Commission canceled meeting – Mayor calls one anyway, ramrods 20 resolutions through during Christmas season
Ordinarily commissioners place resolutions on the agenda of the Agenda Committee, where the committee will discuss whether to send the resolution(s) forward to the monthly commission meeting. For two of the last three months, resolutions have not gone through the normal double vetting process.
In October, the mayor decided that he wanted to control the agenda of the commission by calling a special meeting the same week as the regularly scheduled commission meeting. Commission Chairman Jerome Moon canceled the regular commission meeting because there was no need to have two meetings in the same week. This allowed the Mayor to set the agenda for the Commission instead of the Commission setting its own agenda.
With unanimous consent, the County Commission canceled its December meetings (Agenda Committee and Commission) but the Mayor disrespected the choice of the commission by calling a special meeting to ramrod 20 resolutions through, including the creation of an IT fund using $1.3 million of your tax money. This move allowed the mayor to set the agenda again.
Under the state law, the mayor can call special meetings of the Blount County legislative body. There is rarely a need to call a special meeting because the commission meets regularly, once a month. However, the mayor has decided to abuse the process in recent months. A special meeting should be called when an urgent need arises to deal with an important matter. Special meetings shouldn’t be called to avoid the Agenda Committee process or to ramrod large agendas through during the holiday season when few people are able to attend meetings and/or are paying attention.
Commissioners Mike Caylor and Karen Miller were absent. The other 19 were present.
20 resolutions – no fiscal discipline
There were 20 resolutions on the special called meeting and all 20 passed. While seven of the resolutions were to amend the budget to reflect the funds that the County received to recoup expenses related to the CSX train derailment and one was to allow for safe passage of a visitor from the North Pole there were twelve more resolutions that should have gone through the usual vetting process. This is a sorry way to conduct business.
If you are upset with the omnibus spending bill that congress just rammed through, you’ll want to pay closer attention to your local government that just rammed through 20 resolutions in a rush right before the Christmas holiday season. There is a Washington, DC, Blount County, Tennessee parallel.
Property Assessor cut health benefits and then wanted it back and more
The Commission was asked to vote on a budget amendment to increase funding for health care benefits for the Property Assessor’s reappraisal employees. The Commission was asked to appropriate an additional $35,500. Interestingly, most of this amount was in the budget last year. See page 18 for the FY 15 and 16 health insurance amounts. The cost centers are 205 and 207. When I inquired why money had been cut from these cost centers, no one from the Property Assessor’s Office was present to answer the question. No one from the Property Assessor’s Office attended the Budget Committee to explain this either.
$1.3 million IT Fund – IT expenses $4.1 million without approval of IT Committee
Information Technology (IT) expenses are projected to have a 5 year cost exceeding $4.1 million. Remarkably, none of these expenses have been recommended by the IT Committee.
Finance Director Randy Vineyard is the driving force behind many of these expenditures. He appears to be the defacto leader of the courthouse, rather than Mayor Ed Mitchell.
The costs include:
- $2.3 million for Kronos, over a 5 year period
- $9,300 for the first year and $3,400 each year there after for software used by the Election Commission
- $579,064 Spillman software purchase for Sheriff’s Office
- $1,348,942 million IT Fund to update infrastructure and purchase new equipment
The Commission was not presented with the Election Commission software purchase because the Election Commission budget was already so bloated that it did not take an increase to purchase the software. The IT Committee sent this item to the Budget Committee on the condition that the Administrator of Elections show up and explain the purchase. The Administrator did not attend the IT Committee meeting and did not provide any explanation to the IT Committee as to why the new software was needed.
The Election Commission had previously been using in-house software. The IT Director said the new software requested by the new Administrator of Elections Susan Hughes will actually take more time to use than the old system. Why anyone would want to spend money on software that takes more time to use than an in house system is beyond me. To add insult to injury, when Hughes inquired whether she needed to present the software request to the Commission, the Mayor responded saying, not unless you are a glutton for punishment.
The Kronos payroll, time keeping and H.R. software was a top secret project. The lead volunteer on the project is no longer overseeing the project and the payroll portion is 3 months behind schedule.
The Spillman software purchase last month was another big expense. All but $100,000 of it was funded with court costs. You can read the contract here.
The IT Director, John Herron, left earlier this year to go to work for Blount County Schools. He kept the County’s IT system afloat on in-house software and by modifying software purchased many years ago. This saved the County large sums of money that is and will be spent on more modern software programs. While many of us in the private sector make due without having state of the art everything and live within our budgets this apparently wasn’t good enough for our Finance Director. More than one County employee shared with me that the Finance Director wanted the IT Director gone. Rather than working with the IT Director while he had the chance, the Finance Director waited until the IT Director left and seized the opportunity to go on a spending spree after already getting a $2.3 million software system the year before.
The Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for an IT company for the newest IT project was sent out on December 4th, before the Budget Committee and Commission met. This should tell everyone that the Mayor and Finance Director considered this issue a slam dunk with the Budget Committee and the Commission. It should alarm the taxpaying public that your Commission allows the Mayor and Finance Director to take us for granted. The legislative body is suppose ensure that important matters aren’t rushed through irresponsibly and that taxpayer money is spent wisely on priority items not long wish lists.
In October, I reported that the IT Committee heard a presentation from Net3 regarding the IT needs of the County. You can read the report here and view the presentation here.
The IT Committee sent the report to the Budget Committee but made no recommendation based on the report. When the IT Committee voted to send the report on, I stated that I hoped that before the Budget Committee made any budget
recommendation that the IT Committee be given the chance to make recommendations. That didn’t happen.
The Budget Committee decided to fund the entire estimated costs (over $1.3 million) listed in the report and recommended putting it into a capital projects fund. The Budget Committee asked very few questions on the matter.
The Commission addressed the $1.3 million request at the special called meeting. We were told that the IT Committee had recommended it and that the Sheriff’s Office couldn’t proceed without this fund, neither of which are true. Creating the fund isn’t actually appropriating money for specific purchases. The purchases could be made without the fund and still have to go through normal purchasing protocols.
Motions were made to postpone the matter until February, which didn’t make a lot of sense since the matter needed to be prioritized rather than just delayed, to reduce the amount to $700,000 and to send the matter back to the IT Committee. All 3 motions failed.
Commissioner Mike Akard has written about the matter on his Facebook page. Rather than me writing basically the same thing here, please read what he has to say here and here.
There are two things that jump out at me regarding the $1.3 million placed in the capital fund. Some of the estimates seem high. For example, monitors are listed at an estimated cost of $168.30 each (see page 54) but any of us could walk into an office supply store and get a better off the shelf price, with no prior planning. The same is likely true for the desktop pcs, even though the individual specifications aren’t listed. Furthermore, there are two capital costs listed as unknown (see page 53). I hope this doesn’t cause this latest IT project to exceed its budgeted costs.
The money will come out of the General Fund. Now that the funds are available, there is little, if any, incentive not to spend the funds.
All of this has taught me that it is a bad policy to forward anything from the IT Committee to the Budget Committee without a specific recommendation. The IT Committee needs to thoroughly examine everything before sending anything on without a recommendation. I will be insistent on this in the future.
More mistakes by Finance Director and staff
Last month I wrote about mistakes made by the Finance Director and/or his staff. The mistakes continued this month. Last month the Commission was asked to vote on a budget amendment for the donations to the Animal Shelter. This month we were asked to vote on an amendment to undue last months amendment because we didn’t need the amendment after all.
The Commission was asked to vote to amend the budget to appropriate an additional $578,611 for workers compensation because of an omission by the Finance Director. It is not that difficult to calculate workers compensation. Situations can arise that would necessitate a small increase but a competent Finance Director wouldn’t miss the mark this much.
Funding workers compensation isn’t an optional budgetary expenditure. While I voted for this amendment, in hindsight I wish that I hadn’t. Could it be that this was under budgeted, to make the budget look smaller than it actually was, knowing that funding it isn’t optional? It’s much easier to come back during the middle of the fiscal year for a huge budget increase on an expense that isn’t optional than for one that isn’t. I intend to monitor this situation more closely in the future and will likely only support amendments that are minor necessary adjustments, not huge increases (‘mistakes’) like this.
Competitive sealed bid threshold raised from $10,000 to $25,000
In January, the Commission rejected having the same people serve on the Purchasing Commission and the Budget Committee at the same time. In March, the Commission approve the Mayor’s appointments to the newly separated Purchasing Commission. I voted no on the appointments for several reasons, the most important being that I didn’t see anyone in the nominees that I could be sure would look out for the taxpayers. Unfortunately, based on the first action of the new Purchasing Commission,
my concern is now justified.
It should be noted that this is also one of the first things that the new Purchasing Agent, Katie Branham an attorney, pushed for. The Purchasing Commission approved 4 to 0 with 1 absent to raise the competitive sealed bid threshold from $10,000 to $25,000. Now the Purchasing Department will only need to try to get 3 bids before awarding purchases up to $25,000. Special deals were just made easier in Blount County. Only Commissioners Akard and I voted no.
Election Commission members given pay raise
We live in a time where the idea that public servants should actually serve the public, rather than themselves, seems trite, if not nonexistent. I take my job as a public servant very seriously, to the point that I am willing to serve without compensation. So many today get in positions in government to enrich themselves while giving lip service to the notion of public service.
The Blount County Election Commission meets once a month. In a non-election year, the meetings can be brief, some lasting less than an hour. The current pay is $300 a month for each member except for the Chairman who is paid $400. The members will now be paid $400 a month starting in February. Where else can you get paid $400 for an hour or two of work each month?
During an election year there is more work for the Election Commission but that is public service. My wish for the new year is for those who claim they want to serve to examine whether that is really what is in their hearts and minds. While 4 Commissioners voted no on the resolution to increase the pay, only Commissioners Akard and I voted no on the transfer that made the pay increase possible.
The majority of Election Commissioners were on the Election Commission when it voted to not count the ballots of Keith and Karen Miller in 2010 because they had requested paper ballots.
$1 million ear mark for jail
I have long maintained that our local government operates far too secretively. That point could not be clearer than the recent revelation that Mayor Ed Mitchell and Finance Director Randy Vineyard earmarked one million for the jail without telling the commission or the public.
When asked for a comment, the Mayor lacked the integrity to even respond. Failure to respond to a request for comment has become the norm for the Mayor.
The Finance Director said that he had a transition facility in mind when he earmarked the money without telling you, the taxpaying public. A Sheriff’s employee recently told me that he also wanted a transition facility. Blount County may benefit from a transition facility but something this important should be discussed openly for the benefit of the public, not behind closed doors with secret earmarking.
The Finance Director serves as a non-voting member of the Blount County Corrections Partnership but he did not bother to inform the BCCP, the Commission or the public about this money. After the Budget Committee meeting, where I questioned the Finance Director about this money, he yelled at me after the microphones were turned off and the press had left the room. With this type of behavior and secrecy and the volume of financial mistakes, I am convinced that the taxpaying citizens of Blount County deserve a better Finance Director and Mayor.
With all the big spending by this Commission, Mayor and several office holders, I think the best investment this County could make is to hire a new Finance Director who will be open, better informed, live within the budget and stop making so many mistakes. My November 6th email to the Finance Director on the nearly $80 million in variable rate debt that will need to be refinanced in 2016 remains unanswered.
The resolution that I filed in November to have a hearing on the nearly $94,580 jail study was delayed until January. Interestingly the Sheriff’s Office has already followed the advice given in the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) report regarding renegotiating per diem rates for housing federal inmates. The ILPP report recommended hiring a company with expertise in rate negotiations to renegotiate the rates. The Sheriff’s Office took this advice and received a rate increase.
The BCCP unanimously (5-0 with one absent) recommended that the Commission have a hearing on the jail study. The Commission chose not to because of the Mayor’s false threat of a lawsuit, against the jail consultant, to silence discussion. There is no lawsuit. It’s time to hear from the consultant.