2 special called commission meetings
The Mayor called two commission meetings this month. Mayor Ed Mitchell has decided that his role is to cut ribbons and attend every breakfast and dinner that he can rather than running the courthouse. He has entrusted too many things to his Finance Director, Randy Vineyard, who is not even a good finance person, let alone qualified to run the courthouse. This has lead to poor management decisions, which have been costly to the taxpayers.
1st meeting to offer a new insurance plan
The first called meeting was to offer a new health care plan to county employees because the state deemed the current plan to be inferior to the state plan. The state provides some funding for health insurance for teachers. The local plan has to be as good or better than the state plan or the county can lose those funds.
The problem is that the state offers several plans while the local government offers only one plan. The comparison wasn’t done to all state plans, which I was told would have likely showed that the single plan overall is just as good as the state plan and costs substantially less. The broker shared that the state has miscalculated its costs and is actually going to have to significantly raise employee costs next year.
The new plan isn’t much different than the old plan. You can see them both on page 2 here. This situation was bureaucratic red tape and the people who went to Nashville seemed hopeful that the state won’t require unnecessary hoops to jump through next year.
I took the opportunity to ask the Finance Director, Randy Vineyard, to provide the commission with a monthly report on the financial status of the self insurance fund. He wasn’t happy about that and told the commission we could look the numbers up in the general ledger if we wanted them. The Finance Director didn’t realize why the fund was losing large sums of money until state auditors pointed it out to him. A good quality financial person would be tracking this and providing regular updates on the fund to the board.
2nd meeting to hire an IT consultant
Commissioners Archie Archer and Gary Farmer were absent.
A meeting was called in December, after the commission canceled its scheduled meeting, to ram through the creation of a $1.3M Information Technology (IT) capital fund. This month an IT consulting firm was rushed through in a called meeting.
Blount County has several IT needs. It is why I sought to be added to the IT Committee. However, after serving on the IT Committee for over a year, I am left wondering why we have an IT Committee. The Mayor and his Finance Director have no respect for the authority of the IT Committee. They have bypassed the IT Committee for all major IT decisions.
The Mayor’s Finance Director got the cart before the horse. He pushed for Kronos before upgrading the county’s IT infrastructure. A good analogy is that the Mayor and Finance Director went out and bought the most expensive wheels that they could find and put them on a car with engine problems.
The Kronos software project is likely the largest and most costly IT project in county history. Read more about that project here. It has been mismanaged and is behind schedule. It is generally not a good idea to start more IT projects when your current project is behind, but that doesn’t seem to concern the mayor and finance director who are proceeding full steam ahead with your money.
When the Kronos project was first presented to the commission in 2014, then commissioner Jim Folts warned of the problems that would happen if Vineyard was allowed to proceed with the Kronos project as planned. One of his biggest concerns was that a volunteer from the Sheriff’s Office, an attorney, would be in charge of the project. The attorney quit the project, early into it. Folts’ concerns have been realized.
Vineyard realized that attempting a major IT project without a dedicated manager/director was a big mistake but has failed to acknowledge that he was forewarned of the problem. His solution for upcoming IT projects is to hire expensive consultants to manage the projects. However, there are problems with this approach as well.
The county had a good IT Director who ran the county’s IT Department on a shoe string budget while using old technology. John Herron had managed the IT Department for 30 years. He left last year to work for Blount County Schools.
The county has been operating with an Interim IT Director since August. I was stunned when the Interim Director told me that the mayor isn’t looking to hire an IT Director. Instead the mayor (and finance director) sought to employ an IT consulting firm to manage the county’s IT projects.
Mindboard Inc. was presented to the commission. The Purchasing Agent, Katie Branham, chose this company based on the scores of a team that she chose to evaluate prospective companies and because of their references.
The evaluation team consisted of select members of the IT Committee. I am on the IT Committee and she never told me that she was going to choose member of the IT Committee. She did not invite me to listen to the interviews either. It would have taken her about 1 minute to send me an invitation by email. She smugly told me that the meeting was advertised in the paper. Apparently she thinks that county commissioners should have to subscribe to the newspaper to know what their government is doing. One of the people she chose was Jimmy Cox from the Highway Department. I asked her what his IT experience is. She told me that she didn’t know.
In Mindboard’s response to the Request for Qualifications (RFQ), they give 5 references. Only one of those lists a project budget over $60,000. The capital fund (budget) is over 22 times this amount. With a capital fund containing over $1.3 million, having only one project with a budget anywhere close to this is not very assuring.
This company, and some of its employees, are currently being sued. The representative (Principal) for the company said the suit is frivolous. I hope for the sake of the taxpayers that none of the allegations are true.
The company has applied for several H1B visas to employ foreign workers. These are good paying jobs that could be going to workers who are not US citizens. Blount County government should not be taxing citizens making minimum wage or living on social security checks to pay foreign workers far more than the taxpayers are making and living on.
The agreement (contract) looked like a boiler plate document that hadn’t been reviewed by an attorney because of obvious mistakes that should have been fixed. However, the agreement was actually reviewed by two attorneys, who apparently don’t pay close attention to details.
The agreement lists Blount County government as a company rather than a county. The principal office line in the first paragraph was blank in our packets. These two items are what made me think it was a boiler plate document. It turns out that it is. The Purchasing Agent told me that the agreement was written by Mindboard with input from the county. Apparently the county gave so little input that it didn’t even request to be called a county or have its address typed into the document.
There is no mention of software in the agreement. Article 5 defines work product but does not mention software.
Perhaps the most alarming thing is the blank page in the contract. Page 13 is blank. Usually pages that are blank say they are intentionally left blank. Frankly, the taxpayers should ask for their money back from attorney Craig Garrett who supposedly reviewed the agreement for form.
The resolution refers to him as the County Attorney but there is no official position of County Attorney. That office/position has never been created. Commissioner Karen Miller made a motion to correct the description of Craig Garrett but her motion failed. Apparently the commission is OK with someone misrepresenting who they are.
The Purchasing Agent should not be given a pass for these errors either. She is an attorney. This agreement was reviewed by two people who are attorneys. There is no excuse for such poor quality work.
The agreement does not give actual project expenses. All it gives are hourly rates. The Finance Director said that we don’t have the actual costs because we don’t know how much these projects will cost. We’re suppose to turn these consultants lose at hourly rates exceeding $100 so that they can provide us with the costs. The Purchasing Agent told us that Mindboard thinks it will take about 2 months for them to analyze the county’s IT needs.
In the private sector, if a financial person came to a board and said we don’t know what this will cost, give us some time with some expensive consultants and we’ll figure it out, he/she would be laughed out of the room and possibly offered a mental health evaluation on the way out. I felt like I had entered the land of Oz with Vineyard as the man behind the curtain, listening to this nonsense.
The former IT Director had actually provided a list of capital needs in 2014 but it was not acted upon. The county paid an IT consulting firm to examine the county’s IT needs last year. The Mayor’s Finance Director described that study as the 10,000 foot view. What was the point of that study, if we’re going to have to pay consultants big hourly rates to study the situation again?
The contract manager said he will be moving to Blount County for a couple of years. He will be one of the $100+ an hour consultants. If he works full time at 40 hours a week, that one position could cost over $450,000 over a 2 year period. There are too many unknown variable with this agreement and capital fund.
Commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I (Tona Monroe) voted no. These are the commissioners watching out for you the taxpayers. It’s a short list but an important list. Share these names with the people you know because these are the commissioners worth reelecting.
Commissioner Archie Archer voted no on the creation of the capital fund in December but he was absent for this vote.
The better approach – hire an IT Director
The better approach for the county would be to hire a top notch IT Director. I suggested to the commission that an IT Director be hired on a salary and that he/she be given a bonus, along with the staff, for successful completion of IT projects that are on time and under budget.
Some of the IT projects will still need to be outsourced. However, an IT Director who plans to stay with the county for several years would be motivated to see that things are done correctly. Additionally, outside consultants may end up doing things that an IT Director may not find useful for the county. It boggles the mind that Blount County has embarked upon over $4 million in IT projects without an IT Director to lead the way.
Commissioners Archie Archer and Gary Farmer were absent.
Nominations finally where they should be
At the January commission meeting, I spoke against the practice of putting important nominations under the consent calendar to rush the process through with little discussion. The consent calendar is suppose to be for non-controversial items that require no discussion. The commission has been doing a great disservice by putting these names on the consent calendar and offering no discussion. This practice has allowed the commission to vote on the people being nominated, appointed or elected before public input is allowed. You can see the order of the agenda here.
For several months I have been trying to get Agenda Committee Chairman Steve Samples and Commission Chairman Jerome Moon to place appointments and confirmations to important boards under the correct agenda item where they belong. I am pleased to announce that the appointments were on the agenda in the correct place this month, under Elections, Appointments and Confirmations. The public can now offer comments and concerns about elections, appointments and confirmations during the time for public input on the agenda.
I attended commission meetings for several years before being elected to office. While I was aware that the county applied for and received many federal grants, I didn’t realize just how many grants the county received until I took office.
The first thing that I did was raise my right hand and take an oath to support the constitutions of Tennessee and the United States of America. The subject matters of most of the grants are not found in the delegated powers given to the federal government in the constitution. Congress does not have authority to spend money on most of these projects and programs. Therefore, in order to remain true to my oath of office I have and will continue to vote no on these unconstitutional grants.
Furthermore, many grants have strings attached. The commission is given little, if any, information about the conditions that come with these grants. While many talk about the 10th amendment and the power of the states, that talk quickly goes out the window when federal money is involved.
Cost of feeding inmates is higher than the numbers the sheriff gives
One of the selling points for keeping federal prisoners is the low cost of feeding the inmates. The Sheriff told the Blount County Corrections Partnership at its November meeting that it costs $2.50-3 a day to feed an inmate.
The adopted food budget for the jail is $430,000. The Sheriff’s Office requested a $250,000 increase which would bring the food budget total to $680,000.
The average daily inmate total for 2015 was 528. At $2.50 a day, with an extra day for the leap year the cost of feeding 528 inmates a day would be $483,120. The cost at $3 a day is $579,744.
Both of these numbers are less than $680,000. At 528 inmates per day, the cost would be about $3.52 a day. Food costs are rising. $3.52 is not an unreasonable price but it should no longer be said that the inmates are being fed for $2.50-3 a day.
Budget amendments form updated
Last month, there was some confusion about the actual impact that budget amendments had on the budget. Each time a budget request is made throughout the year, after the annual budget is adopted, a form has to be filled out explaining the amendment. The form had two boxes to check, one for transfers and one for increases and decreases.
A new form was presented providing four options: transfer, decrease, increase and adjustment. The example that the Finance Director gave for an adjustment was actually an increase because it would spend more of you local tax money. The description given, on the new form, for an adjustment says, “(correction to adopted budget due to “grant award” or “budgetary adjustment”).” An increase, using local tax money, should not be recorded as an adjustment; therefore, I moved to strike the words budgetary adjustment and replace them with the word reimbursements. An example of a reimbursement is the money that the county received from CSX for work done during the train derailment. It is technically an increase to the budget, but it is not an increase in the use of tax dollars. My amendment failed.
Commissioner Mike Akard said the changes still leave the water muddy. I agree. Allowing increases in spending of your local tax money should not be classified as adjustments. The commission could have fixed this but didn’t when it rejected my amendment. Commissioners Mike Akard, Brad Bowers, Karen Miller and I voted no.
Chairman Moon allows return to old, bad ways
In the past, it was common for commissioners to blurt out call the question, without being recognized, in order to shut debate down. Commissioner Steve Samples did that this month. Chairman Moon told him that he would recognize him if he would turn his light on. Samples turned his light on and Chairman Moon recognized him, even though there was a commissioner who was had been waiting to speak. This is a dangerous practice to return to, allowing a commissioner to blurt out call the question to end discussion and ignore those who have been patiently waiting their turns.
A meeting has been called for the commission to appointment a replacement for Roy Crawford who recently passed away. Roy was the only elected official in the courthouse who did a good job, would give you a straight answer and actually deserved to be reelected so many times, like he was. Richard Hutchens gave him the first Statesmen Award. He will be missed.
The commission will also be tasked with finding a replacement for Bill Dunlap who retired at the end of January.