Tag Archive | head banging

March 2017 Commission Report

Agenda Committee
The commission recently started voting to receive reports and minutes from committees and entities that provides us with information because of the new software system that the commission started using in January.  Prior to the new system, these records were available in the commission packet as information without a vote.  I (Tona Monroe) pointed out that some of the meeting minutes were drafts and subject to being changed by their respective bodies.  The draft minutes were postponed until April so that the commission can figure out how to properly handle voting on minutes being received in the future.  The matter shows how most commissioners operate on auto pilot during the meetings and how little thought most put into the process.

Commission meeting
Commissioners Mike Akard, Mike Caylor, Tom Cole, Jamie Daly and Tom Stinnett were absent.

Evergreen pay study for Highway Department
The Evergreen Solutions salary study pay increase request for the Highway Department was back on the agenda after being pulled by Commissioner Dave Bennett last month without any explanation for it being pulled.  The request increased from $13,579.46 to $15,346.13.

The $15,346.13 will be used to increase the pay of 14 employees.  Shortly before this, one employee was about 2/3’s of this amount in one year.  Certain people get huge page raises while many get small ones.  According to the 2015 payroll, Assistant Superintendent Chico Messer made $71,999.98.  According to the 2016 salary list, Chico Messer’s salary increased to $82,801 on August 25, 2016 (see page 42).  In 2014, Messer’s annual salary was $66,000.06.  It’s interesting that Messer sought and received certification from the state to run for the position of Highway Superintendent but chose not to seek the postion.  Could the big pay increase be a deterrent to Messer running in 2018?

In 2015, the Blount County Commission voted to adopt the recommendations of the Evergreen Solutions employee classification and compensation study for all county departments except the Highway Department and the Schools.  This request adds the Highway Department to the rest of the General County government pay scale.

You may remember that one of my objections at the time was that the report wasn’t even finished when the commission was asked to vote to adopt its recommendations.  The final study was not made public until 7 months after the commission had voted on the matter.  Well this new study wasn’t in the Agenda Committee packet.  When I asked why, I was told by the Human Resources Director that she had just received the report that day.  That raises the question of why it had been put on the agenda last month when the report wasn’t finished.  Do these people ever learn?  Do they even care?

Furthermore, the previous study only compared Blount County to one other county.  The rest of the comparisons were to schools, even though Blount County Schools didn’t participate, cities and other entities.  This new study only compared Blount County to cities.  Not one county was included in the study.  It wouldn’t be that hard, particularly when you’re only looking at one department, to obtain the payrolls for other counties and analyze comparable positions.  Commissioners Karen Miller and I were the only no votes.

Service dogs
A couple donated $10,000 to the county for the purchase of a service dog.  Blount County currently has 7 service dogs and will soon have 10.

CTAS resolution
State legislation has been filed that would add the County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) to the list of government entities that would sunset and have to be renewed by the Tennessee General Assembly after a review process.  All of the status quo, courthouse clique commissioners signed onto a resolution that opposed this legislation.

If enacted, an Evaluation Committee would review the objectives of CTAS.  TCA 4-29-105 says:

The Evaluation Committee shall have as its objectives:
1) The review of present programs and strategies of entities to determine the quality, efficiency, and success of such programs and strategies in implementation of legislative mandates.

What’s wrong with a regular review of CTAS?  CTAS can be political and is cliquish, picking their favorites.

On at least two occasions that I have asked CTAS questions, the local government consultant for this area, Wesley Robertson, has called Commission Chairman Jerome Moon and given him the answer to my questions rather than calling and giving the answers to me.

I’ve talked to local elected officials in several counties around the state.  Those who are principled reformers receive similar treatment.  A commissioner in another county shared with me that she has quit contacting CTAS because as soon as she inquires about anything, her CTAS government consultant calls her county mayor to inform him of what she is inquiring about.  Another elected official in a different county told me that we should get together and ask the Tennessee General Assembly for some real help, since we aren’t getting it from CTAS.  She shared with me how another lady she knows in local government is treated poorly by CTAS.  It seems that CTAS has a history of treating women who oppose the status quo, poorly.  However, I have talked with men in local elected office who don’t consult with CTAS either because they consider them to be part of the problem within the bureaucracy in government.

CTAS is a part of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service (IPS).  IPS blocked me on twitter after I posted tweets critical of CTAS.  Amazingly, the IPS unblocked me the day before the commission voted on this resolution and is now following www.twitter.com/bcpublicrecord.

A thorough review of CTAS might be just exactly what it needs to provide better service.  It makes no sense to oppose a review process of your tax dollars at work; therefore I voted no.  Only Commissioner Karen Miller joined me in voting no.  Commissioners Akard and Daly, who were absent from the commission meeting, voted against putting this item on the agenda, at the Agenda Committee meeting.

Open records policy
The state legislature enacted a law requiring local governments to have open records policies by July 1st.  This should have been a law many years ago.  However, the law is not as specific as it should be and will probably require changes to it in the future.

As an elected official, I thought that it would be easier to obtain information but that is often not the case.  It can be difficult obtaining records needed to make important public policy decisions.  I’ve had to go to the Office of Open Records Counsel for assistant several times in obtaining records from Blount County government.  Several people have shared with me how difficult it can be to obtain help from the Office of Open Records Counsel.  Thus, a clear policy is needed.

Commissioner Jerome Moon chose to place himself and Commissioners Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor on the ad hoc committee that will write the open records policy.  Both Grady Caskey and Mike Caylor work for local governments and tend to favor government.  Hopefully the policy to be written will serve the people of Blount County well.

Lack of discussion
Other that the normal course of speaking required for the chairman to run a meeting, I was the only commissioner to discuss anything on the agenda that was put to a vote.  Many have said that these meetings are a done deal before the commissioners get there.  With no discussion except from me, I see why so many conclude this.

Commissioner Dodd Crowe’s only statement of the night came at the end of the meeting to inform those in the audience that the IT Department was working to ensure that all of the commissioners and their votes appeared on the screen displaying the votes.  All of the commissioners, and their votes, had not been showing on the screen because of an issue with the new software system.

Blount County Corrections Partnership
The Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) is a charade that exists to appease the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) to keep the jail certified.  Certification by the TCI Board of Control (BOC) is pretty close to worthless.  Jail standards are good but the TCIBOC has and continues to certify jails that are not in compliance with the standards because they jump through hoops.

One of those hoops is having the BCCP.  Part of the charade even includes TCI employees Detentions Facility Specialist (DFS) Robert Kane, who inspects the jail, and the Corrections Partnership Coordinator Bob Bass.  DFS Robert Kane makes false statements in his jail inspection report such as the March 3, 2016 report that gives the BCCP credit for things that it doesn’t do such as submitting monthly progress reports to the TCI.  It doesn’t, the Blount County Sheriff’s Office does that.  He says that the BCCP meets monthly and discusses the findings of the ILPP report.  The BCCP met 4 times in 2015.  You can read more about the report here.

CPC Bass serves as the bully for the TCI.  He comes to some of the meetings to talk tough to the BCCP about how the jail could be decertified if the county doesn’t build.  Talking tough is about all he can do, other than educate us in meetings with videos available on YouTube.  He once popped off to me about shutting the jail down but he and the TCI lack the authority to shut the jail down.  All he can do is go to the State Fire Marshal’s Office like the rest of us can and speak against the jail getting a nearly worthless certification from the TCI.

TCI certification is voluntary but many don’t know that.  Certification is used as a red herring for the TCI’s lack of authority to shut a jail down.  Jails that aren’t certified operate without being shut down.  Increased insurance rates can be a consequence of decertification, but this will not likely impact Blount County significantly because the county is self insured.  Read this letter from the legal counsel for the TCI on its certification and authority regarding shutting a jail down.

We are currently looking at architectural and engineering firms because Bob “the bully” Bass and Robert Kane came in and talked tough.  That was the excuse the political machine needed to start the expansion process.  Reality is that little to nothing would have happened if Blount County hadn’t solicited a firm because certification is a voluntarily process.

The only person to speak during public input was Commissioner Karen Miller.  She expressed how disappointed she is that the BCCP hasn’t actually examined the possible solutions that have been given in the studies that have been done and instead is wanting to pay an architectural firm to look at what the BCCP should be looking at.

Purchasing Agent Katie Branham Kerr spoke briefly about the jail RFQ process and how Michael Brady Incorporated (MBI) was chosen for jail renovation and/or expansion.  She was quick to say that the interviews for 3 of the companies that submitted qualifications were public but failed to mention that most of the process, including the decision making, was done in secret.  The Tennessee General Assembly last year decided that you the taxpaying citizens might some how corrupt the integrity of the process and made most of the purchasing process sealed.  Yes, state legislators thinks that you lack the integrity to interact with the Purchasing Agent and the evaluators that she selects until she has chosen a company and they made a law to stop you for interacting.  However, the names of the Screening Committee/Evaluation Team were published on this website before she made the names of the evaluators known.

MBI employee Jay Henderlight and John Eisenlau with TreanorHL gave a presentation on what they can and have done related to jails.  Eisenlau would work with MBI throughout the process.  I asked them if they were considering a new facility at a new location and was told that they haven’t considered that and didn’t think it would be necessary.  This is important because of what happened in Loudon County.

Loudon County Justice Center: Expansion and renovation vs a new facility
In the letter of engagement from MBI to the Loudon County Purchasing Agent, under Project Information the proposed improvements/use says “Expansion and Renovation of Existing Justice Center.”  The site location reads “12680 Highway 11 W., Loudon, TN” which is the location of the current Loudon County Justice Center.

Loudon County had previously paid MBI about $16,000 to see if the current location of their justice center was suitable for expansion.  After it was determined that the existing location is suitable for expansion, the Loudon County Corrections Partnership (LCCP) voted to move forward with expanding the existing facility in August of 2015.  However, that changed after the Loudon County Commission approved paying MBI up to $60,000 to provide options to expand the justice center at its current location.

MBI provided several expansion and renovation options but the recommendation that came from the LCCP in 2016 was the construction of a new facility at a different location.  While the LCCP was considering building at a new location, the Loudon County jail was decertified by the TCIBOC.  Who and/or what caused the change in plan from expansion of the existing facility to the construction of a new facility isn’t entirely clear.  What role, if any, MBI played in this isn’t clear either.  Who caused the deviation from expanding the existing facility to building a brand new facility at a different location?

Since MBI touts their work in Loudon County and PA Katie Kerr recommends MBI, both should be able to explain to the BCCP and the commission what happened in Loudon County.  I asked PA Kerr who she spoke to at Loudon County when evaluating MBI.  She said she would have to go back and look at her notes.  Even if she couldn’t recall the name of the person that she spoke with she should have been able to recall the conversation but she didn’t offer anything specific about her conversation with Loudon County.

Exactly how much research did Kerr do into MBI prior to recommending them?  Kerr has taken 11 months to complete the process of selecting a company.  Kerr’s office took nearly 3 months to issue the RFQ, despite her saying that 30 days should be sufficient time to issue the paperwork.

Furthermore, Kerr deviated from the jail RFQ issued by her office.  The RFQ says that the Screening Committee selected to evaluate the firms that submitted proposals would be county commissioners and employees Sheriff’s Office (see page 16).  2 of the evaluators were neither county commissioners or employees of the Sheriff’s Office.

I continued with my efforts to learn exactly what happened in the change of course in Loudon County but was prohibited from questioning Kerr further on the matter.  Chairman Rick Carver said that my questioning was out of order.  I challenged the rule of the chair and the rest of the voting members voted against allowing me to continue.

The people of the 7th district elected me to ask the though questions.  The BCCP voted to prohibit me from asking the necessary questions to make informed decisions the protect the taxpayers of Blount County and are in the best interest of the community.  We were there to decide whether to recommend the company chosen by the PA to the Blount County Commission.  I was prohibited by the BCCP from doing what I was elected to do.

What is point of attending these meetings if I am not going to be allowed to do my job?  The people deserve to know exactly what happened in Loudon County and how much research that PA Kerr did on MBI but I was prohibited from finding out.

When a new justice center was recommended to the Loudon County Commission, the matter died for a lack of motion.

MBI is the same company that was chosen for the renovation proposals for the high schools that was original estimated at $40M and has now ballooned up to $66M.  Given that the same company has been recommended for and involved in two important, and very costly proposals the people deserve answers that Commissioners Dave Bennett, Rick Carver and Mike Caylor and Blount County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff French and Jail Administrator John Adams prohibited me from obtaining.

This is a farce.  Nothing about the jail can be trusted.

I have requested Kerr’s notes related to MBI for the jail and high school renovations.  We’ll see what I get.

BCCP emails:
Chairman Rick Carver rcarver@blounttn.org
Commissioner Mike Caylor mcaylor@blounttn.org, bmcaylor@maryville-tn.gov
Commissioner Dave Bennett dbennett@blounttn.org
Commissioner Tona Monroe tmonroe@blounttn.org
Chief Deputy Jeff French jfrench@bcso.com
Jail Administrator John Adams jadams@bcso.com
Finance Director Randy Vineyard rvineyard@blounttn.org
General Session Judge Mike Gallegos mgallegos@blounttn.org
Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington tharrington@blounttn.org

Other Chairs:
Agenda Committee Chairman Steve Samples ssamples@blounttn.org
Commission Chairman Jerome Moon jmoon@blounttn.org

Up next: The commission will be considering MBI for work related to the jail and expansion and renovation of the high schools.  Some have contacted me about these matters.  If you want answers, you’re going to have to help me as I’ve been stonewalled by the courthouse clique.

Comptroller’s Office says it doesn’t recognize assignments totaling $2 million in funds for jail

Regarding the jail we’ve learned of a secret $2 million plan, a contract signed without commission approval, inmates filling our jail that we don’t have to keep, a company being paid 3.5 times more than the lowest offer, a purchasing agent writing a resolution about the jail that failed to mention the word jail in the resolutionthe inspecting authority (TCI) having no authority to shut the jail down but pushing the county to build and its Corrections Partnership Coordinator bullying people attending public meetings.  Now we learn that the $2 million in assignments for the jail are not recognized by the Comptroller’s Office (see below).

Is there anything regarding the jail that can be trusted?  The public trust has been broken.  The public has good reason to be very skeptical and cautious of anything presented to it regarding the jail, regardless of what the courthouse clique calls it (i.e. Transitional Facility).

What we see now is that there are essentially two sets of books: the lawful set of books recognized by the state and a second set of books by the courthouse clique.  How many other slush funds are there in the courthouse clique’s 2nd set of books?

This all makes the case of why one more layer of secret bureaucracy through the Purchasing Department should not be tolerated.  The evaluation process of qualifications should not be done in secret and the Yager/Calfee exemption law should be repealed.

Contact Senator Ken Yager sen.ken.yager@capitol.tn.gov and Representative Kent Calfee rep.kent.calfee@capitol.tn.gov to repeal the secret purchasing practices.

 

Here is my correspondence with Jim Arnette, the Director of the Division of Local Government Audit in the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury.

—–Original Message—–
From: “Jim Arnette” <Jim.Arnette@cot.tn.gov>
Sent: Thursday, January 5, 2017 2:07pm
To: “tona@breezeair.net” <tona@breezeair.net>
Cc: “Justin Wilson” <Justin.Wilson@cot.tn.gov>, “Bryan Burklin” <Bryan.Burklin@cot.tn.gov>, “Mark Treece” <Mark.Treece@cot.tn.gov> Subject: RE: Who authorized assigning this $2 million?

Ms. Monroe,

We found no documentation that the county commission has adopted a resolution or policy clearly giving management the authority to assign fund balance for external reporting purposes. Therefore, we have not recognized these assignments in the financial statements in the annual financial report that we issue with our audit opinion. Although we do not recognize the authority for management to assign fund balance for external reporting purposes, this would not necessarily preclude management from recognizing assignments on their internal records as a management planning tool.

Jim Arnette, CGFM, CISA
Director
Comptroller of the Treasury
Division of Local Government Audit
1500 James K. Polk Building
Nashville, Tennessee  37243-1402
615.401.7841 

From: tona@breezeair.net [mailto:tona@breezeair.net]
Sent: Thursday, December 29, 2016 12:57 PM
To: Jim Arnette <Jim.Arnette@cot.tn.gov>
Cc: Justin Wilson <Justin.Wilson@cot.tn.gov>
Subject: Who authorized assigning this $2 million?

Dear Director Arnette,

Last year, I learned about a secret plan by Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell and Sheriff James Lee Berrong to set aside $2 million, $1 million last year and another $1 million this year, through contact with and in records of the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI).  The September 2, 2015 meeting minutes of the TCI Board of Control are attached for your review.  The part relevant to Blount County is found on page 7.  

“Since that time, the mayor is on board 100 percent and called the sheriff the previous day and told the sheriff that one million dollars had been escrowed and earmarked for a new jail and plan to do the same thing next year.”   

When I inquired about whether $1 million had been set aside by the Mayor without telling the public or the Blount County Commission, Blount County Finance Director Randy Vineyard informed me that yes $1 million had been assigned.  He provided me a paper copy of the March 2009 Governmental Accounting Standards Board Document referencing Statement 54.  That document is found here:  http://www.gasb.org/cs/BlobServer?blobkey=id&blobwhere=1175820452832&blobheader=application/pdf&blobcol=urldata&blobtable=MungoBlobs  

Under the classification Assigned is says,  

“Assigned fund balance comprises amounts intended to be used by the government for specific purposes. Intent can be expressed by the governing body or by an official or body to which the governing body delegates the authority. In governmental funds other than the general fund, assigned fund balance represents the amount that is not restricted or committed. This indicates that resources in other governmental funds are, at a minimum, intended to be used for the purpose of that fund.”

The words “or by an official or body” are underlined because they were underlined on the copy provided to me. 

Paragraph 13 of Statement 54 says much the same thing.

“Assigned Fund Balance

  1. Amounts that are constrained by the government‘s intent to be used for specific purposes, but are neither restricted nor committed, should be reported as assigned fund balance, except for stabilization arrangements, as discussed in paragraph 21. Intent should be expressed by (a) the governing body itself or (b) a body (a budget or finance committee, for example) or official to which the governing body has delegated the authority to assign amounts to be used for specific purposes.

What I want to know and hope that your office will tell me is when did the governing body delegate the authority to assign these funds to the Mayor and/or Finance Director?  Please let me know if there is a state statute that allows for this.  If there is no state law, when did the Blount County Commission delegate this authority to the Mayor and/or Finance Director.

 

I await your response and wish you a happy new year.

 

Sincerely,
Tona Monroe

Blount County Commissioner

A response to a nonresponse: Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have form used to determine inmate costs

headbashwallIn the inane world of government, here’s another story to share that leaves me wondering why I continue to bang my head against the wall of local government.

Back in early May of this year I sent an email to Jeff French, the Chief Deputy of the Blount County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), asking for a copy of the Intergovernmental Agreement between the BCSO and the United States Marshals Service which establishes the daily inmate per diem amount and travel rate and for the paperwork that was used to determine those rates.   About a week later, Deputy Chief Jarrod Millsaps emailed me the Intergovernmental Agreement but I never received anything related to the paperwork that was used to determine the federal per diem rate.

The specific form that the federal government requires is the Form USM-243.  My request was broader than just this form because I wasn’t sure if anything else related to the rate had been submitted.  Thus, my request was for all of the paperwork related to the determination of the per diem and travel rates.  Remember that the county paid a company 3.5 times more than the low bid to submit the paperwork for a new rate.

Several months passed without receiving a response from French or the paperwork determining the rates.  As such, I contacted the Office of Open Records Counsel (OORC) in the Comptroller’s Office to obtain their help.  About a month passed when Ann Butterworth in the OORC emailed me saying that Chief French told her that the BCSO did not have the Form USM-243 and that a nonresponse constitutes denial under the Open Records Act of Tennessee.

I thought that was the end of my open records request.  You can’t get blood out of a turnip.  If the BCSO doesn’t have the Form USM-243 then my only option to obtain the paperwork it is to do a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government.

About a week later, I got an email from attorney Craig Garrett’s office with this attached letter denying that the BCSO had failed to respond to an open records request.  His contention is that my original request wasn’t a valid request under the Open Records Act; therefore, the BCSO didn’t have to respond.

Really?  Why do people go to such great lengths in responding to explain why they didn’t respond in the first place?  If French had taken 1 minute to email me to explain that the BCSO didn’t have the records that I was requesting, there would have been no need to contact an attorney at taxpayer expense to provide a response.  If people would just do their jobs the taxpayers would be better served and no one have to lawyer up for failing to respond to a request.

Perhaps the most alarming thing is the discovery that the BCSO doesn’t have the Form USM-243.  The BCSO has long maintained that the county makes money housing federal inmates.  How can that statement be made with a straight face when the BCSO isn’t even in possession of the paperwork used to determine the per diem rate?   Has the BCSO done its own analysis on the cost of housing inmates?  If so, why pay a company to do it for you?  If not, there is little if any reason to believe that the county benefits financially by keeping federal inmates in the Blount County Adult Detention Center.

Jeff French:  (865) 273-5000  jfrench@bcso.com
Sheriff James Berrong:  (865) 273-5000 jlb@bcso.com

Purchasing Agent explains her duties when it suits the machine

Purchasing Agent Katie Branham is an attorney who came to the county with little relevant purchasing experience.  The citizens of this county are not being well served under her leadership because she is controlled and does what the machine wants.

One of the first things that she did was push to weaken the competitive sealed bid process.  She wrote the jail RFQ resolution but failed to include the word jail in the resolved portion of the resolution.  She presented the commission a contract for leasing cars without providing any comparison of buying verses leasing.  Now she is being selective in describing her duties and authority under state law.

At the April 8th Blount County Corrections Partnership meeting, Branham told the body that under the Purchasing Act of 1957 she could proceed with a request for qualifications (RFQ) to look at jail expansion and program services at the request of the Partnership.  She said that commission approval wasn’t necessary to issue the RFQ.

The commission approved a resolution to authorize the purchasing agent to do something that she said she could do without its authorization.  Why did Branham write a resolution to authorize herself to do something that she said she can do without commission approval?  Couldn’t she have used more accurate wording in the resolution that she wrote for the commission?

Blount County government needs to take a close look at the authority, under state law, of each office and position in county government.  The commission met to authorize the purchasing agent to do something that she said she could do without their approval.  Sheriff James Berrong told the commission at that meeting that the state prisoners were out of local control when state law says that counties don’t have to keep state felons with a continuous sentence of more than one year.  Furthermore at the same meeting, the sheriff said the federal inmates were his decision, while the Comptroller’s Office has said it is unaware of any specific state statute that says he can sign a contract to house federal inmates without commission approval.

Does anyone within the political machine of Blount County government understand their duties and authority under state law?  Commissioner Mike Caylor was so unaware at the BCCP meeting that he consulted the finance director, who told him that he had heard the same thing that the finance director heard.

Does Branham understand what she is doing?  When asked if 30 days would be enough time, she said that 30 days should be sufficient time for to issue the RFQ.  It took Mrs. Branham’s office 12 weeks to issue the RFQ.

I (Tona Monroe) was told that the US Marshals Service follows local purchasing procedures with federal inmate contracts.  Thus, I sought to find out what, if any, authority the local purchasing agent has related to contracting to house federal inmates.

Mrs. Branham won’t tell me if she has the authority to sign or execute a contract to house federal inmates.  She had no problem explaining her duties as she understands them under the state law when the machine asked for clarification.  Why the selective explanation of duties?  Unfortunately this is par for the course of questionable legal authority in Blount County government.

Sheriff Berrong said he doesn’t want to keep state prisoners and they’re only a good deal for the state

In April, Mayor Ed Mitchell called a special commission meeting for the sole purpose of the commission
voting to authorize the purchasing agent to issue a request for qualifications related to jail design and program services.  At that meeting, Sheriff James Lee Berrong said that he and his staff try to get rid of state prisoners every day, that it is out of his control whether the state takes its prisoners, that he doesn’t want to keep the state prisoners and that the revenue the state sends the county is only a good deal for the state of Tennessee.

Direct quotes from Sheriff James Lee Berrong at the meeting include:

“We try every day to get rid of the state prisoners.  I don’t want to keep the state prisoners.”
“We make a request every single day.” (to get rid of state prisoners)
“Out of our control (state prisoners).  We get like $37.50 which is not a good deal for anybody other than the state.”

You can listen to the sheriff’s statements.

How do these statements compare to the sky is falling Chicken Little PR propaganda that we’re hearing now that the state actually removed many of its prisoners from the jail?

Which is the biggest tall tale: the mayor saying there has been no conversation about expanding the jail or the sheriff saying that he doesn’t want to keep state prisoners and tries to get rid of them every day?

Is someone not telling the truth?

The local paper had a quote from Mayor Ed Mitchell in the Saturday paper saying, “There has been no conversation between me, the sheriff, nor anyone else about building a jail.  You’ve heard so many people out there say that we’re wanting to build a jail.  You’re listening to one person who is giving fact-less information, disseminating it to the public with no basis.”

Fact #1: State record mentions conversation between mayor and sheriff

The mayor says there has been no conversation between him and the sheriff about building a jail and that one person is giving fact-less information to the public.  Let’s compare what he said with the minutes of the September 2, 2015 Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control meeting.  Statements attributed to Sherriff James Berrong appear to contradict what the mayor told the Blount Partnership/Chamber of Commerce.

“Sheriff Berrong said he addressed the board three years ago and at that time said that the mayor did not think he had a problem but rather thought the sheriff had a problem. Since that time, the mayor is on board 100 percent and called the sheriff the previous day and told the sheriff that one million dollars had been escrowed and earmarked for a new jail and plan to do the same thing next year. The sheriff said they are making great strides and progress with cooperation between the jail and the mayor’s office. He added that they also have a commission that does not believe there is a problem.”

Well gee mayor, did that conversation happen or not?  A state record says it did.

Fact #2: Mayor called a special commission meeting with a resolution to authorize a request for qualifications (RFQ) pertaining to the jail

Mayor Ed Mitchell called a special session meeting of the Board of County Commissioners of Blount County, Tennessee in April of this year.  The agenda contained one item: a resolution to authorize the purchasing agent to solicit a request for qualifications for architectural planning and/or design services and/or programing services for Blount County, Tennessee.

Well gee mayor, did you call a meeting to put the RFQ resolution before the commission without talking to anyone, including the sponsors of the resolution?

Fact #3: The RFQ project overview says county is seeking services to plan and design a jail expansion

The project overview in the RFQ says, “Blount County Government is soliciting Requests for Qualifications from licensed Architectural and/or Engineering firms for professional services necessary to plan and design a jail expansion for Blount County, Tennessee.”  See page 9 for the quote.  Under Proposal Award it says, “Once an agreement is reached, the Purchasing Agent will then request that the full Blount County Commission approve a multi-year contract.”  See page 16 for that quote.

Well gee mayor, did you call a meeting to have the commission vote on an RFQ to seek services to plan and design a jail expansion without talking to anyone about it?

What kind of leader would assign $1 million of fund balance and call a meeting to seek commission approval for issuing a document that says the county is requesting qualifications for services to plan and design a jail expansion without talking about it?  Were there no conversations or is someone not telling the truth?

Commission rejects hearing from jail consultant: Mayor praised consultant’s ideas

The Blount County Commission rejected hearing from Alan Kalmanoff of the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP), the consultant paid to do a criminal justice system assessment.  There hasn’t been a word about it in the local newspapers or TV stations.

The final report, commonly referred to as the jail study, was issued on May 31, 2014.  The report was suppose to be sent to the commission and made available to the public pending some requested changes to a couple of data errors.  The motion was made at the July 29, 2014 Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) meeting.  The race statistics were reversed.  The white numbers were actually the black numbers and vice versa (page 8).  There was also a request for clarification about a citation in lieu of arrest policy.  You can watch that meeting here.

There was some discussion by then Chairman Tab Burkhalter about whether the BCCP should hear from the consultant or whether it should be the commission.  Burkhalter felt it best for the full commission to hear the presentation.  The next BCCP meeting took place after the new commission took office.

The new members of the BCCP were told at the October 28, 2014 meeting that the consultant felt that the final report was the final report and that any errors could be noted during the presentation on the findings and conclusions of the study.  As a result, the report had not been fowarded to the commission or made publically available online.

My first motion, after election of officers, as a new member of the BCCP was to send the report to the full commission, thereby making the report readily available to the public because it would be in the commission packet.  I didn’t move to have a hearing from the consultant at that meeting but did so at the next meeting on January 27, 2015.  The motion passed 5-0 with 1 absent.

When the matter was presented to the commission, Jerome Moon complicated the situation.  He wanted the BCCP to hold the teleconference hearing, ignoring the request of the BCCP that the commission hold the teleconference.  I reluctantly agreed to postpone the request and said that the matter could be pulled from the future Commission agenda if the BCCP held the teleconference.

That teleconference never happened.  The BCCP meeting where the teleconference was scheduled, was canceled by BCCP Chairman Jeff Headrick.  Headrick did not reschedule the meeting, that he canceled, to hear from the consultant.  His wife is a relative of the Sheriff.

When the matter was back before the commission, the Mayor emerged on the scene with a letter encouraging us to not talk about the matter because the county might sue the jail consultant.  See page 34 for the letter.  The commission fail for this obstructionist tactic, rejecting hearing from the consultant 8-12 with Jerome Moon abstaining.

The Mayor’s position seemed to be at odds with a prior statement on the consultant’s ideas.  Mayor Ed Mitchell was quoted in the Knoxville News Sentinel on page 4A of the May 1, 2014 newspaper as saying, “I think he (Alan Kalmanoff) has good ideas and I liked what he was saying.”  The reporter who wrote that story and later wrote about failure to discuss the report was given a county job, in a field that he had no experience in.

There was/is no lawsuit.  In November, I filed a resolution to proceed with hearing from the jail consultant because there was no lawsuit and it makes common sense to hear from the consultant that you paid to do a study.  See page 68 for the resolution.  The commission (Agenda Committee) voted to postpone the matter until January.

This month the commission, rejected hearing from the jail consultant 9-10 with 2 absent.  Commissioner Andy Allen asked Chairman Headrick what the BCCP’s recommendation was on hearing from the jail consultant. BCCP Chairman told the commission that the recommendation was to wait until we heard from the author of a new jail report.  The BCCP made no such recommendation.  In fact, the only recommendation that the BCCP had made was for the commission to hear from the jail consultant.  Apparently it’s acceptable, to some, to completely misstate the actions of a committee to justify your position.  I am left wondering why anyone would trust what some of these commissioners say and do.

Commissioners voting yes: Mike Akard, Archie Archer, Tom Cole, Dodd Crowe, Jamie Daly, Ron French, Karen Miller, Tona Monroe and Steve Samples
Commissioners voting no: Andy Allen, Rick Carver, Grady Caskey, Mike Caylor, Gary Farmer, Jeff Headrick, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton, Jerome Moon and Tom Stinnett.
Commissioners Brad Bowers and Shawn Carter were absent.

With no lawsuit filed commissioners Crowe, French and Samples decided to proceed with the hearing after previously voting no.  Tom Stinnett flip-flopped voting no after previously voting yes and Mr. Abstain Jerome Moon voted no.  The rest voted the same or were absent.

What I have learned from this
Throughout this whole unproductive process I repeatedly tried working with commissioners, reluctantly agreeing to unnecessary delays.  Giving people the benefit of the doubt did not prove fruitful.  The reasons for the delays and obstructionist tactics were nothing more than excuses to avoid public discussion on the study.

What the public needs to know
The taxpayers paid $94,580 for a study on their Blount County criminal justice system.  You were denied a fair public hearing and opportunity for your elected officials to publically question the jail consultant that you paid because some of the powers that be didn’t like what the report said.  That did not stop General Sessions Judge Mike Gallegos from using his position on the BCCP to try to discredit the ILPP study.

Where will the jail crowding issue go from here?
This is an important public safety question that effects your wallet and one that you should be paying close attention to.  My diligence on hearing from the jail consultant should not be taken as an endorsement of every word contained in the ILPP report.  I don’t agree 100% with the report.  However, it does provide a good framework for us to use in reforming our criminal justice system and reducing our jail population.

The BCCP just heard form County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) Jail Management Consultant, Jim Hart.  He had previously conducted a study on the Blount County Adult Detention Facility (jail) and had written a report.  He was asked to do a staffing analysis.  He followed that with a report on his report and the ILPP report.

Hart’s report provided an update on jail numbers since the ILPP report.  This is good information to have.  However, it would have made sense to hear from the ILPP consultant before hearing from Hart.  It’s as if some thought the ILPP report was written in Chinese and that they needed an interpreter, to explain the report to them by doing a report on the report.

Hart encouraged the BCCP to follow some of the ILPP report recommendations.  Hopefully the BCCP will get to work discussing and recommending adoption of some the recommendations from the Hart and ILPP studies.

Some possible good news
The State of Tennessee is planning to open a new male prison that will have around 2,500 beds.  This is good news because Blount County typically holds over 100 state sentenced inmates.  I’ve been told that Blount County is near the top of the list for relief due to overcrowding in our local jail.  The state hasn’t given me anything saying that but hopefully we will see a reduction soon in the state sentenced male inmates. The state is also currently renovating a facility to house state sentenced female inmates.  The state is culpable in some of the overcrowding issues throughout the state; therefore, the state should be working with local jails to reduce their inmate populations.

For more information on the history of the BCCP, see my November 2015 Blount County Commission Report.

Why were federal inmates removed from the Blount County jail?

The Blount County Adult Detention Facility has been housing federal inmates for over a decade.  We have been told that the reason for doing so is because the county “makes money” housing the inmates because the county receives a per diem from the federal government.  In the last year, the rhetoric has changed from making money to offsetting fixed expenditures.

Some of the federal inmates were removed from the Blount County jail in 2015.  The question remains: why?

On November 11, The Daily Times reported Deputy Chief Jarrod Millsaps saying, “We’ve had to decrease our population in the facility in regards to federal inmates just because of the overcrowding issue.”  However, at November 30th Blount County Corrections Partnership (BCCP) meeting, I (Tona Monroe) asked Sheriff James Berrong why some of the federal inmates had been removed.  He refused to tell me saying that was between him and them (the US Marshals Service).

The reason that I asked is because Commissioners Tom Stinnett and Rick Carver have stated publically that the jail consultant that the county hired to do a criminal justice system assessment called Washington DC to have the federal inmates removed from the jail.  Did these two parrot what the Sheriff told them?  It appears to me that the Sheriff was trying to sour them on the jail consultant, possibly to get them to vote no on hearing from the jail consultant on his findings and conclusions about the study that we taxpayers paid him to do.  The consultant Alan Kalmanoff said he did not call Washington DC to have the federal prisoners removed.

The sheriff also said at the November BCCP meeting that the inmates could have been removed because I called Washington DC to have them removed.  I did not.  I did call the US Marshals Service Knoxville office after some of the inmates were removed to inquire why they were removed.

The man I spoke with told me that he couldn’t tell me because their agreement was with the Sheriff.  He told me that the US Marshals Service conducts its own jail inspection and that the inspection was not subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act.

More questions emerge from this situation.  Should such secrecy exist?  Should the sheriff be allowed to contract with the US Marshal’s Service without approval from the commission and mayor?  Should federal inmates be housed if the population exceeds the bed capacity?  Why were some of the federal inmates removed but not all?

If it is just due to the overcrowding issue as Deputy Chief Millsaps said, why didn’t the Sheriff just say so when I asked him?  Why would the US Marshals Service refuse to say that it was overcrowding?  If it is overcrowding, is there a number above bed capacity that triggers removal of federal inmates?

The Sheriff mentioned people calling Washington DC more than once at the Nov. 30th BCCP meeting.  Based on his response to my questions, it’s easy to speculate that someone called Washington DC to have the federal inmates removed.  However, I don’t know too many people who can pick up the phone and easily make things move with the federal government.

It’s not exactly clear exactly how many inmates (prisoners) were removed.  A letter from the Sheriff’s Office to the Tennessee Corrections Institute says that the federal government removed 47 inmates but the US Marshals Service told me that 36 inmates were removed.  One possible explanation given was the way the US Marshals Service accounts for inmates going to court.  The US Marshals Service said that was possible but didn’t deny or confirm that as an explanation for the difference.

headbashwallIs there something more to this story?  I don’t know.  The Sheriff and the US Marshals Service have refused to say and everyone else that I have talked with doesn’t know anymore than I do.  I have tried to find out but I’ve hit a wall of secrecy and the head banging is unproductive.

What would be productive is for the state legislature to limit the risks to the county associated with housing discretionary inmates in an overcrowded facility by prohibiting anyone from having unilateral authority to make this decision.  The state legislature should require that any such contract be approved by the legislative body of the county and should prohibit a facility exceeding capacity from housing discretionary inmates.

For more information read these posts:
December 2015 Commission Report
TCI Board of Control member: Blount County could use a nice 100,000 person jail
November 2015 Commission Report
Jail and Criminal Justice System Info

December 2015 Commission Report

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.

Commission meeting
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.

Up next
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.

Evergreen Employee Classification and Compensation Study Final Report made public 7 months after vote

The latest chapter in the embarrassing lack of transparency in Blount County government is the Evergreen Employee Classification and Compensation Study Final Report finally being made available to the public seven months after the commission voted to follow its recommendations.  Yes, the commission adopted the recommendations of the Evergreen Solutions study even though it wasn’t finished at the time it was voted on.

The commission received a draft version, a few days before the commission meeting, containing 3 of the 5 chapters after I (Tona Monroe) asked if anyone had a copy of it and was informed by the HR Director that she hadn’t given the Commission a copy yet because it wasn’t finished.  Commissioner Jamie Daly then asked for the draft version, which we received a few days prior to the vote.  Apparently Mayor Ed Mitchell, Human Resources Director Jenny Morgan, Budget Committee and the HR Committee don’t think you actually need to read some thing before you vote on it.  To make matters worse, the commission was asked to vote on budget amendments last month and this month, pertaining to the new Evergreen pay scale, without having a copy of the final report.

The Mayor appears to be right proud of his making the final report available to the public after the Evergreen pay scale was adopted and implemented as public policy, so much so that a link to the report appears on the homepage of county’s websiteYou can read the final report hereThe draft version is available here.

Notice in the letter included with the draft version that the HR Director says, “I will send the chapters (Chapters 1 and 5 which weren’t finished) to you as soon as I receive them.”  She did not follow through as she said she would.  The study appeared on the County’s website likely in response to my formal open records requests for the study.

The final report simplifies Exhibits 3A and 3B, giving less information about each Department under office holders.  For example, Information Technology is listed as having the longest tenure of any Department in the draft version but that data is rolled into another Department in the final report.

More on Evergreen: Evergreen Solutions study pay is not based on merit

TCI Board of Control member: Blount County could use a nice 100,000 person jail

After the September 2, 2015 Tennessee Corrections Institute Board of Control (TCIBC) minutes revealed that the Mayor had set aside $1 million without telling the public, the September 12, 2012 minutes reveal another alarming statement.  On page 3 of the TCIBC minutes, board member and Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes said:

“Unfortunately, they (Sheriff and staff?) don’t have a commission that will build them a nice 100,000 person jail but they could use it.”

A nice 100,000 person jail?  Blount County can use a facility that large?  Are some wanting to turn the peaceful side of the Smoky Mountains into the next Brushy Mountain Penitentiary?

With rhetoric like this, I think it is time for us to question the quality of people serving on the Board of Control and look at reforming its membership.  Have some become numb to the incarceration process and the huge costs associated with it?  Only one member of the TCIBC does not work in the criminal justice system and that member is a Mayor.

Note: The first page of the 2012 TCIBC minutes is giving an error message but pages 2-3 should open for viewing purposes.

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.