Jim Folts Blount County Commissioner
“To stand in silence, when they should
be protesting, makes cowards out of men” - Abraham Lincoln
Next Commission Meeting
October 2010 Report
Mayor's Briefing on the State of County Finances - Major problems ahead
The good news is that the Mayor and Mr. Jennings, for the first time in recent memory, are taking an in-depth look at the County finances, and presenting the results to all County officials. They will also make the presentation at a public meeting in the near future.
The bad news is that the County is facing some very serious financial problems. The previous administration refused to make needed budget cuts. Instead, they kept the tax rate unchanged by drawing down nearly every County reserve fund (think savings account) to dangerously low levels. So, we are entering the next budget year with very high spending levels and no reserves to draw down. The day of reckoning is here. The County must either cut spending to sustainable levels, or impose a very large tax increase on our struggling citizens.
The presentation goes on to point out that all this is further complicated by the County debt problem. The infamous $46 million balloon payment is due next June. The $93 million worth of swaps the County holds are costing nearly $3 million per year. It will cost nearly $9 million to terminate just two of the five swaps. Worse yet, the County’s debt reserve fund has been drawn down to a level where the County may lose its credit rating, making refinancing the balloon payment more difficult.
In my opinion, the presentation showed a bias to raise taxes, rather than cutting spending. At one point the Finance Director showed a chart of the tax rates of all the counties in Tennessee and indicated Blount was the highest in approximately the lower 40% of the chart. The Finance Director then indicated his opinion that our tax rate should go up enough to put us in the top third of the tax rates in the State. Mayor Mitchell interrupted to say that he did not favor any tax increase. I also disagreed, pointing out that spending in some of our County departments is far higher than in other counties with similar populations. I also pointed out that the County General Fund expenses have been growing at 2.5 times the rate of inflation, which is a good measure of our citizens ability to pay. You can’t allow your expenses to grow at 2.5 times your ability to pay and neither can the County.
The presentation did not focus attention on areas of the budget that need to be looked at carefully. It is simply not realistic to expect the Budget Committee or Commission to identify these areas. The Mayor and Finance Department must first identify the hundreds of items that need scrutiny before the elected officials can begin their work. Otherwise, the inevitable result will be a major tax increase. When I pressed for an answer on the size of the tax increase we might face, it was in the range of 25 to 30 percent.
Agenda Meeting 10/12/2010 – $60,000 increase despite severe budget problems
A resolution regarding the use of County Roads for events was discussed and sent on to the Commission. Again no information was available in time to permit intelligent discussion. The new regulations were slipped into the Commission information package just before the meeting started. No one had an opportunity to review the wording. I protested the lack time to review the material, but the item was voted on to the Commission agenda anyway.
As it turns out, the resolution would be a major infringement on our citizens’ right to free assembly. It covers sidewalk demonstrations, in addition to road parades. It requires 30 days notice, a $100 permit fee, and a $1 million insurance policy, to be able to stand on a sidewalk and hold a protest sign. It contains no exemption for political protest. Think about the tax protest at the Courthouse last June. Citizens did not even know of the plan to raise taxes 30 days in advance. Where would citizens get a $1 million insurance policy for a sidewalk demonstration? Why a $100 permit fee? This is a bad idea and I will vote against it in the Commission meeting.
There was a request for a $60,000 budget increase to provide 60 more parking spaces at the “Justice Center”. This problem has existed for years, on jury duty days. The budget was set just four months ago. This problem was not considered important enough to include in the budget. This money should be used to shore up our debt reserve fund, not build parking spaces.
The Mayor requested withdrawal of a request to increase the informal bid limit on County contracts to $3000 from $2000. This was a bad idea and I thank the Mayor for killing it.
A resolution was introduced to opt out of state required Planning and Zoning training for 2010. The reason given was a scheduling problem between now and the end of the year. The problem is the resolution has us opting out forever. The quality of several recent planning and zoning decisions says we need more training, not less. Unfortunately, this was sent on to the Commission for approval, with the lone vote against being cast by myself.
Meeting 10/21/2010 - Elected new
Commissioner who overlooked paying his taxes - Personal attack from Chair
The Use of County Roads for Events resolution (see Agenda Committee above) came up and was sent back to the Ad Hoc Committee because of major problems with suppressing citizens' First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly. Hopefully, this will die in Committee.
The $60,000 budget increase for the "Justice Center" parking lot came up, but was promptly withdrawn and sent back to the Budget Committee, where, if we are lucky, it will die.
The resolution enabling the members of the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals to skip State required training was brought up. As discussed in the Agenda meeting above, this resolution had major problems. A second resolution, rewritten at Mayor Mitchell's request by Mr. Garrett, our new county attorney, solved the problems, but was available too late for Commission action. The reworked resolution will probably come up again next month.
The close of the meeting was surprising and disappointing. Commission Chairman, Ken Melton, chose to launch a frenzied, intemperate, personal attack on me, for what I wrote in last month's report to you. This was surprising because it was a violation of several Commission rules. Rule 4C requires all members to confine their remarks "avoiding all personalities". Rule 13D requires the Chairman to relinquish the Chair to enter a debate. And, Rule 13E says: "the Chair shall preserve order and decorum". The attack was disappointing, because it showed so little respect for the a citizen's right to free speech, the most fundamental and vital right in our democracy. Hopefully, the Commission rules, and good sense, will prevail in the future.