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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.