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