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November 2015 Commission Report

Agenda Meeting
In October of 2013, the Commission voted to spend over $94,000 to conduct a study on the jail overcrowding.  The Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) Criminal Justice System Assessment Report (commonly called jail study) was issued May 31, 2014.  The County Commission has yet to hear from the jail consultant because the Mayor chose to obstruct progress by having his attorney write a letter to the commission asking us to not talk about the report because the county might sue and discussion could damage the County’s legal position.  This was just a tactic to shut down discussion on the report.  Over 7 months later, there is no lawsuit.

I filed a resolution to have a hearing on the jail study.  The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) unanimously recommended that the Commission hear from the Jail consultant at it’s January meeting.  Commissioner Rick Carver said that he didn’t understand my resolution since it didn’t come from the BCCP.  He should have understood it because he was the one who seconded my motion at the January BCCP meeting to recommend having a hearing on the study.

The facts were inconvenient for Rick Carver and the rest of the water boys for the Sheriff.  They made excuse after excuse about not hearing the findings and conclusions of the taxpayer funded study.  The matter was again postponed to the January meeting.  If these commissioners put as much time and effort into solving problems as they have in avoiding the problems we would see the kind of criminal justice reform needed for the betterment of society.

Commission Meeting
The Commission approved purchasing a new software system for the Sheriff’s Office that will allow deputies to be more mobile, improve record keeping and help with inmate classification in the jail.  The expenditure was mostly funded by court costs for technology.

For the second month in a row Accounting and Budgeting either wouldn’t answer or didn’t know the answer to my questions regarding budget amendments and the HR Director failed to provide requested information regarding the Evergreen Employee Compensation and Classification Study.  After the Evergreen Study was adopted as the pay scale for the General County, excluding the Highway Department, employees had the opportunity to go through an appeals process if they weren’t happy with their classification and/or pay.  I submitted questions regarding the outcome of this process to the HR Director in early September but she failed to answer my questions.

A complicated budget transfer request was in the Commission packet to appropriate amounts needed to satisfy the appeals process.  The figures are available on page 25 of Commission packet.  There were a couple of problems with this.

First, I inquired how it was possible that the re-appropriates were exactly zero.  If you have an appeals process, it seems highly unlikely that the appeals process will result in the changes to pay for employees being exactly zero.  The final results showed that the Commission approved $36,917.75 more for wages than was needed.  If the appeals process shows that the commission over budgeted by this amount, then why wasn’t this item a budget decrease instead of a transfer that resulted in neither an increase or decrease to the budget?  The answer I was given did not sufficiently explain this.  The HR Director did not attend the Agenda Committee meeting or the Commission meeting to answer questions.

Additionally, I inquired why re-appropriations that we were asked to vote on did not match the Change/Difference column figures resulting from the appeals process.  For example, the appeals lead to salary increases of $36,205.63 in the Circuit Court Clerk’s budget, but $60,366 for salaries was transferred to this Office. No sufficient answer was given for this either.

With no clear answers, from the Finance Department or HR Director, this budget transfer didn’t pass the common sense test to me.  Only Commissioners Karen Miller and I voted no.

Recycling Committee
The Ad Hoc Committee to Study Recycling expired this month without taking any action except approving a request for an extension of time from the County Commission.  Discussion was short because some people didn’t make it to the meeting.

Blount County Corrections Partnership
Sheriff James Berrong and Chief Deputy Jeff French resorted to petty attacks against me.  Commissioner Jamie Daly asked the men to put egos aside and be adults but French attacked me again after her request.

Five months since last meeting
At the Agenda meeting Commissioner Jamie Daly asked the BCCP Chairman Jeff Headrick how many times the BCCP had met this fiscal year.  He didn’t give a number, because he knew the answer was zero.  The last meeting occurred in June which was the last fiscal year.

The only two agenda items at the June meeting were the TCI presentation and the setting of the next meeting.  After the TCI presentation the Chairman declared that he would set a meeting date.  He drug his feet for four months before setting a meeting date.  On the day of the meeting the members of the BCCP received an email from the Commission Secretary saying that the Chairman wanted to know if we would be attending the meeting.  Chairman Headrick was probably looking for a reason to cancel the meeting as he has done multiple times in the past.

At the April meeting, I asked that our next meeting after the TCI presentation include discussion of housing federal inmates.  When the November meeting public notice was issued, it excluded this agenda item.  I had to call the Commission Secretary to get it added to the public notice.  A new public notice had to be reissued the next day.  At the meeting the Chairman said he had nothing to hide but there are too many things like this to dismiss as innocuous.

Federal Inmates
The County Commission has never approved the contract to house federal inmates.  The Sheriff acted unilaterally when he signed the agreement.  The are many risks associated with housing federal inmates but the matter hasn’t been voted on by the Commission or signed by the Mayor.

For many years, the Sheriff’s Office has promoted the notion that the County makes money keeping federal inmates.  The ILPP report, that the establishment has been avoiding public discussion on, says on page 26, “The only way for the jail to make any money from Federal or State per diems is to crowd it.”

On page 42 the report says:

“ILPP believes that the County is subsidizing the Federal Detention contract and mistakenly believes the County profits from the federal contract. The perceived profits are at expense of staff and inmate conditions. Understaffing and overcrowding results in a distorted view of the profit margin. Providing adequate housing accommodations and sufficient staffing compared to the inmate population will result in substantial loss of County funds. When building cost and staff costs are included, the Federal contract is insufficient to cover real costs.”

The ILPP report recommends that the Sheriff’s Office hire a firm to renegotiate the federal per diem rate.  The Sheriff’s Office has acted on this recommendation and the rates are being renegotiated.  That renegotiation itself suggests that current per diem rate is insufficient to fully cover operational costs of housing federal inmates.

Furthermore, the Sheriff’s Office billed the private sector $35 an hour for security services provided for the recent Luke Bryant concert.  The federal government is billed $14 an hour for transportation services for federal inmates.  The Sheriff told me that I was playing games when I asked him why this rate was less than half the private sector rate.  He said that the concert pay was overtime but Chief French acknowledges that deputies could be on overtime pay when transporting federal prisoners.  Even if the deputies aren’t on overtime, $14 an hour doesn’t cover the costs associated with transporting these inmates.

Commissioners Tom Stinnett and Rick Carver have both said that the ILPP consultant called Washington DC and caused the US Marshalls Service to remove some of the federal inmates from the jail.  I asked the Sheriff if federal inmates had been removed, why the were removed and how many.  He said that either I or the ILPP consultant had called Washington DC and implied that one of us had caused it.  He asked me if I had called.

After hearing the two Commissioners allege that the federal inmate reduction was due to the jail consultant, I placed a call the US Marshalls Service to see if they would tell me why the number of inmates was reduced.  The called was placed near the Thanksgiving holiday so I wasn’t able to speak with anyone who could answer that question.

I asked the Sheriff if he was given a reason why the US Marshalls Service removed the federal prisoners.  He said that he was given a reason.  When I asked what that reason was, he said that it was between him and the US Marshalls Service.

The US Marshall’s Service returned my call after the BCCP meeting and told me that 36 inmates were removed from the jail but refused to tell me why they were removed saying that the contract was between them and the Sheriff’s Office.

The revenue projection for this fiscal year already projected keeping 30% less federal inmates than the prior year.  The budget was put together several months before the US Marshalls Service removed the federal inmates.  When you are told that we are losing revenue because some of the federal prisoners were removed, keep in mind that the budget only projects an average of 52 inmates a day while there are over 80 inmates after the US Marshalls Service removed the 36 inmates.

Information is not provided
The BCCP is not given copies of the TCI jail inspection reports.  The BCCP is not given a copies of the Plan of Action when updated.  The BCCP is not given any information from the Probation Department.  The BCCP is not given any information from the Program Director of Recovery Court (formerly called Drug Court).  The BCCP is not given any information from the District Attorney’s Office.  The BCCP is not given any information from the Public Defender’s Office.  The BCCP has been not given a copy of the Sheriff’s Office agreement with the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee since I’ve been on the BCCP.  If a member wants this information, they have to request it.

BCCP is not hearing from many parts (“stakeholders”) of the criminal justice system
Since I’ve been a member of the BCCP, we have not heard from the citizens serving on the Jail Inspection Committee, Probation Department, DA’s Office or the Public Defenders Office.  What we have heard regarding the Recovery Court has come from Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington.  When I asked that the BCCP be provide with data regarding how many people in the court system would be eligible for Recovery Court programs so that we could look at the possible need to expand it, she was quick to tell me that she didn’t have time to provide that data.  My request wasn’t for her specifically to provide the information but rather for the Program Director or her staff to provide the data.  Harrington encouraged a request for increased funding which I supported on the condition that we be provided data about Recovery Court and the possible need to expand it.  Five months after the budget increase, the BCCP has been given no data from Recovery Court.

We can do better
The BCCP has been dysfunctional and unproductive.  The problem lies squarely on the shoulders of Chairman Jeff Headrick. He is more interested in catering to the establishment than serving the community.

A Chairman who wanted to achieve progress wouldn’t cancel meetings because one or two people, who aren’t voting members, aren’t going to attend.  A Chairman who wanted progress wouldn’t allow five months to pass between meetings.  A Chairman who wanted to achieve progress wouldn’t parrot a statement like, do you want to meet just to meet (yes he said that) knowing that there are many topics that have never been discussed by the BCCP.  A Chairman who wanted progress would work diligently to make sure that the BCCP was getting all the criminal justice system information available.  A Chairman who wanted progress would be inviting each of the Offices/Departments involved in the criminal justice system to come speak to the BCCP.

The BCCP should be meeting monthly and be given either monthly or quarterly reports from each component of the criminal justice system.  Each month one or more of person involved in the system should be speaking to us about what they are doing and what they need to be doing their job better.  These are the requests that I would have been making had the Chairman not hindered the BCCP from meeting on a regular basis.

County Technical Advisory Service Jail Management Consultant Jim Hart issued a review on the jail studies, the one that he did and the ILPP study.  He actually recommends meeting with the people involved in many components of the criminal justice system.  It is my hope that the BCCP will take these recommendations seriously.  Regular meetings with all involved is what the BCCP is suppose to be doing in order to make recommendations to reform the criminal justice system.

Role and effectiveness of government
It has been said that I am against the Sheriff and the Sheriff’s employees.  The same is said about the Schools and their employees.  This is ridiculous.

The Schools and budgets under the Sheriff comprise the majority of the budget; therefore, there is usually move to evaluate than with other departments.  The majority of Sheriff’s employees have been polite to me and have answered my questions.  My interaction with school employees has been less because the committees that I serve on don’t have a lot of involvement with the schools.

It is my job to critically evaluate the effectiveness of government and ensure that its role be to assist in the protection of our rights.

The Declaration of Independence says:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Let us never forget that the purpose of government is to secure these rights.  Some in government have lost sight of this role.

Up next
The Commission will not meet in December and I have no meetings scheduled.  Therefore, I hope to utilize the time to offer more in depth discussions on the county debt, jail and criminal justice system.  My November 6th email to the Finance Director with questions regarding the refinancing of nearly $80 million has not been answered yet.

Wheel Tax is latest ploy demonstrating hypocrisy of Republicans

Blount County voters will once again decide if they wish to pay a Wheel Tax, in the specially called election on June 11. The cost to the taxpayers for the special election will be at least $80,000, but saving money is of little concern to the resolution sponsors who have a habitual history of tax and fee increases. The Wheel Tax is the latest demonstration that being a Republican doesn’t necessarily mean limited government and low taxes.

All 21 members of the Blount County Commission were elected as Republicans in 2010, at a time when people were angry with Democrats and calling for a return to constitutionally limited government. The Blount County Republican Party sent a post card mailer warning people not to vote for local Democrats because of the big tax and spending Democrats in Washington DC. The three Democrats on the Commission were easily defeated.

Blount County voters handily defeated a wheel tax in 2006, with 71% of the voters rejecting it. Voters rejected a sales tax increase in 2008. Both of these votes took place prior to the current Commission, but Republicans had a super majority on the previous Commission, with a majority of the current Commissioners sitting on the previous Commission.

The current all-Republican Commission voted to raise the property tax rate the first year of their new term in 2011. While some of the Republican Commissioners voted against the tax increase, many of them voted for most or all of the spending that caused the tax increase, which makes them guilty of big spending and culpable for the tax increase.

Instead of creating a Committee to cut waste, the Commission created a Committee to Study Lost Revenue. The all-Republican Commission finished out the last month of the first year of their current term with litigation fee increases, with the resolution reading “WHEREAS, Blount County is in need of additional revenue.”

Rather than increase property tax in the second year of the current term, a sales tax increase was proposed in 2012. Blount County voters defeated the proposed sales tax increase a second time, but with a much narrower margin of defeat than in 2008.

Now the Wheel Tax is back, as the all-Republican Commission faces a huge spending increase from Blount County Schools, in its third year. The timing of the special election is interesting, the middle of June when School is out and people are taking vacations. The Commission has been unable to get voters in November elections, when voter turnout is at its highest, to approve tax increases. The date of the election appears to be deliberately set to catch people off guard so that the tax can be slid through, knowing that government employees usually vote, while hoping that those opposed are unaware or busy during the specially called election.

Republicans gave Blount Countians a property tax increase and fee increases in their first year. Republicans tried to give Blount Countians a sales tax increase in their second year. Now Blount Countians are faced with a Wheel Tax. The Commission could implement a Wheel Tax on its own authority with a two-thirds majority vote during two consecutive Commission meetings. Republican Commissioners don’t want to do this, partly because they hope to get the voter to do it for them.

The other reason is because the Wheel Tax won’t fix the School Budget problem entirely. The $86.8 million School Budget means a funding deficit of $6.9 million. Commissioner Holden Lail, one of the Wheel Tax resolution sponsors who is a retired Blount County educator and is married to Blount County educator, doesn’t know how much the Wheel Tax will actually generate. Estimates range from $2.5-3.5 million, which is far short of the $6.9 million needed. The Commission would then have to decide whether to increase the property tax rate to fund the deficit or tell the School Board to cut its budget.

The Wheel Tax proposal is sloppy, slothful and sly. It’s sloppy because the amount it generates is unknown but the best estimate shows it only providing about half of the requested increase. It’s slothful because it raises taxes without making any attempt to cut wasteful spending. It’s sly because it’s planned to avoid a general election so that County employees can ramrod it through.

The people of Blount County need to critically evaluate the performance of this all-Republican Commission. Voters have rejected all proposed tax increases, while the all Republican Commission has proposed a tax increase each year. Republicans railed about the dangers of big government Democrats in Washington DC in 2010, but the people of Blount County have an all-Republican Commission that hasn’t gone a single year without trying to increase taxes since their rhetoric about the Democrats in Washington DC.

Can a Leopard Change its Spots?

Pop Quiz – Who said the following: “I once heard Governor Winfield Dunn say ‘I like government handouts. I’d like for the government to keep its hand out of my pocket.’ We as commissioners can do no less for our folks here at home. The average family spends almost 50% of their income on some form of taxes. The U.S. Economic Council states that our gasoline will go up to $5 per gallon throwing us into an even greater recession. I was in the drugstore the other day, I was complaining about my high co-pays on medications, when the druggist was telling me how many of his elderly patients come in and take their medications only every other day because they cannot afford the high cost of drugs. I could go on and on. I could talk about foreclosures, short sales. I could talk about our children going to school hungry, the free-lunch enrollment increasing, families surrendering their pets at the shelter, which some of you think is not very important, but to a family that loves an animal, it is. These are symptoms of a very sick economy. I could go on and on but I think everybody gets the picture. I’d like to remind the commission that we all ran, and were elected, on a platform. I was privileged to help write that platform at the last convention. There are two planks of that platform that specifically states that we do not support increasing taxes or more government. We have talked the talk, each of us, now we must walk the walk. I urge each and every commissioner here: do not vote for a tax hike.” Ok, who said it? Think you know? Well, if you guessed Peggy “Defender of the Taxpayer” Lambert, you win!

Could it be that we have turned the corner on wasteful and out-of-control spending? Have the commissioners finally decided to represent the taxpayers instead of the tax takers? Will we now have grade “A” commissioners who uphold the libertarian value of fiscal responsibility? According to my Magic 8 Ball, “Outlook Not So Good”. I guess this is because just after the property tax increase passed (Folts, French, Gamble, Hasty, Kirby, Lambert, Murrell, Samples, and Wright voted “no”) 20 of the commissioners voted to give $18,064 of taxpayer money to a few non-profits (Farmer was absent). After that, 20 of the commissioners voted to spend $1,381.08/yr on a new copier lease for the next 5 years (Folts voted “no”). (For the record, the commission has spent $33,306.84/yr on copier leases to date.)

Not to mention the first items on the agenda which include increases of $450,000 for county liability insurance, $90,000 for the Highway Department’s liability insurance, $360,000 for school liability insurance (Murrell voted “no” on all), $75,000 to move portable classrooms at Heritage Middle School (Folts and Murrell voted “no”), and $1,800 for a sex offender registry fee (all voted “yes”).

And then, if raising our taxes wasn’t enough, they voted to form an Ad Hoc committee to study lost tax revenue (all voted “yes”) because, I guess, they don’t seem to think they’re getting enough tax revenue!! Are you angry yet?

When Commissioner Folts did a report comparing Blount County’s spending with other, similar counties, Commissioner Wright said, “…I think we should channel our efforts…and find some revenue to get the services that these people out here deserve. So as far as spending, I’m not worried about their spending…” I once heard someone say, “It’s the spending, stupid.” The Blount County Commission has never voted down a budget increase. Yet some of these commissioners think they can fool you into thinking they care by voting against a tax increase, even though they have voted for hundreds of thousands of dollars of spending! The other commissioners who did vote for the tax increase apparently just don’t care.

Here is the grading scale:
A – Participated in the discussion and voted to uphold the libertarian values of fiscal responsibility and/or personal liberty.
B – Did not participate, but voted to uphold libertarian values.
C – Participated in the discussion and voted against libertarian values.
F – Did not participate and voted against libertarian values
Here are the grades for June: Murrell: B; Folts, French, Gamble, Hasty, Kirby, Lambert, Samples, Wright: C; All others: F

For a breakdown of the grading scale, an explanation of the grades, and to keep track of your commissioner, go to http://www.blountcountylp.org/county-commission-grades.html