The regular commission meeting was a rarity in that there was little controversy. However, there was plenty of other controversy throughout the month.
The commission agenda consisted of reappointing committee assignments. The one thing that I (Tona Monroe) would have liked to have seen done differently was to have some new commissioners appointed to the Insurance Committee. The commission recently separated the Insurance and HR Committee into two separate committees. The same commissioners were appointed to both. It would have been nice to see some new faces and ideas, with two separate committees instead of the same people on both.
Special called Commission meeting to refinance debt
Commissioners Gary, Farmer, Mike Lewis and Kenneth Melton were absent.
The commission has long delayed going to fully fixed rate financing. The commission voted to hire an advisor to give a presentation last October to give 3 variations of keeping 20% variable rate debt. That seemed to be what the courthouse clique wanted. However, it appears that courthouse clique was finally willing to consider completely fixed rate financing because the holder of the swaps, Deutsche Bank, is in such poor financial shape.
The commission voted to refinance all of its variable rate debt, terminate its 4 swaps and to refinance all callable fixed rate financing at a lower rate if possible. While this is good news, the commission wasn’t as responsible with your money as it should have been.
Blount County has about $11 million in the debt service fund. This money is drawing rust because interest rates are at historic lows.
I’ve been asking Finance Director Randy Vineyard to provide me with information about our smaller pieces of debt since March. He failed to do that before the debt workshop in September.
My purpose for the request was to see if it is feasible to use some of the debt service funds to pay off some of the smaller pieces of debt or whether it is better to use the money to terminate the swaps. While Vineyard didn’t provide the requested information, one of the refinancing options presented to the commission would have used $5 million to terminate the swaps. This would have left $6 million in the debt service fund.
Unfortunately the commission choose to authorize an additional $5 million in debt to finance the termination of the swaps rather than using money that is already available. This is why I voted no. It is good that the county will be totally fixed rate, with a level payment schedule soon but adding an additional $5 million in debt when we don’t have to is not fiscally responsible. Most of the same people who were quick to authorize spending $180 million a few months ago got cold feet about spending $5 million to reduce debt. Only commissioners Mike Akard, Jamie Daly, Karen Miller and I voted against authorizing an additional $5 million in debt.
Another $1 million set aside for a transition facility?
Last December I brought to light a $2 million plan for jail expansion that was orchestrated by Mayor Ed Mitchell, Sheriff James Berrong and the Finance Director. The paper said the $2 million was my “interpretation”. It can no longer be said that it is my interpretation.
The Finance Director announced that another $1 million had been set aside to address jail overcrowding. This brings the total to $2 million as is stated in TCI minutes. What is usually not mentioned is the jail wouldn’t be overcrowded if the state felons and federal inmates were removed. As was done last year, the commission wasn’t told about this until after the money was assigned.
The mayor has said there is no plan to expand the jail. If not, what exactly is the courthouse clique planning to do with your $2 million?
It appears that Vineyard may have let the cat out of the bag. Last year he made a comment about using the money for a transition facility and you can see below that in the county’s online accounting system, the latest $1 million assignment says “Transitional Facility.”
Blount County may benefit from a transition facility but there is no excuse whatsoever for the way that the mayor, sheriff and finance director have handled this. Blount County has a committee that could/should be discussing this but the Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) is not and it is a miserable failure. The BCCP exists to appease the state for the purpose of annual certification of the jail.
The BCCP was and remains captured by the sheriff. The former chairman is a married to a relative of the sheriff and the current chairman received a campaign contribution from the sheriff and will do what the sheriff wants. We should be meeting regularly but aren’t. The current chairman will do what the sheriff and the courthouse clique want him to do.
Are we going to expand the jail?
That is a question that many people ask me. I’ve long said that some form of building/expansion is coming but that the word jail is too toxic politically. No one sets aside (assigns) $2 million of fund balance unless they are planning something. The RFQ that was issued specifically says jail expansion.
What constitutes a transition facility in the eyes of the courthouse clique remains to be seen. Watch for the double speak. It doesn’t matter what the courthouse clique politicians call what they do if the end result is spending your money based on a manufactured crisis of jail overcrowding due to housing discretionary inmates. Expansion can be called anything. Politicians can be great at spinning their agendas.
The public might be supportive of some criminal justice system reforms, especially if it can be done without raising taxes. However, there is no good reason to avoid the BCCP process unless your motives are less than pure.
The jail situation should had been handled with more transparency, discussion with all involved and planning. It is not good public policy to let a few plan these things behind closed doors and/or through the Purchasing Department. Many lives are affected through the criminal justice system and all our wallets suffer from the secrecy and poor decisions.
Up next: The Smoky Mountain Tea Party Patriots has asked me to speak at their meeting on Thursday at 6:30 at the Everett Recreation Center.
The Happy Valley Fall Festival is October 22nd at the Happy Valley Community Building. Come out for a pinto beans and cornbread lunch, to meet the fine folks of Happy Valley and enjoy the beautiful countryside.
The commission will look at revising the employee handbook in October.