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Tennessee County Services Association tells local elected officials to support gas tax increase

The Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) sends local elected officials a newsletter, called Capitol Update, while the Tennessee General Assembly is in session.  The TCSA failed to mention the purchasing secrecy legislation in the six issues that it sent to me in 2016.  When I asked TCSA Executive Director David Connor why he didn’t include bills that made an open process a secret government process he wrote, “Since it was mirroring the process used at the state, I didn’t see a problem with it.”  Two wrongs apparently make a right.

This year the TCSA has sent newsletter with a headline telling local officials to call their state lawmakers and tell them to support the gas tax increase included in the slyly named IMPROVE act.  TCSA seem more interested in telling local officials what to do rather than keeping them informed of legislation that creates local government secrecy.  Is the tail wagging the dog?

March 2017 Commission Report

Agenda Committee
The commission recently started voting to receive reports and minutes from committees and entities that provides us with information because of the new software system that the commission started using in January.  Prior to the new system, these records were available in the commission packet as information without a vote.  I (Tona Monroe) pointed out that some of the meeting minutes were drafts and subject to being changed by their respective bodies.  The draft minutes were postponed until April so that the commission can figure out how to properly handle voting on minutes being received in the future.  The matter shows how most commissioners operate on auto pilot during the meetings and how little thought most put into the process.

Commission meeting
Commissioners Mike Akard, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Jamie Daly and Tom Stinnett were absent.

Evergreen pay study for Highway Department
The Evergreen Solutions salary study pay increase request for the Highway Department was back on the agenda after being pulled by Commissioner Dave Bennett last month without any explanation for it being pulled.  The request increased from $13,579.46 to $15,346.13.

The $15,346.13 will be used to increase the pay of 14 employees.  Shortly before this, one employee was about 2/3’s of this amount in one year.  Certain people get huge page raises while many get small ones.  According to the 2015 payroll, Assistant Superintendent Chico Messer made $71,999.98.  According to the 2016 salary list, Chico Messer’s salary increased to $82,801 on August 25, 2016 (see page 42).  In 2014, Messer’s annual salary was $66,000.06.  It’s interesting that Messer sought and received certification from the state to run for the position of Highway Superintendent but chose not to seek the postion.  Could the big pay increase be a deterrent to Messer running in 2018?

In 2015, the Blount County Commission voted to adopt the recommendations of the Evergreen Solutions employee classification and compensation study for all county departments except the Highway Department and the Schools.  This request adds the Highway Department to the rest of the General County government pay scale.

You may remember that one of my objections at the time was that the report wasn’t even finished when the commission was asked to vote to adopt its recommendations.  The final study was not made public until 7 months after the commission had voted on the matter.  Well this new study wasn’t in the Agenda Committee packet.  When I asked why, I was told by the Human Resources Director that she had just received the report that day.  That raises the question of why it had been put on the agenda last month when the report wasn’t finished.  Do these people ever learn?  Do they even care?

Furthermore, the previous study only compared Blount County to one other county.  The rest of the comparisons were to schools, even though Blount County Schools didn’t participate, cities and other entities.  This new study only compared Blount County to cities.  Not one county was included in the study.  It wouldn’t be that hard, particularly when you’re only looking at one department, to obtain the payrolls for other counties and analyze comparable positions.  Commissioners Karen Miller and I were the only no votes.

Service dogs
A couple donated $10,000 to the county for the purchase of a service dog.  Blount County currently has 7 service dogs and will soon have 10.

CTAS resolution
State legislation has been filed that would add the County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) to the list of government entities that would sunset and have to be renewed by the Tennessee General Assembly after a review process.  All of the status quo, courthouse clique commissioners signed onto a resolution that opposed this legislation.

If enacted, an Evaluation Committee would review the objectives of CTAS.  TCA 4-29-105 says:

The Evaluation Committee shall have as its objectives:
1) The review of present programs and strategies of entities to determine the quality, efficiency, and success of such programs and strategies in implementation of legislative mandates.

What’s wrong with a regular review of CTAS?  CTAS can be political and is cliquish, picking their favorites.

On at least two occasions that I have asked CTAS questions, the local government consultant for this area, Wesley Robertson, has called Commission Chairman Jerome Moon and given him the answer to my questions rather than calling and giving the answers to me.

I’ve talked to local elected officials in several counties around the state.  Those who are principled reformers receive similar treatment.  A commissioner in another county shared with me that she has quit contacting CTAS because as soon as she inquires about anything, her CTAS government consultant calls her county mayor to inform him of what she is inquiring about.  Another elected official in a different county told me that we should get together and ask the Tennessee General Assembly for some real help, since we aren’t getting it from CTAS.  She shared with me how another lady she knows in local government is treated poorly by CTAS.  It seems that CTAS has a history of treating women who oppose the status quo, poorly.  However, I have talked with men in local elected office who don’t consult with CTAS either because they consider them to be part of the problem within the bureaucracy in government.

CTAS is a part of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service (IPS).  IPS blocked me on twitter after I posted tweets critical of CTAS.  Amazingly, the IPS unblocked me the day before the commission voted on this resolution and is now following www.twitter.com/bcpublicrecord.

A thorough review of CTAS might be just exactly what it needs to provide better service.  It makes no sense to oppose a review process of your tax dollars at work; therefore I voted no.  Only Commissioner Karen Miller joined me in voting no.  Commissioners Akard and Daly, who were absent from the commission meeting, voted against putting this item on the agenda, at the Agenda Committee meeting.

Open records policy
The state legislature enacted a law requiring local governments to have open records policies by July 1st.  This should have been a law many years ago.  However, the law is not as specific as it should be and will probably require changes to it in the future.

As an elected official, I thought that it would be easier to obtain information but that is often not the case.  It can be difficult obtaining records needed to make important public policy decisions.  I’ve had to go to the Office of Open Records Counsel for assistant several times in obtaining records from Blount County government.  Several people have shared with me how difficult it can be to obtain help from the Office of Open Records Counsel.  Thus, a clear policy is needed.

Commissioner Jerome Moon chose to place himself and Commissioners Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor on the ad hoc committee that will write the open records policy.  Both Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor work for local governments and tend to favor government.  Hopefully the policy to be written will serve the people of Blount County well.

Lack of discussion
Other that the normal course of speaking required for the chairman to run a meeting, I was the only commissioner to discuss anything on the agenda that was put to a vote.  Many have said that these meetings are a done deal before the commissioners get there.  With no discussion except from me, I see why so many conclude this.

Commissioner Dodd Crowe’s only statement of the night came at the end of the meeting to inform those in the audience that the IT Department was working to ensure that all of the commissioners and their votes appeared on the screen displaying the votes.  All of the commissioners, and their votes, had not been showing on the screen because of an issue with the new software system.

Blount County Corrections Partnership
The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) is a charade that exists to appease the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) to keep the jail certified.  Certification by the TCI Board of Control (BOC) is pretty close to worthless.  Jail standards are good but the TCIBOC has and continues to certify jails that are not in compliance with the standards because they jump through hoops.

One of those hoops is having the BCCP.  Part of the charade even includes TCI employees Detentions Facility Specialist (DFS) Robert Kane, who inspects the jail, and the Corrections Partnership Coordinator Bob Bass.  DFS Robert Kane makes false statements in his jail inspection report such as the March 3, 2016 report that gives the BCCP credit for things that it doesn’t do such as submitting monthly progress reports to the TCI.  It doesn’t, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office does that.  He says that the BCCP meets monthly and discusses the findings of the ILPP report.  The BCCP met 4 times in 2015.  You can read more about the report here.

CPC Bass serves as the bully for the TCI.  He comes to some of the meetings to talk tough to the BCCP about how the jail could be decertified if the county doesn’t build.  Talking tough is about all he can do, other than educate us in meetings with videos available on YouTube.  He once popped off to me about shutting the jail down but he and the TCI lack the authority to shut the jail down.  All he can do is go to the State Fire Marshal’s Office like the rest of us can and speak against the jail getting a nearly worthless certification from the TCI.

TCI certification is voluntary but many don’t know that.  Certification is used as a red herring for the TCI’s lack of authority to shut a jail down.  Jails that aren’t certified operate without being shut down.  Increased insurance rates can be a consequence of decertification, but this will not likely impact Blount County significantly because the county is self insured.  Read this letter from the legal counsel for the TCI on its certification and authority regarding shutting a jail down.

We are currently looking at architectural and engineering firms because Bob “the bully” Bass and Robert Kane came in and talked tough.  That was the excuse the political machine needed to start the expansion process.  Reality is that little to nothing would have happened if Blount County hadn’t solicited a firm because certification is a voluntarily process.

The only person to speak during public input was Commissioner Karen Miller.  She expressed how disappointed she is that the BCCP hasn’t actually examined the possible solutions that have been given in the studies that have been done and instead is wanting to pay an architectural firm to look at what the BCCP should be looking at.

Purchasing Agent Katie Branham Kerr spoke briefly about the jail RFQ process and how Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) was chosen for jail renovation and/or expansion.  She was quick to say that the interviews for 3 of the companies that submitted qualifications were public but failed to mention that most of the process, including the decision making, was done in secret.  The Tennessee General Assembly last year decided that you the taxpaying citizens might some how corrupt the integrity of the process and made most of the purchasing process sealed.  Yes, state legislators thinks that you lack the integrity to interact with the Purchasing Agent and the evaluators that she selects until she has chosen a company and they made a law to stop you for interacting.  However, the names of the Screening Committee/Evaluation Team were published on this website before she made the names of the evaluators known.

MBI employee Jay Henderlight and John Eisenlau with TreanorHL gave a presentation on what they can and have done related to jails.  Eisenlau would work with MBI throughout the process.  I asked them if they were considering a new facility at a new location and was told that they haven’t considered that and didn’t think it would be necessary.  This is important because of what happened in Loudon County.

Loudon County Justice Center: Expansion and renovation vs a new facility
In the letter of engagement from MBI to the Loudon County Purchasing Agent, under Project Information the proposed improvements/use says “Expansion and Renovation of Existing Justice Center.”  The site location reads “12680 Highway 11 W., Loudon, TN” which is the location of the current Loudon County Justice Center.

Loudon County had previously paid MBI about $16,000 to see if the current location of their justice center was suitable for expansion.  After it was determined that the existing location is suitable for expansion, the Loudon County Corrections Partnership (LCCP) voted to move forward with expanding the existing facility in August of 2015.  However, that changed after the Loudon County Commission approved paying MBI up to $60,000 to provide options to expand the justice center at its current location.

MBI provided several expansion and renovation options but the recommendation that came from the LCCP in 2016 was the construction of a new facility at a different location.  While the LCCP was considering building at a new location, the Loudon County jail was decertified by the TCIBOC.  Who and/or what caused the change in plan from expansion of the existing facility to the construction of a new facility isn’t entirely clear.  What role, if any, MBI played in this isn’t clear either.  Who caused the deviation from expanding the existing facility to building a brand new facility at a different location?

Since MBI touts their work in Loudon County and PA Katie Kerr recommends MBI, both should be able to explain to the BCCP and the commission what happened in Loudon County.  I asked PA Kerr who she spoke to at Loudon County when evaluating MBI.  She said she would have to go back and look at her notes.  Even if she couldn’t recall the name of the person that she spoke with she should have been able to recall the conversation but she didn’t offer anything specific about her conversation with Loudon County.

Exactly how much research did Kerr do into MBI prior to recommending them?  Kerr has taken 11 months to complete the process of selecting a company.  Kerr’s office took nearly 3 months to issue the RFQ, despite her saying that 30 days should be sufficient time to issue the paperwork.

Furthermore, Kerr deviated from the jail RFQ issued by her office.  The RFQ says that the Screening Committee selected to evaluate the firms that submitted proposals would be county commissioners and employees Sheriff’s Office (see page 16).  2 of the evaluators were neither county commissioners or employees of the Sheriff’s Office.

I continued with my efforts to learn exactly what happened in the change of course in Loudon County but was prohibited from questioning Kerr further on the matter.  Chairman Rick Carver said that my questioning was out of order.  I challenged the rule of the chair and the rest of the voting members voted against allowing me to continue.

The people of the 7th district elected me to ask the though questions.  The BCCP voted to prohibit me from asking the necessary questions to make informed decisions the protect the taxpayers of Blount County and are in the best interest of the community.  We were there to decide whether to recommend the company chosen by the PA to the Blount County Commission.  I was prohibited by the BCCP from doing what I was elected to do.

What is point of attending these meetings if I am not going to be allowed to do my job?  The people deserve to know exactly what happened in Loudon County and how much research that PA Kerr did on MBI but I was prohibited from finding out.

When a new justice center was recommended to the Loudon County Commission, the matter died for a lack of motion.

MBI is the same company that was chosen for the renovation proposals for the high schools that was original estimated at $40M and has now ballooned up to $66M.  Given that the same company has been recommended for and involved in two important, and very costly proposals the people deserve answers that Commissioners Dave Bennett, Rick Carver and Mike Caylor and Blount County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff French and Jail Administrator John Adams prohibited me from obtaining.

This is a farce.  Nothing about the jail can be trusted.

I have requested Kerr’s notes related to MBI for the jail and high school renovations.  We’ll see what I get.

BCCP emails:
Chairman Rick Carver rcarver@blounttn.org
Commissioner Mike Caylor mcaylor@blounttn.org, bmcaylor@maryville-tn.gov
Commissioner Dave Bennett dbennett@blounttn.org
Commissioner Tona Monroe tmonroe@blounttn.org
Chief Deputy Jeff French jfrench@bcso.com
Jail Administrator John Adams jadams@bcso.com
Finance Director Randy Vineyard rvineyard@blounttn.org
General Session Judge Mike Gallegos mgallegos@blounttn.org
Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington tharrington@blounttn.org

Other Chairs:
Agenda Committee Chairman Steve Samples ssamples@blounttn.org
Commission Chairman Jerome Moon jmoon@blounttn.org

Up next: The commission will be considering MBI for work related to the jail and expansion and renovation of the high schools.  Some have contacted me about these matters.  If you want answers, you’re going to have to help me as I’ve been stonewalled by the courthouse clique.

February 2017 Commission Report

Agenda Committee
Spending increase rejected
The commission actually rejected a spending increase request from the schools for tennis court renovations.  This is the first spending request, apart from the annual budget, that this commission has rejected.

Commission meetings
State inmate revenue reported incorrectly

After the Tennessee Department of Corrections announced that it would transfer some of its state felons to state facilities, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office started providing the commission a monthly report showing the revenue that the county is receiving from the state for housing state felons.  The county receives $37 a day from the state of Tennessee but the reports have been incorrectly stating that the daily per diem rate is $37.50.  $37 a day is substantially less than the cost to the county for housing state sentenced felons.  Blount County Sheriff James Berrong told the commission last April that the state inmates are only a good deal for the state and that he doesn’t want to keep them.

Highway Department
The commission was asked to approve spending $800,000 of fund balance for the Blount County Highway Department (HD) in a special called meeting.  This request was deemed an emergency by Highway Superintendent (HS) Jeff Headrick, due to trucks being damaged by salt.

The request included 8 new single-axial diesel salt trucks and 4 trailers.  I asked how many salt trucks the HD has.  Headrick didn’t know.  Assistant Superintendent Chico Messer told the commission that the HD has 15.

A common sense fleet management policy would be to replace these trucks at the rate of 1 or 2 a year.  It doesn’t make sense to replace the majority of your fleet (8 of 15) in one budget year.  While this seems to be poor management on the part of the former Highway Superintendent Bill Dunlap, it is also poor planning on the part of the new HS.  A slower, more consistent, replacement of the fleet allows for better budget planning and as well as use of the vehicles.

The HD had just purchased 2 new triple-axial trucks in December at a cost of $145,746.80 each.  There was a transfer for $35,000 in January for parts.

At the regular commission meeting, the commission was asked to approve $281,000 to purchase a pug mill and asphalt patching trailer as well as $120,000 for asphalt.  Commissioner Mike Akard asked if the $120,000 for asphalt was an emergency.  Headrick said that it was but no explanation was given as to why it wasn’t included in the special called meeting with the equipment purchase.

Additionally, there was a $13,579.46 request to increase salaries in the Highway Department.  Commissioner Dave Bennett asked for this item to be removed without providing an explanation for its removal.

The requests and purchases for equipment and parts total over $1.4M in less than 3 months.  This was too much too fast.

It makes sense to approve more money for asphalt because the county hasn’t been keeping up with its paving needs.  Headrick said that the $120K will pave an additional 2.25 miles of the 830 miles of local roads.  Additionally, I asked him for a list of roads that will be paved in the next year.  You can read that list here.

Taxpayers footed the lunch bill for the commission, the mayor and his staff and some highway employees for the special called meeting.  Meals paid for by the taxpaying citizens of Blount County have become all too common of a practice.

Ethra funding
The commission was asked to approve the use of local tax money to bail out a federally funded program.  This isn’t the first time that the federal government has failed to fund one of its programs.  Funding was cut and service was to be temporarily halted.  This is a good example of why the federal government shouldn’t be running programs.  There is no constitutional authority for the federal government to fund this program.

There were unanswered questions.  A commissioner who is a part of the courthouse clique said after the meeting that this matter wasn’t explained well to the commission.

As a county commissioner, it isn’t my job to vote to bail out unconstitutional, federal government programs.  Furthermore, not one person from my district called me and asked me to vote for this.  I was the only commissioner to vote no.

Workers compensation (comp) settlement
The commission was asked to approve a workers comp settlement because the settlement was more than $50,000.  The case had been ongoing for over 2 years.  I had asked for records related to the case back in December, primarily because I wanted to know the cost of the legal fees for the case, and was provided with nothing.  Since I didn’t receive anything, I called  Director of General Services Don Stallions and he told me that the legal fees for the case is about $75,000.

I told Mr. Stallions that the commission should, at a minimum, be provided with an annual report on the status of lawsuits and claims against the county, but ideally it should be provided quarterly.  He agreed and said that the information used to be provided in the past when the county had a committee dealing with these matters.  When I mentioned this at the commission meeting, Commissioner Bennett made a statement cautioning against releasing information.  Apparently the status quo of having nothing is acceptable to him, although I doubt he’d run a private business without having this information.

For almost a year, I have been trying to get records and information from Stallions regarding the status of law suits, claims and settlements.  To date he has provided me with nothing.  This lengthy delay is not out of sort.  A former commissioner shared with me that Mr. Stallions stalled him for 2 years on a request.

Jail RFQ purchasing meeting
After I publically criticized the secrecy created by a new purchasing law, the Purchasing Department held a meeting open to the public so three companies chosen in secret could give presentations as to why their company is the best to look at jail expansion or construction of a new facility.  No decisions were made at the meeting.  The selection of the company was done behind closed doors, to protect the integrity of the process, according to Purchasing Agent (PA) Katie Branham Kerr.  This means that the Tennessee General Assembly and the Purchasing Agent think that the public lacks the integrity to allow her to select a company openly.

The Evaluation Team/Screening Committee consisted of 4 of the 5 people that I named here.  Laurie Bell did not participate at the meeting.  Commissioner Mike Caylor missed two of the three presentations.

Presenters for Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) said that Blount County has a better jail that most in the state and that Monroe County would love to have what we have today.

When asked what the county needs a presenter for Barber McMurry (BMA) said he didn’t know.  This affirms what I have been saying, that Blount County got the cart before the horse.  The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) and the commission never identified what the county needed.

A presenter for Cope Architecture said he suggested a jail committee that would meet weekly during planning and construction.  His suggestion for the makeup of the committee is essentially what exists now with the BCCP.

Upon request, PA Branham Kerr informed me that MBI was chosen.  This is the same company that the schools are using that came back with a $66M proposal after originally estimating $40M.  The public wasn’t allowed to express concerns about a company that went way over what was originally estimated.  We’re told that your comments would have corrupted the integrity of the process.

It’s not surprising that MBI was chosen.  They’ve been watching this for years.  Roy Latham, an employee of MBI, has been attending commission meetings for years.  Commissioners receive a chocolate bar for Christmas from MBI.  Allowing them to be chosen in secret makes me wonder if MBI was a shoo-in all along.

Up next: “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.”  Indian Proverb

Blount County is facing two big renovation/building project: the 2 high schools and the jail.  These two matters could become very expensive, quickly.  Pay close attention to these matters.

The Purchasing Agent will make her recommendation for MBI to the BCCP on March 28th at 5:30 in room 430 at the courthouse.

2 of chairman’s picks for records committee work for local government

Last night the Blount County Commission voted to create an ad hoc committee to write an open records policy for Blount County government.  The committee will consist of 5 members: 3 appointed by Commission Chairman Jerome Moon and 2 appointed by Mayor Ed Mitchell.

Jerome Moon has chosen himself and Commissioners Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor.  Both Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor are local government employees.  Grady Caskey works for Blount County Schools and Mike Caylor works for the City of Maryville.  The 5 member committee will have at least 2 members who may have a tendency to favor the government over the citizenry.

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?