, the commissioner challenging the rule of the chair should be embarrassed.  All 3 are business men.  Good business people always take a look at expenses, and not just revenue, when examining the financial statements of any situation.  However, keep in mind that Dave Bennett and Andy Allen are both in businesses that profit from building and/or renovations.

Bennett’s motion failed, even though there were not enough votes to uphold the rule of the chair.

Retirement benefit – Taxpayers to contribute 4 times what employees contribute
Sometimes I wonder if commissioners read their packets before voting, or if they read their packets if they actually fully consider the ramifications of what they are doing to the taxpayers before voting.  A resolution regarding retirement benefits for Parks and Recreation Commission employees that the FD referred to as a housekeeping measure makes me questions the quality and fitness of most of our commissioners.

A letter from FD Randy Vineyard tells the Budget Committee that the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement Services is requiring the cities of Maryville and Alcoa and Blount County to separate Parks and Rec employees into their own employee group.  The letter further states that there are no changes to plan design and benefits.  That sounds all well and good but there are still several causes for concern.

1.  The resolution calls for an employer (taxpayers) contribution of 20.16% starting 2017 while the employees contribute 5%.
How many people in the private sector have a retirement benefits package where the employer, in this case you the taxpayers, contribute more than four times the amount of the employees?  Private sector business typical budget around 20% of salaries for benefits.  This resolution budgets what the private sector typically budgets for all benefits, solely for retirement benefits.  Furthermore, there is no limit to the percentage.

2.  The taxpayer funded portion of benefits “shall be subject to change based on subsequent annual actuarial valuations.”
The taxpayers will be on the hook for future increases if actuarial valuations show the need.  Alarmingly there is no cap or limit placed on the percentage amount that you could be required to pay for retirement benefits.

3.  “The unfunded accrued liability that remains at the effective date of participation, following the transfer of assets within TCRS to the Joint Venture’s account approved by the City of Maryville by separate resolution, is $1,327,251.”
Could this large unfunded liability be why the contribution from taxpayers is so high?  The FD should have explained this and what the plan is to fully fund this liability before bringing this resolution to the commission.

4.  The county’s portion/share is 38%.
There is no logic given for the amount of 38% but the resolution guarantees that the county will fund this amount.  Commissioner Jamie Daly pointed out that most of the parks are in the cities.  Many of the rural county residence don’t use the parks or rarely use them.  Most are convenient for city residents but not for county residents.  Parks are an optional service that should be paid for by those using the service rather than being subsided by people don’t use or want the services.

For these reasons I voted no on the resolution.  Only commissioner Karen Miller joined me.  The rest voted yes.

Employee Handbook
There were many revisions proposed to the employee handbook.  The Human Resources (HR) Director was not present at the Agenda Committee meeting and she can be very hard to get ahold of by phone and email.  Thus, the only reliable opportunity to ask her questions was at the commission meeting.

I had several questions, many pertaining to the use of county vehicles.  The HR Director said she didn’t know the answers to my questions related to the use of county vehicles and that I would need to direct my questions to Risk Management (RM).  Since no one from RM was present to answer my questions, I moved to postpone discussion and action on the handbook until November so that RM could be present to answer questions.  The commission voted this down.

Alarmingly, Commissioner Tom Stinnett told the body that he had just spent two days on the handbook.  This invites the question of why he didn’t do this before he voted for the revisions in the HR Committee, a committee that he serves on.  Would you vote to forward something to the commission for approval, that requires two days of research, without asking any questions?   This clearly wasn’t well thought out.

Commissioner Ron French was quick to dismiss my concern but this isn’t in the best interest of the public.  The commission should take the time to thoroughly examine the handbook because there are many glaring holes/deficiencies in the employee handbook.  A lawyer could pick it apart easily.  Commissioners are elected to set public policy.  Answers should be provided before policies are adopted.

The commission actually did vote to give more time to the handbook by sending it back to the HR Committee to look at how to award vacation time after the first 6 months of employment.  However, the HR Committee rubber stamped what was presented to it at its last meeting.  The HR Committee spent less time on the changes to the handbook than the commission.  You can watch the meeting online here.  Hopefully the HR Committee will examine all the policy revisions and work through the entire handbook this time.

Information Technology (IT) Committee
The agenda for the IT Committee was sent by email 2 hours and 20 minutes before the state of the meeting with no supporting documentation.  The committee lacked a quorum so there was no official action taken but their rarely is anyway.

The committee heard from its $100+ hour IT consultant about the IT projects currently under way.  I was the only member to ask any questions.  AV, as he is known, with Mindboard Inc. told the committee that the county’s websites will cost $20,000 annually.  It sounds steep and I have to wonder if the county could be doing some of these projects for substantially less in-house.  The government is rarely, if ever, more efficient than the private sector but the county has benefited from in-house software.  The county is doing away with most, or all, of its in-house software and purchasing software and services that have lots of renewal and license fees.

The list of IT projects contained in the presentation given a couple of months ago has still not been provided and I continue to wonder what the point of having an IT Committee is.

Up next
A joint meeting of the Blount County Commission and Board of Education has been called to look at $40 million in updates to the two high schools.  The meeting will be held in the Heritage High School Theater on Thursday at 6:30 PM.

The Agenda Committee meeting has been moved up a day and will held on Monday November 7th at 6:30 in room 430 at the courthouse.

August 2016 Commission Report

Debt workshop
A special commission meeting was called for the purpose of discussing debt refinancing options.  The county has $79,435,000 in outstanding par for the Series 2013B general obligation refunding bonds.  The 3 year note for this series will expire in December.  Thus, the commission will soon need to make a decision on how to refinance this debt.

There are 4 interest rate swaps with Deutsche Bank associated with this variable rate debt.  The cost to terminate the swaps is high.  It changes frequently.  You can view the monthly swap reports in the monthly budget packets online.  The most recent swap report, found in the July 11, 2016 Budget Committee packet, shows a mark to market value of $14,912,989.89 on June 29, 2016.  See page 287.  The value given at the workshop, as of July 11, 2016 was $15.2M.

The cost to terminate the swaps is negotiable.  According the county’s advisor, Public Financial Management (PFM), Deutsche Bank (DB) has not been willing to negotiate significant savings in the past.  However, due to a recent drops in the credit ratings, DB is more willing to negotiate.  Now may be a good time to terminate these swaps.

This meeting was much more useful in terms of options than the meeting called last October.  The presentation given in October gave 3 variations of keeping 20% variable rate debt in place.  This 3 options given this month include two which would refund every callable maturity (2004A, 2004B, 2005, 2011, 2013B, B-16-A, B-17-A & B-10-A) and one option to refund $39M of variable rate debt.  The county has other series of debt that can be refinanced at lower interest rates.  These series would be included in refinancing scenarios A and C that were presented to us.

Option C appears to be the best option because it eliminates all variable rate debt, terminates all swaps and has the county paying debt at a more consistent level than option A which also eliminates the variable rate and terminates the swaps.  This reduces the risk to the county and we would know exactly what we owe in terms of debt.  The county currently has about $11M in fund balance.  Option C would use $5M of this fund balance, leaving the county with about $6M in debt service fund balance.

It is my hope that the commission votes to approve option C or something similar when it is presented to us in the near future.

Commission meeting
Spending increases
There were several spending increases and all were approved.  This commission has shown that it will approve nearly every spending request put before it.

The biggest spending request came from the schools and was more than all the other requests combined.  The schools requested a $1,639,000 million increase for the General Purpose Schools Fund.  $397,000 of this request will be funded with a projected increase in sales tax revenue.  After a big property tax increase last year, closer attention should be paid to the other sources of revenue such as the sales tax before levying such a huge property tax rate increase.  The property tax payers may have been hit harder than necessary.

Last month the budget request failed to even get a motion to send it to the commission but this month it passed.  The request was the same as last month.

Animal shelter budget now over double the actual budget of 6 years ago
The animal shelter requested a budget increase of $33,054 to pay 2 part time people to clean the animal shelter after losing inmate labor when the state pulled the TDOC felons from the local jail.  I purposed using donation money given to the animal shelter to fund these two positions temporarily until the changes in jail population had been worked out.  That amendment failed.  The requested increase could have been funded without any use of tax dollars.

From Deena Finley the Accounting Manager:

“To Commission,

To follow up on the questions from August 19, 2016 Commission meeting:

Item F.3 – Resolution No. 16-08-008

In regard to donations for the Animal Center, the amount I reported at the meeting was the Total Non-SMACF donations collected for Fiscal years 2011 through 2016.  Please see below.

Fiscal Year     Donations Collected

10-11           32,862.58
11-12           25,144.32
12-13           16,253.20
13-14           8,202.09
14-15           13,867.31
15-16           76,192.09
Total           172,521.59

The amount of Committed Donations as of 6/30/2015 (account 101-346300 – Committed for Public Health & Welfare) was $16,069.40 and from above collections Year-to-Date of $76,192.09 which means the value of Committed Donations at 6/30/2016 should equal the sum total of $92,261.49, subject to Audit.”

Labor of the animal shelter isn’t limited to those serving sentences in the jail.  There are about 1800 on county probation and 700 people on state probation.  This is a large number of people to look to for help in the animal shelter.

Animal shelter spending was originally budgeted to be up 86%, compared to 6 years ago when the mayor took office.  With the budget amendment, the amended budget is now more than double what the actual budget was when Mayor Ed Mitchell took office.

FY Actual Budget SMACF Donations Original Budget Amended Budget
2007 $131,849 $138,349 $138,349
2008 $102,846 $148,349 $138,349
2009 $124,142 $138,349 $138,349
2010 $157,459 $135,826 $203,326
2011 $223,941 $414,806 $414,806
2012 $263,901 $361,710 $361,710
2013 $272,685 $330,419 $330,419
2014 $320,388 $330,407 $327,310
2015 $322,742 $76,139 $342,931 $355,426
2016 $371,126 $180,400 $407,727 $415,217
2017 $182,090 $417,315 $450,369

2007-2014 data is from state CAFRs
2015-2017 is data from the county’s website
2016 data is subject to change as budget is finalized
2017 data is budgeted amounts not actual amounts

There was a request to spend $195,000 of the Drug Control fund balance.  The only explanation given was to buy needed equipment and there was no date on the budget request.  That is a lot of money that will be spent without any details given for the use of the funds.

Half way point
The end of this month marks the half way point of this commission term.  As I look back over the past two years, I think the best thing this commission did was refinance $20,165,000 in variable rate debt and the swap attached to it to fixed rate debt.  Creating the school capital fund, providing funds that don’t have to be split with the cities to fix leaking roofs is another good thing.

The large property tax increase after an increase in the local option sales tax may have been the worst thing this commission has done.  The unwillingness to hear from the jail consultant while approving an RFQ to seek design services for the jail doesn’t make good sense or good public policy.

What I’d like to see over the next two years is for the county to go to completely fixed rate debt with more debt service money going to principal.  I’d like for the commission to take a look at the county’s land use regulations, particularly zoning which is too easily manipulated for the benefit of the few.  The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) should meet to actually discuss the needs of the criminal justice system rather than just meeting a few times a year to appease the state for certification that means very little.  Critical decisions that should have been fully discussed through the BCCP are going to be made through the Purchasing Department.  Additionally, the commission should look at the over $1 million that is given to the Industrial Development Board and the approximately $1.5 million in hotel/motel tax money given to the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority.  Both of these entities serve special interests with crony deals.  These monies could be put to better use by paying down the enormous county debt.

What would you like to see your county government do during the next two years?

School bus safety

From the National Motorist Association
August 21, 2016

This month, our children and grandchildren will be going back to school after a long summer of fun and vacation.  Many of those kids will be riding a school bus.

Did you know that riding a school bus is the safest way for a child to go to school? In fact, riding a school bus is 8x safer than riding in cars to school.  In the U.S. alone, 450,000 public school buses travel 4.3 billion miles per year to transport 23.5 million children each school day.

School transportation fatalities are rare.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics between the years 2004-2014, only 1344 fatalities occurred related to school transportation. This number accounted for just 0.40 percent of the total number of annual traffic fatalities during this ten-year period.

NMA Foundation Board Executive Director James Walker analyzed the NHTSA statistics for school transportation related crashes and concluded that the biggest safety concern for children getting on and off the bus is the bus driver.  Every child fatality of course is tragic but when you look at the numbers, there is a totally different picture that emerges.

Years for each 10 years School Transportation Related Crashes Under Age 19 Child Pedestrian Fatalities caused by passing vehicles Under Age 19 Child Pedestrian Fatalities caused by school buses Total Under Age 19 Child Pedestrian Fatalities by passing vehicles and school buses
1999-2008 36 Fatalities (24%) 113 Fatalities (76%) 149 Fatalities
2000-2009 35 Fatalities (27%)   95 Fatalities (73%) 130 Fatalities
2001-2010 32 Fatalities (26%)   91 Fatalities (74%) 123 Fatalities
2002-2011 35 Fatalities (28%)   88 Fatalities (72%) 123 Fatalities
2003-2012 36 Fatalities (30%)   83 Fatalities (70%) 119 Fatalities
2004-2013 38 Fatalities (33%)   78 Fatalities (67%) 116 Fatalities
2005-2014 40 Fatalities (36%)   71 Fatalities (64%) 111 Fatalities

An average of 36 children per EACH 10 year – 29 percent of School Transportation (bus) related crashes – were victims of passing vehicles over the 1999 to 2014 period while 88, or 71 percent were killed by accidents involving the school bus. The ten-year average per state works out to 0.72 children killed by passing cars and 1.77 by school buses.

If school bus cameras prevented 50 percent of the under age 19 child pedestrian fatalities caused by passing vehicles, it would take 27.78 years to prevent one fatality in an average state (per state).

The school bus stop laws in the United States and Canada are usually based on 11-705 of the 1992 Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC).  The code states the following:

UVC 11-705(a) The driver of a vehicle meeting or overtaking from either direction any school bus that meets the color and identification requirements of 12-222(a)* , (b) and (c) of this code stopped on the highway shall stop before reaching such school bus when there is in operation on said school bus the flashing red lights specified in 12-222(a) and said driver shall not proceed until such school bus resumes motion or the flashing red lights are no longer actuated.

* A school bus is painted National School Bus Glossy Yellow in the United States and similarly in Canada. Signs in the front and rear top center read SCHOOL BUS (AUTOBUS SCOLAIRE or ECOLIERS in French Canada). Its front and rear ends usually has alternately flashing lights with 2 red lamps at top corners and 2 yellow (amber) lamps near red lamps at the same level but closer to the vertical central line of the bus. It often has an octagon red stop arm on the left.

There are some variations state-to-state with regards to stopping distance from the school bus and some state laws indicate what kind of road (divided highway or not) that a motorist would be required to stop. Penalties vary widely and range from driver’s license suspensions and fines to jail time.

What is needed to help keep our kids safe?

Education of course. Comprehensive drivers’ education for all students and continuing education for more mature drivers would be a start. Thorough bus driver training by school districts will go a long way in helping keep kids safe. Thorough safety training for students, kindergarten through high school on how to cross streets, safety inside and outside the school bus also has to be part of the safety equation.

What we don’t need – school bus cameras that cost between $3000 to $8000 per bus and pushing penalties on drivers while doing nothing to improve safety for all school children.

Source: https://www.motorists.org/alerts/how-safe-are-our-kids-getting-on-and-off-the-school-bus-nma-e-newsletter-397/

Use of cameras on local school buses

Regarding the money in the budget to buy cameras for school buses, I inquired about the use of the cameras.  From Troy Logan:

“We have not yet purchased cameras for the school buses.  We do have a budget of $81,400 and plan to purchase this fall.
These cameras will be used to monitor the activity on the interior of the bus, both student and driver.  They will not monitor traffic around the bus.

Thanks!”
Troy Logan
Blount County Schools
Fiscal Administrator

On Mon, Aug 22, 2016 at 10:18 AM, <tona@breezeair.net> wrote:
Hi Troy,
Did the schools purchase cameras for the schools buses this year?

Is the purchase of the cameras to monitor traffic around the bus, what is happening inside the bus or both?
Thanks,
Tona

July 2016 Commission Report

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

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

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

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

Commission meeting
Commissioner Peggy Lambert was absent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 2016 Commission Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commission meeting
Commissioner Mike Akard was absent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Independence Day!

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

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

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

From the East Tennessee Index:

What does this measure?

The average annual salary in a region in a given year, adjusted for inflation.

Why is this important?

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

How is our region performing?

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

Notes about the data

Data presented in 2014 dollars.

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

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

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