June 2016 Commission Report

When I (Tona Monroe) envisioned writing monthly reports on county government, I thought that the reports would be published within a few days of the monthly commission meetings, which are held on the 3rd Thursday of each month.  However, I quickly realized that it was better to wait until the end of the month to more fully report on your local government.  This is because there are important meetings after the monthly commission meeting and the meetings can create more questions than answers.  Thus, I usually follow up after these meetings by seeking answers.

Sometimes I get answers and sometimes it is difficult to get answers.  As such, these monthly reports are intended to provide a review of the monthly activities of your local government.  If you desire to learn about important matters before the commission votes on them, please be sure to visit this site at least a couple of times a month because I write about issues throughout the month.  Additionally, I also have an email list that you can subscribe to which will keep you informed.  If you’d like to join the email list, please send me an email.  tona@breezeair.net

Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control meeting
On June 1, I drove to Nashville to attend the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) Board of Control meeting.  Commissioners Jamie Daly and Karen Miller also attended the meeting.

My reasons for attending are manifold.  Please search this website, if you are new to the site, to learn those reasons.  My statement to the board is available here.

A county should strive to meet minimum standards and be certified by the TCI.  However, after reading prior Board of Control minutes and watching the process in action, I’ve concluded that obtaining certification can be political rather than an objective recognition of compliance with standards.

I had intended to write about the meeting before now but haven’t been able to obtain all the documents that I wanted to review before writing about the meeting.  This may be something that I will write about in the future.

Agenda Committee
Commissioners Tom Cole, Steve Samples and Tom Stinnett were absent.

At the Agenda Committee meeting, I offered two taxpayer protection amendments.  Both were rejected.

One amendment would have amended the annual budget resolution to prohibit the mayor and finance director from assigning fund balance money without commission approval.  My intention was to ensure that there would be no more secret plans for your tax money as there has been in the past.

The other amendment was intended to ensure that no monies appropriated for pay raises would be expended for any other purpose without commission approval.  The budget funds 1.8% pay raises for all county employees, excluding the Highway Department and schools that set their own raises, and office holders who receive raises based on state mandates.  However, not all the amounts budgeted for pay raises will be expended for that purpose.

Raises are suppose to be awarded based on satisfactory job performance.  This will leave money in funds that won’t be awarded as pay raises.  This means that office holders can transfer money not awarded for pay raises for use elsewhere in their budgets.  This is a misuse of the public trust.  Office holders should not be requesting money that isn’t needed and no office holder should use the funds for any other purpose.

Pay raises are not uniform throughout local government.  Office holders will receive state mandated pay raises.  Some school employees will receive 5% pay raises.  General county employees will receive 1.8% pay raises.  I don’t know what the Highway Department employees will receive.

Only commissioners Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted to protect the taxpayers with these two amendments.

Commission meeting
Commissioner Mike Akard was absent.

Tax rate is set for $2.47
The property tax rate will remain at $2.47.  The powers that be are patting themselves on the back for a job well done because they’ve put together a budget where they get nice pay raises and much of what they want, without increasing the property tax rate.  However, that doesn’t mean that local government held the line on spending.

The budget is up $6,789,571 million over the previous year’s original adopted budget.  The adopted budget for fiscal year (FY) 15-16 is $174,477,835 while the adopted budget for FY 16-17 is $181,267,406.  Not all of this is local money.  The schools will receive a sizeable increase from the state and $1,250,000 of this money came from fund balance that was approved as a budget increase in December for the IT fund that was rushed through.  It is money that hasn’t yet been spent and has to be budgeted in the new year.

More of your money is projected to be collected due to tax revenue growth but pay has not keeping up with inflation.  The local government hasn’t done you any favors by keeping the tax rate that is 15% higher than it was 2 years ago.

Only commissioners Miller and I voted no.  That means that there are only 3 commissioners left who haven’t supported a tax rate that is higher than when they took office, or in the case of Peggy Lambert, left office.   The commissioners who voted no on the tax increase last year, among other things, have now supported it and everything in the budget a year later.

What good is it to oppose something for one year and then rubber stamp it a year later?  The property tax rate was $2.15 when I took my oath of office.  When I ran for office, many people told me that they didn’t want another property tax increase.  I made a campaign promise not to raise property taxes and I will stick by that.  I will never vote for a budget that requires a tax rate that is higher than when I took office.

Someone said to me what good does it do to focus on a tax increase when the entire tax amount is being wasted.  That’s a valid point.  People often get upset about a tax increase, but that is often just a small amount of what you are paying.  The entire amount is important, not just the increase.  We should look at every penny the government wants and spends.

Capital fund amendment failed
I offered an amendment to the tax rate that would have moved one penny of the schools general fund to the schools capital fund.  This amendment would have saved county taxpayers about $127,500 because capital fund money doesn’t have to be split with Alcoa and Maryville schools.

Blount County Schools teacher and County Commissioner Dodd Crowe spoke against the amendment although he didn’t actually give a precise reason why he opposed the amendment.  Fiscal Administrator for the schools, Troy Logan, said the amendment wouldn’t align with the school board’s goals.  Ask your school board member if he or she thinks that one of their goals should include giving $127,500 in tax money to Maryville and Alcoa, when the county doesn’t have to.

The School Board is planning on spending over $2 million to fix roofs this budget year.  This will consume the entire capital fund and the rest will be paid for with fund balance in the schools general purpose fund.  The shift in the penny would have given the schools additional funds, thereby reducing use of fund balance, without increasing the county property tax rate.

Commissioners and teachers Grady Caskey and Dodd Crowe voted against the amendment, as did Commissioner Tom Cole whose wife works for the schools.  These three gave about $127,500 to the cities when they didn’t have to.  Commissioner and school employee Gary Farmer abstained.  Only commissioners Andy Allen, Archie Archer, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I thought it makes good fiscal sense to use the money to fix the roofs instead of giving it to the two cities.

I don’t like using the term penny to describe the tax rate because it makes the amount you are paying sound so much smaller than it really is.  A penny on the tax rate is estimated to be worth $327,500 in property tax money.  Because of split dollars, the amount given to the schools for each penny is about $200,000 according to fiscal administrator Troy Logan.  The schools capital fund receives the entire amount of $327,500 per penny, excluding the Trustee’s Fees that are deducted from property taxes.

Budget Committee’s recommended budget is rubber stamped
The commission rubber stamped the budget recommended by the Budget Committee without any changes.  Only commissioners Karen Miller and I offered amendments to the budget.

Commissioner Miller offered an amendment to gut the budget given to the Industrial Development Board, which is used to dole out corporate welfare.  The IDB receives over $1 million.  Miller’s amendment would have cut the IDB budget to $1 and given the money to the Highway Department.

The finance director said that Miller’s amendment would have required the commission to amend the tax rate resolution.  This is a good example of why it doesn’t make sense to set the tax rate in advance of setting the budget.  How can the commission properly budget the rate when it hasn’t determined the amounts that will be spent from each fund?

Commissioner Miller requested permission of the body to read her prepared remarks on the amendment.  The commission rejected allowing her to read her statement.  This is appalling.  Commissioners are given the power to be heard and the duty to look out for taxpayers.  Apparently the majority of commissioners don’t want a commissioner to come prepared with the facts and their reasons for advocating positions.  The commission rejected allowing me to read a statement last month.

Miller did speak briefly without reading her statement.  She said she didn’t think tax money should be given for corporate welfare, that she was upset with the way Bryan Daniels and the Blount Partnership had blocked commissioner Jamie Daly and me and that the money should be used to fix the pot holes in the road.  I seconded Miller’s amendment but it was rejected by the commission with only Commissioners Daly, Miller and myself supporting it.

4 officials are paid above the state mandated minimum
State law mandates minimum salaries for elected officials.  The salaries range from being nearly double to near quadruple the average salary in Blount County.

State law allows the commission to pay elected officials more than the state mandated minimums.  With the salaries already being so much more than what the majority of households live on, I moved to cut the salaries of the court clerk, highway superintendent, sheriff and mayor to the state mandated minimums.

The cut would have saved the taxpayers $91,713 but it was rejected with only commissioners Daly, Miller and myself voting for it.  Chairman Jerome Moon gave one of the typical reasons to rubber stamp the matter and move on.  He said that state law requires us to give the sheriff a pay supplement above his base pay.   However, when I asked what state law said we have to give the sheriff more than the state minimum, he couldn’t name the law.  The sheriff couldn’t state the law either.  Moon them passed the buck to Commissioner Steve Samples, because he is the longest serving commissioner.  Samples didn’t know the law either.

I am researching the matter to see exactly what the county is required to pay the sheriff.

No one read a conflict of interest statement but several have conflicts of interest.

Meeting minutes missing wording of a motion
The meeting minutes for the May commission meeting did not include the wording of a motion that I made.  I moved to amend the minutes to include the wording of the amendment that I had offered but the commission rejected the amendment.  The minutes should reflect any change that a commissioner tries to make to public policy and government documents.

Highway Grant
There was a reimbursement grant for highway funds expended during an emergency with begin and end dates that spans five years.  The new Highway Superintendent (HS) Jeff Headrick couldn’t explain these dates.  He said it was handled before he became HS but his name is on the budget amendment request.  I often wonder if anyone in local government understands what they are signing up for, with state and federal grants.

IT Meeting
A special Information Technology (IT) Committee was called by the mayor, to have the new IT consulting firm Mindboard give a presentation on its IT assessment of the county.  A previous assessment was done.  The Mindboard consultant referred to it as the 10,000 foot view.  He referred to his assessment as the 3,000 foot view.  The county is in need of some IT improvements but we need to tread carefully.

Kronos, the $2.3M time keeping, payroll and HR IT software project, is several months behind schedule.  This was rushed through without fully examining whether the county was ready for the project.

The estimated capital costs of about $2.5M, in the Mindboard presentation, are nearly double what the commission approved last year for the updates.  Furthermore, the annual costs to maintain these updates will greatly increase the IT budget.  The committee was given a figure that was over $600,000.

These aren’t exact numbers.  The costs for computers was listed as zero.  The former IT Director John Herron, who now works for the schools, pointed out that this wasn’t realistic.

I wondered why this was listed as zero and I may have learned why.  In the commission packet, there are budget transfers to purchase computers in both the Finance and Accounting and Data Processing (IT) budgets. (See pages 330 and 334)  Finance Director Vineyard told me that all IT needs would come out of the IT fund but apparently both had money left over at the end of the year to use to buy new computers.

It is amazing how much money is moved around (transferred) at the end of the year.  I may write more about the subject in the future.

The IT Committee took no action on the presentation.  However, the mayor and finance director usually proceed with their big spending plans without a recommendation from the IT Committee.

State to remove 99 felons from jail
The best news of the month is that the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) is going to remove 99 felons to state facilities.  This reduces the chance of a tax increase for jail expansion.  However, we should be ever vigilant of the matter.  We need to ensure that TDOC and the sheriff actively work to move felons, with a continuous sentence of more than a year, to state facilities in the future.

The sheriff stated that I have “offered no realistic or legal solutions.”  That’s false.  One realistic and legal solution that I offered was to have the state sentenced felons moved to state facilities.  It’s good to see this solution will happen.

Up next
The commission will consider reforming the Human Resources and Insurance Committee.

Happy Independence Day!

5 thoughts on “June 2016 Commission Report

  1. Great Job Tona.
    I read in the Daily Times the sheriff said “Maybe Tona should house prisoners on her property”
    Very immature. One of the first lessons successful leaders learn is that you don’t take things personal. It makes him appear petulant.

    4th of July: With the lack of rain in the area, I can’t believe the mayor, a former fireman, didn’t ban fireworks. There were more amateurs setting off fireworks than ever, and it’s a miracle the woods didn’t burn near my house. There are plenty of organized firework shows put on by local municipalities that are handled by pros with emergency personnel standing by. I guess being immature, is part of Blount county culture.

  2. Fireworks in Blount County is illegal, but the ban is not enforced. If law enforcement is going to allow fireworks, then the county should allow firework sales. People just go across county lines to either Sevier or Loudon Counties and purchase them with those counties getting the sales tax revenue.

  3. I am curious if there have been any comments from School Board Seat Candidates for the upcoming election on budget issues or priorities.

  4. Noticed in today’s, July 13. edition of the Daily Times an ad for Dave Bennett. The ad says he is a fiscal conservative who: “will be your voice to control spending and reduce taxes”.

    This either must be a serious misprint or a sick joke. His record while working in county government and advising the county commission was never one as a conservative much less trying to control spending and reducing taxes. As Gomer Pyle would say, “Shame, shame on you”.

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