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April 2016 Commission Report

If you demand better government you will get better government.  Blount County Commissioner Tona Monroe

Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP)
BCCP Chairman Jeff Headrick missed the March and April BCCP meetings.  Vice Chairman Rick Carver filled in.  Carver showed that he has little or no respect for our constitutional participatory process*.  Citizens have shared with me the horrible faces that he makes when they are speaking and when I am speaking.  Apparently he can’t hide his contempt for the people he is suppose to be representing.

Last month BCCP Vice Chairman Rick Carver asked the BCCP whether we should ram through a request for qualifications (RFQ) to expand the jail.  This matter wasn’t on the agenda.  Another meeting was called to place the item on the BCCP agenda, to ensure that the rush to vote on seeking an RFQ to expand the jail and look at program services would be legal.  What does that say about some local government employees and officials that they would want to ram through something this important without giving the public time to comment?

This wasn’t Carver’s only legally questionable move related to the BCCP.  He also prohibited me from adding an item to the BCCP agenda.  At the end of the March BCCP meeting I requested that discussion and possible action to make a recommendation about housing federal inmates be placed on the agenda.  Rick Carver said he would not allow it to be placed on the agenda.  I asked him if he had authority to stop me from placing an item on the agenda.  He said that he didn’t know.

After the meeting I (Tona Monroe) told Rick Carver that he couldn’t do what he had just done.  He told me to add it to the agenda.  I called Rhonda Pitts, the Commission Secretary, and shared that Rick Carver told me to add it to the agenda.

The agenda was released without the item that I requested.  Neither Pitts or Carver have the integrity to answer who told Pitts to exclude the item from the agenda.  However, records that I have obtained indicate that Rick Carver was making decisions related to the BCCP, in the absence of Jeff Headrick.  Pitts has also failed to properly record the motions that I make into the BCCP meeting minutes.

Historically, no commissioner has ever been prohibiting from adding items to the agenda, that I am aware of.  The commission is free to reject the item and even remove it from the agenda if they choose not to discuss it.  However, prohibiting a commissioner from adding something to the agenda is unprecedented and it trashes the fiduciary responsibility and sacred trust that elected officials have been given.

If it seems trite to talk about this scared trust, it is because people like Rick Carver have thrown our system of governance into the trash bin of antiquity, preferring a oligarchy to our constitutional republic.  No commissioner should be allowed to dictate what can and can not be placed on a meeting agenda.  Why have a committee if one person, acting as chair, can bottleneck and determine the entire agenda?  Committees are suppose to discuss ideas not stifle them.

Defining moment – dangerous precedent
This is a defining moment in Blount County government.  If Rick Carver is allowed to get away with his actions, then the machine will never again have to allow commissioners to place items on the agenda that they don’t approve of.

I am doing what I can to stop this deplorable action from happening again but I can’t do it alone.  It is time for you to step up and demand that this stop.  If you demand better government, you will get better government.

Rick Carver’s phone number is 984-6674 and his email address is rcarver@blounttn.org.  Commission Secretary Rhonda Pitt’s can be reached at 273-5830 and her email is rpitts@blounttn.org.  County Clerk Margaret Flynn, Rhonda’s supervisor, can be reached at 273-5804 and her email is maflynn@blounttn.org.

The RFQ was approved with only me voting no.  This should come as no surprise.  Of the 5 voting members present, 2 are employees of the Sheriff (Jeff French and John Adams), one was finically supported by the Sheriff during his campaign (Rick Carver) and the other sits on a board with the Sheriff (Mike Caylor).

I made a motion to amend the RFQ recommendation it to program services and not expansion of the jail.  Mike Caylor embarrassed himself by speaking out of order by saying that he wouldn’t accept my amendment to his motion, rather than allowing the process to work.

There was further embarrassment when clarification had to be sought from the Purchasing Agent, Katie Branham, as to whether the recommendation needed to be sent to the commission.  The Purchasing Agent said that under the Purchasing Act of 1957, which the county operates under, the BCCP could recommend that she issue the RFQ without commission approval.

It is no wonder that the Purchasing Agent was overheard saying, they don’t know what they are doing.  She is correct.  Rick Carver and Mike Caylor don’t know what they are doing.  They do what they are told and many times they can’t even do what they are told correctly.

No solution Mike Caylor asked the Finance Director, Randy Vineyard, what he thought about the procedure for handling the RFQ process.  The Finance Director, who is usually quite happy to run things while the mayor is out to lunch or cutting a ribbon, told Caylor you’ve heard the same things that I heard.  Caylor said, I just wanted to hear you (Vineyard) say it and laughed.  Once again no solution Caylor was showing that he doesn’t want to do the thinking and is just there as a rubber stamp for the machine.

Agenda Committee
Favoritism shown
Toward the end of each meeting there is a section on the agenda for statements and announcements from commissioners.  The Agenda Committee Chairman Steve Samples frequently skips over the section.  I had my light on to speak and he skipped me and went straight to public input for items on the agenda.

Rather than letting me make my statement in my commission seat, where commissioners normally make their statements, Jerome Moon insisted that I go to the podium and speak which I did.  However, Samples let commissioner Ron French speak from his seat.  Moon did not insist that French go to the podium and speak.  Samples apologized to me after the meeting but he let Moon have his way.

Called Commission meeting
The commission approved the RFQ to look at costs to expand the jail and/or programs.  I made the motion to remove jail expansion and just focus on programs.  My amendment failed with Commissioners Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Tom Cole, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and me voting for it.  These are the same 6 who voted against the RFQ.

The paper reported the final vote wrong.  Jerome Moon did not abstain and Gary Farmer left before the final vote.  Jeff Headrick was absent at the start of the meeting but came in late and voted yes.  Headrick and Carver are the two sponsors of the resolution.

What Jerome Moon abstained on was my challenge to his ruling as Chair.  No solution Mike Caylor who wanted to hear from the Finance Director, who had nothing to say, declared a point of order saying that I was out of order because I was referring to the Institute for Law and Policy Planning report which discussed why we didn’t need to build.  It is not out of order for a commissioner to talk about why we shouldn’t be doing something before the body (commission) and reference resources that support that position.  However, Jerome Moon declared me out of order and the commission voted to shut my discussion on the matter down by upholding Moon’s ruling.

I wasn’t the only one shut down when referencing the jail study.  Moon shut citizens down who spoke about the study.  He also told commissioner Tom Cole that he could be sued if he didn’t vote for the RFQ.

What has Blount County government become?
Think about what Blount County government has become and decide if it is serving you well.  If not, you shouldn’t put up with this and should demand better from those who are suppose to be your public servants.

  • The Blount County Adult Detention Facility (jail) is overcrowded, exceeding its certified capacity of 350 beds.
  • The sheriff and US Marshal’s service willfully contribute to the crowding problem by agreeing to house federal inmates in the jail.
  • The taxpayers funded a $94,580 study to address jail overcrowding.
  • The study is a criminal justice system assessment and not just a plan to expand the jail.
  • Several of the powers that be were upset with the findings, conclusions and recommendations.
  • The BCCP recommended that the commission conduct a teleconference hearing with the jail consultant.
  • The Mayor threatened to sue the consultant to stop discussion on the study.
  • The county paid $3,710 in legal fees to the mayor’s attorney.
  • There was no lawsuit and the commission still rejected hearing from the consultant.
  • The study said that the county is losing money housing federal prisoners and that the only way to make it seem like money is being made is to understaff and overcrowd the jail.
  • I requested that the issue of housing federal prisoners be added to the BCCP agenda.  It took 7 months for this to happen.
  • After some discussion with figures showing that the county isn’t making money on federal inmates, the BCCP Chairman Jeff Headrick cut discussion off and moved to the next item before I could make a motion to recommend that we stop taking federal inmates.
  • The Finance Director and Sheriff Office cut the revenue projections for housing federal prisoners.
  • More revenue accumulated than projected.
  • The Finance Director, Mayor and Sheriff secretly planned to use this accumulated revenue to build.
  • The Purchasing Agent chose a company charging 3.5 times more than the lowest offer to renegotiate the federal inmate per diem daily rate.
  • The county was obligated to pay the $65,000 consultant fee but the commission wasn’t presented with a budget amendment until after services were rendered.
  • I tried to place the federal prisoners issue back on the BCCP agenda, to make a recommendation but Vice Chairman Rick Carver stopped it from being placed on the agenda.
  • Commission Secretary Rhonda Pitts has refused to record the words of my amendments in the meeting minutes.
  • Mike Caylor declared a point of order prohibiting me from speaking about why we didn’t need to build.
  • Jerome Moon ruled that I was out of order and commission upheld that a commissioner can’t talk about why we shouldn’t build, when being presented with resolution seeking approval of an RFQ to build.
  • The sheriff told the paper in December that he hasn’t asked the commission for a new jail.
  • The sheriff still hasn’t asked the commission for a new jail or expansion.

Why are we doing this?

Commission meeting – a spending spree
Mike Caylor was absent.

The majority of commissioners showed again that they have no fiscal discipline and that they are happy to accommodate government anytime it wants to go on a spending binge.

The schools were back for more budget increases despite being given a huge increase in local revenue this year and already receiving another large budget increase a few months back.  I have never received the information that I requested regarding new hires and part time jobs being made full time this fiscal year.  Only commissioner Karen Miller and I voted against giving the schools another big increase.

The commission was presented with a lease for laptops for the Sheriff’s Office.  There were numerous problems with this lease.  Neither the Purchasing Agent or the new $100+ hourly Mindboard IT consultant could answer questions about the agreements that they negotiate.  I asked why the paperwork listed a 4 year warranty for a 3 year lease.  The $100+ hourly IT consultant did say what was already obvious, that this 3 lease is just a way to go and get new laptops again in 3 years, rather than using the laptops for the life of the equipment.  During the meeting commissioner Mike Akard was able to find a lower price for the same model laptops from the same vendor.  This item narrowly passed.  This is the closest that this commission has ever come to actually killing a spending item.  Why we need someone making over $100 a hour involved in a laptop lease is beyond me.

The most potentially dangerous item approved by the commission is a lease agreement for county employees to lease new cars for 5 years.  The Sheriff’s Office and Blount County Schools are excluded.  The rest will be able to get new cars if they can find the money in their budgets.  With all the transfers taking place, it won’t surprise me to see several people with new cars soon.

Besides the obvious opening the door to get new cars, this matter was not presented in a business like manner to the commission.  The commission should have been given an expense sheet documenting the cost of purchasing and maintaining cars for at least the last 3 budget years, preferably more.  We should have been given a list of market options, beyond leasing new cars.  There are software programs that handle fleet management but nothing like this was presented, even though the lease agreement was sold to the budget committee as a way to solve our lack of having a fleet management system.  All the market options should have been presented to us so that we could determine what the best option was.  We were given none of this.  While the laptops were a bad deal for the taxpayers and few cars will quickly cost more than the laptops.  Only myself and commissioner Karen Miller voted no on this poorly thought out way to manage county vehicles.

The annual litter grant, with language about an Environmental Court being envisioned, was back.  Last year I pointed this matter out and put forth an amendment to ensure that no funds would be used for this purpose.  That amendment failed and it failed again this year.  If there is no agenda or desire for an Environmental Court, why does this statement keep getting submitted to the state?

Information Technology (IT) Steering Committee meeting canceled
The IT Committee meeting was canceled.  No explanation was given for the cancelation.  Mike Cain, Assistant IT Director and custodian of the IT Committee minutes, has not responded to my email inquiring why the meeting was canceled.  This is bad for the taxpayers of Blount County because it reduces oversight on major, expensive IT projects.

IT costs have soared the past couple of years.  The IT Committee should be meeting regularly to ensure good fiscal stewardship of the large sums of taxpayer monies that have been allocated to IT projects.  However, the opposite is occurring.

The IT Committee is only scheduled to meet 4 times a year and this meeting was canceled.  With no meeting on the near horizon and an Assistant IT Director who won’t respond to emails, it makes it difficult for me to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent wisely.  I never had a problem getting a timely response from the former IT Director John Herron.

Unfortunately this is business as usual.  The Mayor and his staff willfully leave those who might question their decisions in the dark.  Canceling a meeting, when we should be discussing how the $1.3 million IT fund is being spent is the latest way to avoid accountability.

Up next
The commission will chose a replacement for Jeff Headrick, to serve until the next election.

Call to action – Please get involved in your government
As I stated above, if you demand better government you will get better government.  Make phone calls, send emails, write letters to the editor and attend commission meetings.  Local government is right here.  You don’t have to drive to Nashville or Washington DC to be heard.  If you don’t show up, you will have to pay up, because your taxes will keep going up to pay for all the poor decisions being made right in your back yard.  This is your government.  Take charge of it.  Let freedom ring!

 

*Constitutional participatory process: this is commonly called the democratic process.

Commission Chairman Jerome Moon spoke to commissioner about being sued over jail ahead of vote

Mayor Ed Mitchell called a commission meeting to approve authorizing the Purchasing Agent to solicit a request for qualifications (RFQ) to expand the jail and/or programs.  During public input, Marilyn Willocks said that she had heard that Blount County Commission Chairman Jerome Moon had been telling commissioners that they could be sued if they didn’t vote to authorize the RFQ.  Moon interrupted the speaker, saying “I have not told” and then stops speaking.  Ms. Willocks continues on saying, “Well this is what I hear out in the public.”  Moon didn’t say anything further on the matter during the meeting.  What is it that he did not tell?

After the meeting, Mary Cook asked Jerome Moon why he had told her son-in-law, commissioner Tom Cole, that he would be sued if he didn’t vote for the RFQ.  This sort of intimidation tactic seems to works on people who have no desire to find or listen to solutions, like commissioner Mike Caylor.

Moon’s tactic sounds more like a threat than the truth.  It was Tennessee Corrections Institute bureaucrats bully Bob Bass and William R. Kane, who continues to make false statements in the “note” section of his inspection reports, who read the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) the riot act, not federal officials.  Although, the US Marshal’s Service should be taking notice because they are willfully housing inmates in the Blount County Adult Detention Facility.

The commission voted 12-6 for the RFQ.  This is to be expected when Rick Carver is allowed to act as a dictator prohibiting a commissioner from adding something to the BCCP agenda that would actually reduce overcrowding in the jail.  Ms. Willocks said commissioners plural.  Did Jerome Moon talk to other commissioners before the vote?  What are Rick Carver and Jerome Moon so afraid of that they do their dirty deeds in secret?

Commissioner Mike Caylor keeps embarrassing himself

MrPotatoHead-Vector-Gradient

One is Mr. Potato Head, the other is Mike Caylor. You decide which one is which.

Mike Caylor was recently appointed to the Budget Committee.  Caylor wasn’t the Mayor’s first choice, or second, or third or even Special Ed Mitchell’s fourth choice for the Budget Committee.  Commissioners Kenneth Melton, Steve Samples and Tom Cole have all resigned from the Budget Committee.  Archie Archer turned down a seat on the Budget Committee.  Caylor was pretty far down on the Mayor’s list but going to a 5th string bench produced a yes man.

Caylor is a City of Maryville Fire Department employee.  Caylor has been chosen by the commission to serve on a board that contains city and county members.  It raises the question of whether he is representing the city or the county in this position.  Couldn’t the county find someone who isn’t a city employee to fill this role?

He embarrassed himself in 2013 when he read a letter from the Mayor’s Attorney, Craig Garrett, attacking Jim Folts for posting something on his website that had been readily available on the county’s website for over 2 years.  Jim Folts set the record straight on that.

He’s probably never been as brazen as he was when he said that he’d broken a commission rule and said that he would do it again.  His latest pattern of behavior is to interrupt me and declare a point of order when I question the supposed need to expand the jail.

He is the only commissioner to serve on the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) since its inception.  He openly admits that he doesn’t know what to do to address the jail overcrowding.  He should be embarrassed to admit that since the county paid for a report that offered solutions.

He says that we’ve talked this to death.  However, the Blount County Corrections Partnership only met 4 times in 2015 and Caylor voted against even hearing from the jail consultant that was paid to do a criminal justice system assessment.  When was this talked to death when the consultant never got to present his final report?

At the April 7, BCCP meeting Caylor said that we need to recommend that the commission approve a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to buy some time.  Really?  Buy some time for what: the hope that he will come up with a solution?  He’s already said he doesn’t have a solution and he voted against talking to the jail consultant about the Institute for Law and Policy Planning report which proposes solutions.

He wasn’t even sure how to properly make that recommendation.  The Purchasing Agent was overheard saying, “they don’t know what they’re doing” after responding to questions about how to handle the RFQ.

The jail is a volatile situation.  As a firefighter, Mike Caylor should know better than to play with matches.  If he spent as much time seeking solutions to address this problem as it appears that he has been spending reading this website, while at his cushy job, he would have some solutions.

Buying time isn’t a solution.  If he doesn’t have any solutions, he should resign from the BCCP and stop working to silence those who are trying to propose solutions.

Citizen comments from BCCP meeting

The paper had a decent article on the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) meeting last night.  What was missing from the story are comments from the citizens.

Shirley Rupert did a lot of research prior to the meeting and spoke.  Her comments are posted here.

As a lifelong resident of Maryville, I am very concerned with the direction our Justice Center is taking.  On this date (4/7/16) there are 568 inmates in a facility made to house 350.  Below is a breakdown of those inmates:

TN Dept of Corrections:  147
FEDERAL:  68
Sentenced Felon: 100
SENTENCED MISDEMEANOR:  61
PRETRIAL FELON :    123
PRETRIAL MISDEMEANOR:  69

Looking at these numbers and doing some simple math will show what is causing the overcrowding.

IF we eliminate the TN Dept. of Corrections (147) and the Federal (68) inmates, there will be no crowding.  These inmates are a drain on our local economy.  Although, Blount County is reimbursed to facilitate them, it is not enough to cover the costs completely.

The number of citizens that are our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers awaiting trail is also a reason for concern.  Having 192 citizens waiting to be assigned an attorney and/or a date with the judge is not acceptable.  In this economy, one week from work will result in loosing a job, housing, vehicle, and when extended, even their family.   These inmates are sleeping on floors without bedding, not receiving medical attention and/or being subjected to cruel behaviors.  All of this is prior to being convicted of any crime!

Another issue for concern is the staff at the Justice Center.  Even though, we house 568 inmates, we only staff enough employees for the 350 limit.  These employees are expected to care and manage an excessive number of inmates for the same pay.  This is a stressful situation for many of or neighbors that work for the Justice Center, resulting in high rate of job changes.

Upon release, the inmates receive an invoice for the expenses incurred by the County and will be assigned a Probation Officer.  They must meet with the Officer once a month and pay a fee for said Officer, along with reimbursing the county for their court costs and stay in the facility.  If, for any reason, they miss an appointment, a warrant will be issued for their arrest.  Many of us work long hours just to maintain our households.  A monthly appointment requires leaving work, obtaining funds and meeting with an Officer that has nothing to offer, other than encouragement to make your next appointment.

According to a Warrant Study from 2011, over 7,500 Warrants were issued that year.  Of those, 5,000 were violations to the court!  These include:  Failure to Appear, Contempt, and/or Violation of Probation.  More emphasis is being put on keeping our citizens in the system than keeping our county safe.  The majority of the inmates are in jail because they were unable to either pay fines, or obtain a attorney.

I appreciate the fact that our county is safe and one of the most sought after places to live.  I highly doubt that bringing in additional Federal and State Inmates will add to our charm.  In fact, I would anticipate that a Federal or State Penitentiary would definitely be a blemish to our town.

*Note: Inmates without beds are given a sled with a mattress unless the number of inmates exceeds the number of sleds available.

3 ladies on commission looking out for taxpayers

The three ladies on the commission Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and Tona Monroe are looking out for the taxpayers and the best interests of everyone in the community.  All three spoke against jail expansion at the Blount County Correction Partnership (BCCP) meeting Thursday and against housing federal inmates in the local jail.

Housing federal prisoners has been a financial drain to the taxpayers of Blount County for many years.  The jail study, which the political machine tried to bury after spending over $94,000 of taxpayer money, said that the only way the Sheriff could claim to make money on housing federal inmates is to overcrowd and understaff the jail.  This creates a dangerous situation for everyone: the officers in the jail, the inmates and the taxpayers.

It may also be creating an unconstitutional jail.  The jail study says our jail is bordering on unconstitutional.  Deliberately housing discretionary inmates in an overcrowded facility, sounds willfully indifferent to me.  Whether a judge would see it that way, I don’t know.

Alarmingly, the Sheriff’s employees on the BCCP don’t seem to care.  They continue to support the practice of housing federal inmates, to the determent of our wonderful community.

The officers working in the jail should pay close attention to this matter.  The Sheriff has created a dangerous situation by crowding the jail with federal inmates and their supervisors (BCCP members Chief Deputy Jeff French and Captain John Adams) defend the practice of a crowded jail that is understaffed to “make money” housing federal prisoners.  And why not?  Both of these men are well paid while the corrections officers are not.

The sheriff makes $117,835.  Jeff French makes $84,824.  John Adams makes $63,278.  Plus, have you seen the fancy cars that the Sheriff and his choice, top deputies drive around in?  Corrections officers in the jail, those without rank, are making in the low to mid thirties.

While the sheriff has convinced some of his employees that the three women are against them, they aren’t the ones drawing big salaries and riding around in fancy cars.  Furthermore, its the sheriff who unilaterally continues to overcrowd the jail with federal prisoners, putting more on the staff than they should handle all in the name of making money.  It’s the three ladies who are speaking out and trying to stop this money losing, dangerous and possibly unconstitutional practice; thereby, looking out for the safety of the officers and protecting the taxpaying citizens.

Bob Bass of TCI tells press and citizens to turn cameras off: Shows them video already on YouTube

As a shining example of trashing openness and transparency in government, Bob “the Bully” Bass, County Corrections Partnership Coordinator and Detention Facilities Specialist with the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) told the press and citizens present at an open public meeting to turn their cameras off.  His reason?  The presentation contained law enforcement sensitive information.

That might have had some validity had Bob “the Bully” Bass not said later in the meeting that the video he showed was available on YouTube.  Yeap, that’s right.  You can watch the video online on YouTube.

Now back to that open meeting thing.  It’s an OPEN MEETING BOB.  You know, the kind where the public is invited to attend so that they can see what their government is up to.  Oh that’s right, you and the machine don’t want the people watching you.

Even the press didn’t show up to the last Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) meeting.  The paper watched the recording available online and reported on it two days after the meeting.  What’s the press going to do when they don’t show up and the meetings haven’t been recorded?

The investigative journalist providing the video told me that the meetings of the County Corrections Partnership, in the county where this video was recorded, are held in a restricted area.  Yeah, that’s right.  The meetings open to the public are held in a restricted area.  Just exactly how many people are going to make an effort to get through security and into a restricted area to attend an “open” public meeting?

That reminds of the meeting here in Blount County last June when Bob “the Bully” Bass gave the same presentation to the Blount County Corrections Partnership.  That meeting was held at the Justice Center not the courthouse.  The IT Director had made arrangements to record that meeting but Bob “the Bully” Bass stopped that recording as well.

The rule makers want it this way.  The meetings are “open” to the public but they don’t have to be convenient or recorded.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Except that it is your wallets they are emptying.  Remember the jail study which said that Blount County needed to totally rethink the use of its jail?  Remember the $1 million plan with a plan for another million?  Now Bob “the Bully” Bass is pushing to build after his off the video camera presentation.  A member of the TCI Board of Control said that Blount County could use a nice 100,000 person jail.

Do you want Blount County to be the location of the next Brushy Mountain prison?  If not, show up Thursday at 5:30 in room 315, where there isn’t a video camera rolling and the machine hopes you aren’t present and watching them.

January 2015 Commission Report

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

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

Commission meeting
Commissioner Ron French was absent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why were federal inmates removed from the Blount County jail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2015 Commission Report

Commission canceled meeting – Mayor calls one anyway, ramrods 20 resolutions through during Christmas season
Ordinarily commissioners place resolutions on the agenda of the Agenda Committee, where the committee will discuss whether to send the resolution(s) forward to the monthly commission meeting.  For two of the last three months, resolutions have not gone through the normal double vetting process.

In October, the mayor decided that he wanted to control the agenda of the commission by calling a special meeting the same week as the regularly scheduled commission meeting.  Commission Chairman Jerome Moon canceled the regular commission meeting because there was no need to have two meetings in the same week.  This allowed the Mayor to set the agenda for the Commission instead of the Commission setting its own agenda.

With unanimous consent, the County Commission canceled its December meetings (Agenda Committee and Commission) but the Mayor disrespected the choice of the commission by calling a special meeting to ramrod 20 resolutions through, including the creation of an IT fund using $1.3 million of your tax money.  This move allowed the mayor to set the agenda again.

Under the state law, the mayor can call special meetings of the Blount County legislative body.  There is rarely a need to call a special meeting because the commission meets regularly, once a month.  However, the mayor has decided to abuse the process in recent months.  A special meeting should be called when an urgent need arises to deal with an important matter.  Special meetings shouldn’t be called to avoid the Agenda Committee process or to ramrod large agendas through during the holiday season when few people are able to attend meetings and/or are paying attention.

Commission meeting
Commissioners Mike Caylor and Karen Miller were absent.  The other 19 were present.

20 resolutions – no fiscal discipline
There were 20 resolutions on the special called meeting and all 20 passed.  While seven of the resolutions were to amend the budget to reflect the funds that the County received to recoup expenses related to the CSX train derailment and one was to allow for safe passage of a visitor from the North Pole there were twelve more resolutions that should have gone through the usual vetting process.  This is a sorry way to conduct business.

If you are upset with the omnibus spending bill that congress just rammed through, you’ll want to pay closer attention to your local government that just rammed through 20 resolutions in a rush right before the Christmas holiday season.  There is a Washington, DC, Blount County, Tennessee parallel.

Property Assessor cut health benefits and then wanted it back and more
The Commission was asked to vote on a budget amendment to increase funding for health care benefits for the Property Assessor’s reappraisal employees.  The Commission was asked to appropriate an additional $35,500.  Interestingly, most of this amount was in the budget last year.  See page 18 for the FY 15 and 16 health insurance amounts.  The cost centers are 205 and 207.  When I inquired why money had been cut from these cost centers, no one from the Property Assessor’s Office was present to answer the question.  No one from the Property Assessor’s Office attended the Budget Committee to explain this either.

$1.3 million IT Fund – IT expenses $4.1 million without approval of IT Committee
Information Technology (IT) expenses are projected to have a 5 year cost exceeding $4.1 million.  Remarkably, none of these expenses have been recommended by the IT Committee.

Finance Director Randy Vineyard is the driving force behind many of these expenditures.  He appears to be the defacto leader of the courthouse, rather than Mayor Ed Mitchell.

The costs include:

  • $2.3 million for Kronos, over a 5 year period
  • $9,300 for the first year and $3,400 each year there after for software used by the Election Commission
  • $579,064 Spillman software purchase for Sheriff’s Office
  • $1,348,942 million IT Fund to update infrastructure and purchase new equipment

The Commission was not presented with the Election Commission software purchase because the Election Commission budget was already so bloated that it did not take an increase to purchase the software.  The IT Committee sent this item to the Budget Committee on the condition that the Administrator of Elections show up and explain the purchase.  The Administrator did not attend the IT Committee meeting and did not provide any explanation to the IT Committee as to why the new software was needed.

The Election Commission had previously been using in-house software.  The IT Director said the new software requested by the new Administrator of Elections Susan Hughes will actually take more time to use than the old system.  Why anyone would want to spend money on software that takes more time to use than an in house system is beyond me.  To add insult to injury, when Hughes inquired whether she needed to present the software request to the Commission, the Mayor responded saying, not unless you are a glutton for punishment.

The Kronos payroll, time keeping and H.R. software was a top secret project.  The lead volunteer on the project is no longer overseeing the project and the payroll portion is 3 months behind schedule.

The Spillman software purchase last month was another big expense.  All but $100,000 of it was funded with court costs.  You can read the contract here.

The IT Director, John Herron, left earlier this year to go to work for Blount County Schools.  He kept the County’s IT system afloat on in-house software and by modifying software purchased many years ago.  This saved the County large sums of money that is and will be spent on more modern software programs.  While many of us in the private sector make due without having state of the art everything and live within our budgets this apparently wasn’t good enough for our Finance Director.  More than one County employee shared with me that the Finance Director wanted the IT Director gone.  Rather than working with the IT Director while he had the chance, the Finance Director waited until the IT Director left and seized the opportunity to go on a spending spree after already getting a $2.3 million software system the year before.

The Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for an IT company for the newest IT project was sent out on December 4th, before the Budget Committee and Commission met.  This should tell everyone that the Mayor and Finance Director considered this issue a slam dunk with the Budget Committee and the Commission.  It should alarm the taxpaying public that your Commission allows the Mayor and Finance Director to take us for granted.  The legislative body is suppose ensure that important matters aren’t rushed through irresponsibly and that taxpayer money is spent wisely on priority items not long wish lists.

In October, I reported that the IT Committee heard a presentation from Net3 regarding the IT needs of the County.  You can read the report here and view the presentation here.

The IT Committee sent the report to the Budget Committee but made no recommendation based on the report.  When the IT Committee voted to send the report on, I stated that I hoped that before the Budget Committee made any budget
recommendation that the IT Committee be given the chance to make recommendations.  That didn’t happen.

The Budget Committee decided to fund the entire estimated costs (over $1.3 million) listed in the report and recommended putting it into a capital projects fund.  The Budget Committee asked very few questions on the matter.

The Commission addressed the $1.3 million request at the special called meeting.  We were told that the IT Committee had recommended it and that the Sheriff’s Office couldn’t proceed without this fund, neither of which are true.  Creating the fund isn’t actually appropriating money for specific purchases.  The purchases could be made without the fund and still have to go through normal purchasing protocols.

Motions were made to postpone the matter until February, which didn’t make a lot of sense since the matter needed to be prioritized rather than just delayed, to reduce the amount to $700,000 and to send the matter back to the IT Committee.  All 3 motions failed.

Commissioner Mike Akard has written about the matter on his Facebook page.  Rather than me writing basically the same thing here, please read what he has to say here and here.

There are two things that jump out at me regarding the $1.3 million placed in the capital fund.  Some of the estimates seem high.  For example, monitors are listed at an estimated cost of $168.30 each (see page 54) but any of us could walk into an office supply store and get a better off the shelf price, with no prior planning.  The same is likely true for the desktop pcs, even though the individual specifications aren’t listed.  Furthermore, there are two capital costs listed as unknown (see page 53).  I hope this doesn’t cause this latest IT project to exceed its budgeted costs.

The money will come out of the General Fund.  Now that the funds are available, there is little, if any, incentive not to spend the funds.

All of this has taught me that it is a bad policy to forward anything from the IT Committee to the Budget Committee without a specific recommendation.  The IT Committee needs to thoroughly examine everything before sending anything on without a recommendation.  I will be insistent on this in the future.

More mistakes by Finance Director and staff
Last month I wrote about mistakes made by the Finance Director and/or his staff.  The mistakes continued this month.  Last month the Commission was asked to vote on a budget amendment for the donations to the Animal Shelter.  This month we were asked to vote on an amendment to undue last months amendment because we didn’t need the amendment after all.

The Commission was asked to vote to amend the budget to appropriate an additional $578,611 for workers compensation because of an omission by the Finance Director.  It is not that difficult to calculate workers compensation.  Situations can arise that would necessitate a small increase but a competent Finance Director wouldn’t miss the mark this much.

Funding workers compensation isn’t an optional budgetary expenditure.  While I voted for this amendment, in hindsight I wish that I hadn’t.  Could it be that this was under budgeted, to make the budget look smaller than it actually was, knowing that funding it isn’t optional?  It’s much easier to come back during the middle of the fiscal year for a huge budget increase on an expense that isn’t optional than for one that isn’t.  I intend to monitor this situation more closely in the future and will likely only support amendments that are minor necessary adjustments, not huge increases (‘mistakes’) like this.

Competitive sealed bid threshold raised from $10,000 to $25,000
In January, the Commission rejected having the same people serve on the Purchasing Commission and the Budget Committee at the same time.  In March, the Commission approve the Mayor’s appointments to the newly separated Purchasing Commission.  I voted no on the appointments for several reasons, the most important being that I didn’t see anyone in the nominees that I could be sure would look out for the taxpayers.  Unfortunately, based on the first action of the new Purchasing Commission,
my concern is now justified.

It should be noted that this is also one of the first things that the new Purchasing Agent, Katie Branham an attorney, pushed for.  The Purchasing Commission approved 4 to 0 with 1 absent to raise the competitive sealed bid threshold from $10,000 to $25,000.  Now the Purchasing Department will only need to try to get 3 bids before awarding purchases up to $25,000.  Special deals were just made easier in Blount County.  Only Commissioners Akard and I voted no.

Election Commission members given pay raise
We live in a time where the idea that public servants should actually serve the public, rather than themselves, seems trite, if not nonexistent.  I take my job as a public servant very seriously, to the point that I am willing to serve without compensation.  So many today get in positions in government to enrich themselves while giving lip service to the notion of public service.

The Blount County Election Commission meets once a month.  In a non-election year, the meetings can be brief, some lasting less than an hour.  The current pay is $300 a month for each member except for the Chairman who is paid $400.  The members will now be paid $400 a month starting in February.  Where else can you get paid $400 for an hour or two of work each month?

During an election year there is more work for the Election Commission but that is public service.  My wish for the new year is for those who claim they want to serve to examine whether that is really what is in their hearts and minds.  While 4 Commissioners voted no on the resolution to increase the pay, only Commissioners Akard and I voted no on the transfer that made the pay increase possible.

The majority of Election Commissioners were on the Election Commission when it voted to not count the ballots of Keith and Karen Miller in 2010 because they had requested paper ballots.

$1 million ear mark for jail
I have long maintained that our local government operates far too secretively.  That point could not be clearer than the recent revelation that Mayor Ed Mitchell and Finance Director Randy Vineyard earmarked one million for the jail without telling the commission or the public.

When asked for a comment, the Mayor lacked the integrity to even respond.  Failure to respond to a request for comment has become the norm for the Mayor.

The Finance Director said that he had a transition facility in mind when he earmarked the money without telling you, the taxpaying public.  A Sheriff’s employee recently told me that he also wanted a transition facility.  Blount County may benefit from a transition facility but something this important should be discussed openly for the benefit of the public, not behind closed doors with secret earmarking.

The Finance Director serves as a non-voting member of the Blount County Corrections Partnership but he did not bother to inform the BCCP, the Commission or the public about this money.  After the Budget Committee meeting, where I questioned the Finance Director about this money, he yelled at me after the microphones were turned off and the press had left the room.  With this type of behavior and secrecy and the volume of financial mistakes, I am convinced that the taxpaying citizens of Blount County deserve a better Finance Director and Mayor.

With all the big spending by this Commission, Mayor and several office holders, I think the best investment this County could make is to hire a new Finance Director who will be open, better informed, live within the budget and stop making so many mistakes.  My November 6th email to the Finance Director on the nearly $80 million in variable rate debt that will need to be refinanced in 2016 remains unanswered.

Up next
The resolution that I filed in November to have a hearing on the nearly $94,580 jail study was delayed until January.  Interestingly the Sheriff’s Office has already followed the advice given in the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) report regarding renegotiating per diem rates for housing federal inmates.  The ILPP report recommended hiring a company with expertise in rate negotiations to renegotiate the rates.  The Sheriff’s Office took this advice and received a rate increase.

The BCCP unanimously (5-0 with one absent) recommended that the Commission have a hearing on the jail study.  The Commission chose not to because of the Mayor’s false threat of a lawsuit, against the jail consultant, to silence discussion.  There is no lawsuit.  It’s time to hear from the consultant.

The NMA Holiday Travel Checklist: NMA E-Newsletter #362

Record numbers of Americans are expected to hit the road this holiday season. Couple that with the inevitable bad weather and overbearing traffic enforcement, and we thought it made sense to provide this holiday travel checklist—NMA style.

Be Prepared: Pack a roadside safety kit in case you find yourself stranded, especially in bad weather. Pick one up premade or put together your own with a few basic hand tools, jumper cables, flashlight, tire inflator, blankets, first aid kit, etc. Check here for a full list of recommended items.

Plan Ahead Part 1: Staying safe means anticipating road hazards. Check www.speedtrap.org and www.roadblock.org before you leave to see where to expect stepped-up enforcement along your journey. Beyond speeding, police will be working overtime (thanks to federal grants) looking for things like seat belt violations, DUI and distracted driving infractions.

Plan Ahead Part 2: Speaking of distracted driving, cell phone and texting laws vary widely. What is permissible in one state will result in an expensive ticket in another. Check here to get an idea of the laws in the states you plan to visit.

Weather the Storm: Make sure your vehicle is roadworthy and ready for the conditions. Check things like the battery, tires, fluid levels, wiper blades, etc. Here’s a full list.

Take a Deep Breath: Heavy traffic, bad weather and the stresses of the holidays bring out the worst in drivers. Be patient on the road, leave plenty of space between your vehicle and others and …

Spread Some Holiday Cheer: Practice Lane Courtesy and make everyone’s trip a little more enjoyable.

Have a Contingency Plan: Despite your planning and diligence, you still find yourself along the side of the road with a cop looking to fill his federal grant-driven holiday enforcement quota (oops … performance measure). What do you do? Look here for some great tips on how to minimize the damage and get back on your way as soon as possible.

Speak Up: Using the phrases “Am I free to leave now?” and “Am I being detained?” during a traffic stop or roadblock could extract you from further harassment. Also, by exercising your civil rights you can protect yourself should the situation turn more serious and lead to future court proceedings.

Hide the Presents: If you’ve got presents in your vehicle, keep them out of sight. You don’t want any Grinches stealing your Christmas, especially if you’re traveling to New Haven, Connecticut, where police have been stealing valuables from unlocked cars, just to teach their owners a lesson. No kidding.

Go Cashless: Civil forfeiture is always a danger, and the cops will look for any excuse to pick your pocket, even if you’re only carrying a few hundred bucks. Carry as little cash as possible.

Give Back: Consider a year-end donation to the NMA Foundation, which may be tax deductible.

Finish up your Holiday Shopping: Giving a NMA gift membership to someone on your list is easy, inexpensive and always appreciated. Call us at 1-800-882-2785.

https://www.motorists.org/alerts/the-nma-holiday-travel-checklist-nma-e-newsletter-362/