October 2014 Commission Report

October was a really busy month for the County Commission.  I had 6 meetings to attend this month, the Agenda Committee, the Commission Board meeting, 2 special called meetings dealing with the refinancing of County debt, an IT Committee meeting and a Blount County Corrections Partnership meeting.  There is much to report, so please take the time to read this, send it to your friends, family and neighbors and ask any questions that you have.

Debt Refinancing – A Major Step in the Right Direction
One of the best things to happen was the Commission’s decision to seek fixed rate financing for $20,165,000 of variable rate debt and the swap attached to it.  This debt was originally issued on 05/17/01 as the A-1-A bond for $20,000,000 with a variable rate.  The County paid $238,532 in fees to issue this debt.  The County signed a swap contract on 1/17/02 against the bond to synthetically fix the nominal interest rate at 4.31%.  Synthetically fixed doesn’t mean that the interest rate is actually a flat fixed rate.  The rate varied from about 4%-7% until the bond deal blew up in July of 2008.

The County’s credit rating wasn’t good enough to issue variable rate debt on its own.  It purchased bond insurance to be able to issue this complicated variable rate debt.  The bond issuer lost its AAA credit rating, causing the County to have to refinance the debt.  On July 31, 2008 the bond was re-issued as the series E-3-B debt for $20,165,000.  The debt principle increased because the County had to refinance multiple series of debt at once and lacked the funds to pay the refinancing fees.   Alarmingly the County still owes $20,165,000 after 13 years of paying on the debt.  Not one penny has been paid on the principle because is was financed as a balloon payment with the principle being paid only during the last two years of payments.   This situation is worse still because a swap is attached to the debt.  The amount it costs to terminate the swap changes frequently and has been running over $5 million.  In a nutshell the County financed $20 million in debt in May 2001, has been paying on it for 13 years and actually owes nearly $26 million on this debt, including the swap.  It’s insanity and I am happy the Commission decided to put the County on a more fiscally sound path by seeking fixed rate financing.

Information Technology (IT) Committee – Working to improve transparency
Several people have told me that they experience problems with the live streaming and the Google hangout live session recording of County meetings.  I sought membership on this Committee to address these concerns.  John Herron, the County’s IT manager said that it would cost around $30,000 to improve the live streaming.  Mayor Mitchell said that the matter may be presented to the Budget Committee in January.  Herron said that with purchase of some better cameras he could burn a disk and give to the cable access channel, putting the Commission meetings back on cable.  Spending your money is not something that I like doing, but I think this is a wise investment for the citizens.

County Corrections Partnership – Tackling Serious Correction Measures
(formerly Ad hoc Committee to Study Jail Overcrowding)
The former Chairman of the Committee, Tab Burkhalter, spoke about the presentation given on the final report of the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) study to provide solutions on the jail overcrowding.  You can read the study online here.  The Study says “The County needs …to completely rethink the use of its jail” and offers several solutions to reduce overcrowding.

Burkhalter told the Committee that the Jail has a higher than average number of women and that many of them are in the jail for drug problems.  A few months ago I listened to Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington talk about the Drug Court.  She said that the County now has a facility for men, to help them get off drugs and back into society.  There is no facility for women.  In the back of the study there is a list of 118 County properties.  Thus, I made the motion that the Agenda of the next meeting be to look at the empty County buildings and meet with community people who have experience putting together and operating a facility to help women inmates get rehab and return to society.  In December the Committee will discuss this matter.

Agenda and Commission Meetings
Technology Request by Circuit Court Clerk
There was a letter from the Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher requesting that the Commission approve $30,500 for data processing services, maintenance agreements and hardware. (See pages 16-18)  Commissioner Karen Miller asked why the data services and maintenance portions was $26,500 and the equipment was only $4,000.  She was not given an answer explaining why the services and maintenance was over 6 times that of the equipment.

The information provided was vague, with the explanation reading “For purchase of replacement monitors, printers and software support.”  Thus, I inquired into the age of the equipment that the Commission was asked to replace.  The Director of Budgets and Finance gave me a flippant answer saying if it was anything like the rest of the County it was old.  I made a motion to postpone this item until the November meeting so that the Commission could be provided with a detailed list of equipment and software that was being replaced and updated.

The motion failed 6-13.  Akard – yes  Allen – no  Archer – yes  Bowers – no  Carter – no  Carver – no  Caskey – no  Caylor – absent  Cole – yes  Crowe – no  Daly – yes  Farmer – no  French – absent  Headrick – no  Lewis – no  Melton – no  Miller – yes  Monroe – yes  Moon – no  Samples – no  Stinnett – no

Commissioner Samples stated that the money was coming from Court fees not tax money.  My response was that we (the Commission) still have the fiduciary responsibility to see that the money is spent wisely.  Commissioner Allen then stated that the software could be in danger of expiring, but gave no date or a single example.  Those excuses work every time.

The resolution passed 15-4.  Akard – yes  Allen – yes  Archer – no  Bowers – yes  Carter – yes  Carver – yes  Caskey – yes  Caylor – absent  Cole – yes  Crowe – yes  Daly – no  Farmer – yes  French – absent  Headrick – yes  Lewis – yes  Melton – yes  Miller – no  Monroe – no  Moon – yes  Samples – yes  Stinnett – yes

Towers in Residential Areas
The Commission passed a resolution to decrease the minimum tower separation requirements in residential areas from 200 feet to 85 feet from your property line.  Commissioner Archer and I both felt that the public simply wasn’t aware of the matter or there would be more discussion from the community.  Commissioner Archie Archer made a motion to send it back to the Planning Commission for further study.  The referral motion failed 10-9.    Akard – yes  Allen – no  Archer – yes  Bowers – no  Carter – yes  Carver – yes  Caskey – no  Caylor – absent  Cole – yes  Crowe – no  Daly – yes  Farmer – no  French – absent  Headrick – no  Lewis – yes  Melton – no  Miller – yes  Monroe – yes  Moon – no  Samples – yes  Stinnett – no

The final vote total was 11-8.   Akard – no  Allen – yes  Archer – no  Bowers – yes  Carter – no  Carver – yes  Caskey – no  Caylor – absent  Cole – no  Crowe – yes  Daly – no  Farmer – yes  French – absent  Headrick – yes  Lewis – yes  Melton – yes  Miller – no  Monroe – no  Moon – yes  Samples – yes  Stinnett – yes

Open Enrollment Software
The Commission voted to spend $60,000 on a “stop gap” measure for a one year use of a software system that performs open enrollment benefits for County employees.  The County has paid nothing for this service in the past but the Commission was told that we had to pass this because the County changed its benefits administrator who would no longer perform the service for the County.

I asked the new HR Director Jenny Morgan if this $60,000 software had been put out for a bid.  She told the Commission that it had not been put out for a bid.  I then ask if there was any documentation to show that they County was getting the best price for it’s money.  She told me that the documentation that she had was a letter from our benefits adviser.  You can view the one page letter on page 20 here.  Notice there is no supporting documentation in the Commission packet, the information provided to Commissioners.

In July the Commission was encouraged to authorize implementation of an HR software system from Kronos.  Former Commissioner Jim Folts tried to delay the resolution one month so that the Commissioners could study the matter further.  That motion failed after being told that if they rushed the Kronos software system through, they would be able to use it for open enrollment for employee benefits.  That did not materialize.  Furthermore, the savings given in the slide show presentation for the annual open enrollments cost was listed as $117,600 (see page 53).  When I asked why the Commission was given that number in July when the County could buy it for $60,000, nearly half, I wasn’t given an answer.

At the Agenda meeting the voted failed 10-5, with one abstention Grady Caskey.  11 votes are required to send items to the Commission meeting.  After Chairman Steve Samples declared the motion to have failed, Grady Caskey spoke up saying he had intended to vote yes.  Votes can’t be changed after the Chairman announces the results.

Vote total 10-5  Akard – no  Allen – yes  Archer – no  Bowers – absent  Carter – yes  Carver – yes  Caskey – abstain  Caylor – yes  Cole – absent  Crowe – absent  Daly – no  Farmer – yes   French – absent  Headrick – yes  Lewis – absent  Melton – yes  Miller – no  Monroe – no  Moon – yes  Samples – yes  Stinnett – yes

Chairman Samples announced that the Commission would vote again.  I raised a point of order and told the Chairman that he couldn’t move the body, per the rules.

Commissioner Jerome Moon then proceeded to violate the rules by making a motion to reconsider.  The motion was out of order, per Roberts Rules of Order because only Commissioners who voted with the prevailing side, the Commissioners who voted no, may make the motion to reconsider.  In this case only the 5 who voted no, Commissioners Akard, Archer, Daly, Miller and I would be in order to make this motion.  I didn’t catch that fast enough and it slipped through the Agenda meeting, passing 11-5 in violation of the rules.

At the Commission meeting, I moved to have it removed from the Commission Agenda since it was sent in violation of the rules, but the motion failed.  Only Commissioners Akard, Archer, Carter, Caskey, Daly, Miller and I voted to follow the rules.  Commissioners Caylor and French were absent.  The rest voted to continue on after a rule was broken.  My motion to send it back to the Budget Committee to go through a bid process also failed.

There was supposedly some bid paperwork being passed around the Commission during the meeting.  The bid process according to Commissioner Stinnett went through the broker Trinity Benefit Advisors.  Chairman Moon called down Commissioners Tom Stinnett and Mike Akard for discussing it during the meeting.  I still haven’t been given any bid paperwork.

The Commission was fed the typical line that we have to do this or chaos will ensue.  That line works every time, so the resolution passed 16-3 with Commissioners Daly, Miller and myself voting no.  The 3 ladies on the Commission are quickly proving to be the most fiscally conservative Commissioners.

Kronos suspension
For the most part, the County Commission has been left in the dark about the pending implementation of a costly HR and payroll software system service.  The Commission is now (in November) being asked to spend $2.3 million over 5 years, but has only been given what the Director of Budgets and Finance wants the Commission to have, when he wants the Commission to have it.  In November, I plan to go into greater detail about the problems, but want to give a brief summary about why I sponsored a resolution to suspend implementation of the Kronos software system.

In July the Commission authorized over $1.3 million to what most believed to be first year implementation costs and licenses fees.  After taking office in September, I met with Mr. Vineyard and asked for an Kronos implementation schedule and was told it would be in the October Budget packet.  It was not.  At the Agenda meeting, I asked Mr. Vineyard why it was not in the packet.  He refused to answer my question.  At the end of the meeting, I requested that it be added to the Commission packet in November.  Mr. Vineyard gave me a hostile look and refused to say anything at that time.  He wasn’t the only one giving dirty looks.  Citizens in the audience commented to me after the meeting that the laughing and behavior of some HR people and a handful of County employees was disrespectful and unprofessional.

Since a response to my request wasn’t forthcoming, Commissioners Akard, Miller and I sponsored a resolution to suspend the Kronos project until the Commission was provided with detailed information.  Lo and behold the information is in the November Agenda packet, with a request to sign a 5 year contract at a cost of approximately $2.3 million.

There was also a letter added to the October Commission packet 2 days prior to the Commission meeting stating that the delay was due to Mr. Vineyard experiencing health problems.  I do not understand why he didn’t convey that during the October Commission meeting.  Technology can be a good thing, but the secrecy surrounding this project is in no way in the best interest of the public.

Former Commissioner Jim Folts wrote about some of the problems with the proposal after the July Commission meeting.  You can read his report at www.jimfolts.com.

Human Resources (HR) Committee – Shocking Comments
Tension was apparent as a result of statements made by Commissioner Grady Caskey, a Blount County teacher and former President of the Blount County Education Association (commonly referred to as the teachers union), off the Agenda about a request made by Sheriff James Berrong at the July HR meeting.  Until this year County employees paid nothing for their health care plan, a plan that the County benefits adviser Drew Mann routinely calls “rich” because it’s so generous.  The policy was changed to $25 a month this year, which is still well below nearly everything I’ve seen in both the public and private sectors.

The Sheriff asked, at the July meeting, to look into whether teachers are paying the $25 like general government County employees.  They did receive this benefit for free until August 1, when they began paying $25.  At the October meeting, Grady Caskey informed the HR Committee that the $25 was paid for them as a result of teacher negotiations with the School Board.

After the meeting, Commissioner Tom Stinnett, a retired Maryville City School teacher, admonished Caskey for talking in public about the teachers paying nothing for their health care benefits, saying “You can’t do that. You can’t do that in public. It pisses…. it pisses the public off. They don’t give a crap about us in this room, trying to tell them why we deserve it.”  After Caskey responded, Stinnett went on to say, “That’s why they hate us, ok. We have to do everything to hide this from people in the public because they will crucify us and they will all line up at the beginning of the Commission, … line up against us.”  It is shocking that a Commissioner would make such statements, wanting another Commissioner to hide benefits information from the public and belittle the public by saying they would crucify teachers for having transparency.  I’ve never met anyone in Blount County who wants to crucify our teachers.  Citizens deserve better from elected officials.

In November
Kronos, stay tuned.

Read more on the October Commission meeting here.

Update: The article has been updated to reflect the fact that School employees began paying $25 for health care benefits in August.

13 thoughts on “October 2014 Commission Report

  1. Tona,

    You’re right, it is long, but it is exceptionally well written. I read every word. Thank you very much for what you are doing.


  2. Tona,
    Your honesty and determination are admirable. Politicians have a reputation of gaining power and then moving away from their positions that got them elected. I recall you saying as you campaigned that you wanted to make Blount County Commission accountable and transparent. This report does that exactly…thank you for showing me the inner working of some bored, vulnerable and shifty Commissioners. Continue to hold them accountable!

  3. Why have Robert’s Rules of order if violating Commissioners can not be arrested ? How does a class E Felony, official Oppression figure into the violations event ?

    The drug addicted Ladies needing help and recovery read ideal to me. I never knew Ladies were disenfranchised.

  4. BRAVO! Thank you soooo much for your stellar commissioner report. You can’t get this kind of “detailed” truth in the local Daily “Deceptive” Times, which usually supports the irresponsible BC political machine agenda. You are to be commended for all your hard work to truly represent “we the people” in Blount County, and also be true to your campaign promises.

    I agree with you … it’s unfortunate that the male gender “Repub” commissioners don’t hold fast to the fiscally conservative platform standards of the party they have elected to represent! I think we really need to officially have a second branch of the Republican Party as the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). At least voters would have a more honest choice when voting for Republican Candidates. LOL!

    I really appreciated your input on the IT Committee. I think the $30,000 cost for updated camera equipment, as stated by John Herron, BC IT Mgr.,would be well worth the investment. I for one recently complained to him personally about the poor “picture” quality of the “live streaming” of the commissioner’s meetings. I told him that I am unable to attend the BCC meetings due to health reasons, and that I have to rely on watching the meetings on-line.

    I like the idea that John Herron could provide a disc to the cable network to restore public cable access of the commissioners meetings. We desperately need MORE transparency in our local government! Especially, when the political machine operatives want to be “stealth” about their real agendas to be kept from it’s constituents … as you mentioned in your current report about “reprimand” comments made by Com. Tom Stinnet to Com. Grady Caskey. WOW! What a revealing example indeed!

    I agree wholeheartedly that this IT issue should be brought up at the next Budget meeting. I will use the information you provided in your IT report to request that the Budget Committee Members include the “live streaming” camera upgrade cost in the budget.

    I recently spoke with Ronda Pitts, BCC Executive Secretary and requested that the information on “live streaming” to watch the BCC meetings on-line be published along with scheduled BCC’s meetings that are announced in the newspaper.

    Hey folks in Blount County … now you know that the BCC meetings are available to watch on-line! Go to the Blount County Commissioner’s webpage via http://www.blounttn.org. The “live-streaming” title on the menu can be found on the left-hand side of the webpage. Be sure to make copies of the BCC meeting calendar and agendas that are also available on this webpage. To be an informed citizen means you can hold your elected officials accountable for their actions. Please do this and officially enter the “no apathy” zone.

    On a final note … I had a good “belly” laugh when Commissioner Tom Stinnet affectionally referred to you as “honey” at last week’s main BC commissioner’s meeting. How endearing indeed! I wish I could of seen your expression when that happened, but the camera picture was too blurry! Bummer! 🙁

    Keep up the good work … it is really appreciated! God bless! D;-)

  5. None of these no-bid shenanigans would take place in the private sector. As a project engineer, it would have appeared to plant management as collusion on my part, or worse, for personal gain. If such an instance were to occur, it would definitely have to have been well documented and reviewed before approval.
    A maintenance contact at 6 times the cost of equipment cost is inept, just replace it if it breaks. The maintenance contact is probably of longer duration than the useful life of the equipment.
    I had e-mailed the county mayor asking if there would be a reduction in accounting personnel on staff since the purpose of the new HR software was to reduce the number of hours spent per month on payroll from 1200 plus hours to something quite a bit less, otherwise don’t get the software. You have to generate savings to have a return on investment. I’m sure this issue will never be addressed.

  6. Great report Tona,
    The people of this county should listen to you and the other fiscally conservative members of the commission. Tom Stinnet did offer a good suggestion and will probably be the only one he comes up with. He said that folks would line up asking about the teachers not paying for their insurance. Well, folks should come to Commission meetings and line up wanting to know about the insurance benefits for teachers and even the low cost of county employees coverage. One can easily see that Stinnet, Headrick, etc. are just put in office to go along with the RINOS! I’ve asked you this before and a lot of folks are too young to remember, but this Commission of good ole boys reeks of the patronage system of Gov. Blanton’s rule years ago.

  7. Glad to see the Commission finally is going to fixed rate financing of the debt. I know what has been done so far is just a drop in the bucket of getting rid of the variable rates and swaps. I remember when former Commissioner Joe McCulley first brought up this issue on the Commission none of the commissioners even knew what he was talking about on the debt. At less some progress has been made!

  8. Great job of shining the light on corruption and skullduggery Tona.
    The detail to which you go in documenting this stuff is fantastic!

    I support the action taken on bringing $20 million out of the casino but it takes me to the broader issue of $240 million in county debt with $40 Million in yearly county income to address it! Please correct me if my figures are wrong.

    Transparency about meetings. We need to do whatever is reasonable to return to the access channel covering the meetings. We also need two cameras so we can see the commissioners and the folks speaking to them.

    Also regarding transparency, we should hold those requesting money to the standard of a lawyer pleading his case before a jury. This lack of documentation and complete presentation of a request for money is an insult to county citizens. George had some great thoughts on that in his comments.

    Soldier on Tona! Keep on putting the bees in the bonnets of those who don’t want reasonable, ethical government!

    “This republic was not established by cowards and cowards will not preserve it.”

    OORAH King Jesus!

  9. Good report, Tona.
    The citizens SHOULD line up before every meeting and get their views known. The benefit packages for employees are so excessive that it’s insane. No where can you go to receive this kind of compensation. No wonder Stinnett and Caskey want the teacher’s “free package” kept secret from the public.

  10. Reading your report made me confident that at last we citizens
    have representation that will bring up the facts on each issue.
    No backing down-keep calling them out! Attitudes will change!

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