Jim Folts   Blount County Commissioner

 

“To stand in silence, when they should be protesting, makes cowards out of men” - Abraham Lincoln

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  • Thursday April 21, 7:00 pm, room 430, Blount County Courthouse

 

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. Just send me an email at jimfolts@gmail.com, or give me a call at 995-9476.


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March 2011 Report


Commission Meeting 3/17/11
– No Debt or Budget discussions - The Blount County Commission needs to deal with two major problems: the crushing $230 million county debt; and, the fiscal year 2011 – 2012 budget. Unfortunately, neither issue was on the agenda of the March Commission meeting.

 

Many Commissioners seem to think the debt has been dealt with, since they voted to again refinance the $46 million balloon payment last month. Unfortunately, that still leaves the County with $105 million worth of variable rate debt and $93 million of interest rate swaps. If interest rates begin to rise, as most experts expect, the debt, which already consumes more than 25 cents out of every property tax dollar, could get further out of control. The time to fix the interest rate on all our debt is now, before interest rates take off. But, most Commissioners seem uninterested in discussing this serious problem.

 

The budget was not on the agenda because the Budget Committee continues to kick the can down the road. At the budget hearings for each County department held last month, the Committee members listened politely and did not ask any tough questions, even when some department heads refused to make any cuts to their bloated budgets. The Budget Committee ignored a Citizens for Better Government comparison of our county and the three counties closest to us in population (Washington, Sullivan and Sumner) that shows our county is spending 23% more than the average of the other counties. There certainly seem to be plenty of areas where cuts can be made. I offered, several times, to make this comparison presentation to the Budget Committee, but no one was interested. At this month’s Budget Committee, the Finance Director brought back the results of the Committee’s inaction. He said that a 21% increase in the property tax will have to be imposed on the struggling citizens of the county. The Budget Committee’s only response was to send the Finance Director back to ask all the department heads to look at their department budgets again. Cutting budgets is a tough task. By law, the Budget Committee and the Commission must set the total budget for each department. Doing this well, requires leaders who are willing to sort through large amounts of data, and ask lots of tough questions, in order to identify areas of waste and unneeded services. So far, there is no indication that the Budget Committee has done this job.

 

The Commission was asked to approve a new Judicial Commissioner. It turns out a Judicial Commissioner has major powers that most people think are reserved to judges. Judicial Commissioners can issue search warrants, commit people to jail, appoint attorneys for indigent defendants, set and approve bonds releasing people from jail, and even issue injunctions. If a Judicial Commissioner abuses these powers, the County can be sued. A few years ago, Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher’s son was appointed as a Judicial Commissioner. When he later abused his power, the County had to pay $45,000 to settle a lawsuit. Against this background, you would expect the Commission to exercise extreme care in selecting these individuals. Yet, the proposed Judicial Commissioner, did not have any legal experience on his resume. It also came to light that this individual had been serving as a Judicial Commissioner since last October! Circuit Court Clerk Hatcher told the Commission the appointment was made by a judge using his “emergency” powers. No one explained why it took five months for this emergency appointment to reach the Commission for confirmation. Many citizens are very concerned about someone, with no legal training, doing things like issuing search warrants and setting bail. For these reasons, I voted NO, along with Commissioners Monika Murrell and Mike Caylor. Unfortunately, the rest of the Commission seemed unconcerned by this person’s lack of qualifications.

 

A reading of the law governing Judicial Commissioners raised serious concerns that the County has been in violation of this law for an extended period of time. Specifically, the law requires the County Commission to conduct an annual public hearing on the effectiveness and lawfulness of the Judicial Commissioner program. This hearing is supposed to take place before April 1 of each year. The County has not held such a hearing in recent memory. Commissioner Helton thought he recalled such a hearing in 2008 or 2009, but a review of the records of the County Commission in the early part of those years did not show evidence of the required hearing. Since we have not held the required hearing this year, the County is again in violation of the law. Commissioner Ron French asked that the Mayor’s attorney take a look at the law and give an opinion for the next meeting. If governing bodies can routinely ignore the law, particularly in regard to people who have the powers of Judicial Commissioners, I believe we are all in serious trouble.

 

In another matter, the Commission made two appointments to the Sheriff’s Merit (Civil Service) Board. Unfortunately, the Commission was not given any information on the qualifications of either candidate. I refuse to vote for any appointment where no information is presented on the candidates. I voted NO.

 

Another resolution authorized adding an additional $2 million to bring the total balloon refinancing authorization to $50 million. The problem here is that we only need to refinance $48.3 million. I do not believe we ought to be authorizing any more money than is needed. I voted NO along with Commissioner Mark Hasty.

 

On a positive note, the respect shown for citizens attending, and speaking, at the Commission meeting improved greatly. I certainly hope and pray that his continues.

 

Agenda Meeting – 3/8/11 – No unique issues were discussed at the Commission Agenda Committee meeting. Everything was simply passed on to the full Commission meeting covered above.


Budget Committee - 3/7/11 - No substantive discussion, again - The Finance Director made a presentation showing that the budget for next year will require a 21% property tax increase. Several members of the Budget Committee said they did not favor a tax increase. However, no one seemed to have any ideas about how to achieve this goal. The Committee’s only response was to send the Finance Director back to ask all the department heads to look at their department budgets again. Why they expect different results this time was unclear to everyone.