Jim Folts Blount County Commissioner
“To stand in silence, when they should be
protesting, makes cowards out of men” - Abraham
Report on our County Schools
July / August 2014 - Blount County Commission Monthly Report
As a result of my recent extended illness, my July report to you was delayed. My illness also prevented my attendance at the August meeting.
$2 million spending proposed for new Payroll / HR software - no leader, no schedule
Mayor Mitchell and Finance Director Vineyard put forth a proposal to spend more than $2 million for new software for the County Payroll and HR departments. They claimed they had been working on this proposal for nine months. Yet, they made no mention of the project to the Commission until the July meeting. They finally admitted that the $1 million for mystery "capital projects", they had requested in February and June, was going to be used for this project. Large government IT software projects often spin out of control, costing the taxpayers huge amounts of money. I suggested that the Commission be given a month to review this project before voting on it. The Mayor and Finance Director told us that there was no time for such a review. The answers to my subsequent questions, shown below, only raised my concern that this project could become a fiasco, wasting millions of our taxpayers hard earned money.
The first concern is that this project is a huge increase in County Information Technology spending. The IT budget has been running around $550,000 per year. Averaged over 5 years, this project will add another $450,000 per year, or 82%, to that spending
The "Annual Savings Potential" chart presented to the Commission appears to be a pipe dream. It claims the County will save $209,560 per year from “Pay inflation and gaming”. We were told this is the result of employees claiming to have worked more hours than they actually did. The next item on the "Savings Potential" chart says the County is going to save $381,892 per year from “Accrued leave inflation”. We were told this is the result of employees taking time off without using their vacation or personal time allowances. These two items mean the County is losing nearly $600,000 per year from employee payroll fraud. I asked why the County isn't conducting an investigation, so we can send these wrong doers to jail. The answer was that the County had no evidence that these thefts were actually taking place. This would seem to confirm that this $600,000 of "potential savings" is nothing but bureaucratic smoke.
The "Annual Savings Potential" chart also shows another $488,980 savings from "Administrative hours reduction". This savings will supposedly come from using 10 less people to perform the Payroll and HR functions. When I asked for a list of departments who are going to reduce their head count, when this system is up and running, I was told there were no such commitments. More smoke and mirrors.
The answers to questions about the project specifications and management were even more disturbing.
I requested a copy of the detailed specifications for the software. The answer was that the County had not prepared any specification.
However, the lack of a specification did not prevent the County from selecting a vendor for this software. They selected a company named Kronos. Kronos was not the low bidder. The County intends to also contract most of the installation and training work to Kronos. Unfortunately, Kronos does not have any people based in this area. Most will have to travel here, at County expense, from distant cities in the Northeast and Southeast.
I asked for a detailed schedule showing how this software, installation and training will all come together over the next year. The answer was that neither the County, nor the vendor have such a schedule.
I asked who will manage this project for the County. The astounding answer was that no one had been selected by the County to manage this $2 million project. This answer should have been a no-brainer, since the County has an excellent IT department, with a number of talented staff members. In frustration, I asked what County department would be responsible for this $2 million project. After a long period of silence, the Mayor finally said his department would be responsible.
Questionable savings, no specifications, no one responsible for the project. All these things point to a very expensive waste of tax payer money.
Yet, even after hearing all these very disturbing answers. only Commissioners Burchfield, Murrell and myself voted against this poorly conceived, risky project.
My term is ending this month. This is my last report to you as your Commissioner. I just finished another re-reading of my campaign brochure from years ago. Listed below are some of the things we talked about when you elected me, and what has happened on those issues.
Get the Debt Under Control - Between 2002 and 2010 the Commission added more than $100 million to the County debt. This brought our total debt to nearly a quarter billion dollars. This is two to four times the debt per person of the two Tennessee counties similar in size to us. I am happy to report to you that the County has not added any new debt in the last four years. Better yet, the cozy relationship that used to exist between x-Finance Director, David Bennett, and our x-bond consultant/investment banker/bond administrator, Joe Ayres (aka Cumberland Securities), and the Public Building Authority Board, that cost the taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars in fees, seems to have been terminated. Recent refinancings have not involved these characters. These gains will not be held without constant vigilance. The huge size of the fees associated with these borrowings, assure that new borrowings will be proposed, and some of these old characters (or their friends) will reappear. The effort to borrow tens of millions to expand our jail to hold more Federal prisoners (a recent study confirmed the County loses money on the deal with the Feds) is just one example. Only constant vigilance by the taxpayers and their new Commissioners will prevent a resurgence of this debt cancer.
Term Limits - In the absence of term limits, I promised you I would term limit myself. I have met this commitment. I am also happy to report to you that at least six talented new Commissioners, who are dedicated to reforming County government, were elected by you, to continue the work we started.
Create Jobs - Our County spends more than $850,000 per year on the Industrial Development Board / Blount Partnership / Blount Chamber. This is more than four times the average spending of the two Tennessee counties closest to us in size. Despite the outrageous claims about new jobs contained in Industrial Development Board press releases, Blount's unemployment rate is virtually the other counties. This spending appears to do little more than provide money for the political machine to take credit for a recovering economy and provide high paying jobs for the politically connected. The Mayor controls the appointments to the Industrial Development Board. Without his interest and support, it was not possible to make better use of this money to really create new jobs.
Reduce Spending - This was a mixed bag. About all I was able to do was highlight the large number of areas of wasteful spending. The result was a reduction in the rate of increase of spending. However, the County is still spending more money than it takes in. Repeated reviews of County spending show that the County General Fund spending can be cut by at least ten percent, if we just operate at the average efficiency of the other two Tennessee counties closest to us in size.
Improve Education - According to test scores and other measures, Blount County education results are improving. Actions taken in the last decade that took money away from the Schools and used it to bail out the Sheriff and the rest of the General Fund were finally unwound. The Schools are now getting their fair share of the total County budget. Now, it is up to the Schools to use the money wisely. The recent hiring of an expensive Public Relations person by the Schools is not a good omen. Unfortunately, actions in the recent election indicate the School administration would rather play political games of questionable legality, than focus on how to do a better job of educating our kids.
Environment and Zoning - This was a mixed bag. We managed to beat back five poorly crafted "campground" ordinances that would have turned Blount County into Pidgeon Forge. On the other hand, we saw the Pellissippi Parkway Extension rammed down the throats of the citizens, even though the citizens showed overwhelming opposition, with only the Mayor and the head of the Industrial Development Board supportting this expensive fiasco. Zoning is still far too heavily influenced by the Blount Partnership and their friends.
Corruption - We have had fewer examples of corruption in our County government. For example. we have not seen any more officials using County funds to buy phony diplomas. We have not seen more County-owned cars disappearing. We have not seen seized vehicles being purchased on sweetheart deals by relatives of County employees. We have not seen County officials threatening to burn people's houses down. However, it is disappointing that the Sheriff has not meaningfully disciplined the personnel responsible for these acts. And, we are still seeing too many incidents of innocent people being roughed-up, or even gunned down by our officials, and the multi-million dollar lawsutis that result.
Respect for Citizens - In this term we have seen people forcibly ejected from Commission meetings for reading from a Bible. I believe County government officials should be actively seeking citizen comments and opinions, not threatening citizens. There has been some improvement in this area since Commissioner Moon took over as Chair of the Commission, but not enough. I have tried to return every email and phone call you sent me. I have also tried to keep you informed of developments in your County government on this website. You tell me that few other Commissioners have done this. I hope that the six new reform Commissioners, and possibly others, will continue this tradition.
I have learned that progress in government is very, very slow. But there has been some progress. I thank you for electing me to be your representative in this fascinating journey. I will always be grateful to all of you.
Only YOU can change YOUR government
Please attend the
Commission meeting on September 18th at
7:00pm in Room 430 of the Courthouse.