Jim Folts Blount County Commissioner
“To stand in silence, when
they should be protesting, makes cowards out of men” - Abraham Lincoln
Next Commission Meeting
April 2011 Report
It‘s easier to raise YOUR taxes than deal with wasteful spending
A tax increase in these difficult economic times should be unthinkable. Ten percent of our citizens are unemployed. Countless others are working at jobs way below their capabilities, because good jobs are just not available. Nearly thirty percent of Blount County real estate transactions involve a foreclosure. Nearly twenty five percent of the homes in the county have been foreclosed in the last three years. Unfortunately, some of the people you elected are not doing the hard work needed to cut wasteful county spending. Unless your county officials get to work, you will pay more than 20% in additional taxes over the next two years to cover the wasteful spending in some areas of our County government.
Last October, Finance Director Jennings told all the County Commissioners and elected officials, that if the budget was not cut, taxes would have to rise more than 20 percent. Despite these warnings, the County Commission Budget Committee did virtually nothing to seriously examine the County’s budget.
Cutting a budget, intelligently, requires work. You need to identify departments where major wasteful spending is taking place. You need to identify the problem areas in each department. You need to ask the responsible office holders to either cut expenses in those problem areas, or justify the high expenses to the citizens. If the responsible office holders do not cooperate, you need to cut their total budget to a reasonable level, and tell them to find a way to live within that budget. The Budget Committee failed to do any of these things.
Citizens for Better Government (CFBG) compared Blount County spending with the three counties closest to us in population – Washington, Sullivan and Sumner. CFBG’s comparison showed that Blount County is spending 23% more ($9.7 million) in the General Fund than the average of the other counties, normalized for differences in population. The comparison showed that more than half, $5.3million, of the overspending is taking place in departments controlled by the Sheriff Berrong. Another $3.2 million of overspending is taking place in departments controlled by the Mayor Mitchell. County Court Clerk, Tom Hatcher is responsible for an additional $800,000 of the overspending, and Assessor Mike Morton account for another $180,000. (The good news is that the remaining departments in the County are doing a pretty good job of controlling spending.) I offered to share the details of the CFBG comparison presentation with the Budget Committee and the Commission, but neither body accepted my offer. Only Mayor Mitchell invited me to show him the presentation. And, out of 21 Commissioners, only Steve Samples and Rick Carver took the time to come to one of the CFBG public presentations of this information.
The Mayor, who is also head of the Budget Committee tried to set a budget-cutting example. He tried to take a salary reduction, and cut the budgets for the departments under his control. Instead of enthusiastically welcoming the Mayor’s initiatives, the Budget Committee initially refused his attempt to cut his own salary. Sheriff Berrong, with a budget that consumes nearly half of all General Fund spending, refused to join the Mayor in making any cuts. In fact, the Sheriff added eight people to his staff since the beginning of this fiscal year.
Without anyone doing the necessary work, or even looking at available data on overspending, it was no surprise when, at the March Budget Committee meeting, the 2012 budget showed that a 21% tax increase would have to be imposed on the citizens of the County.
Still the Budget Committee avoided doing the hard work needed to cut the budget. They asked lots of questions about the School Budget, but said nothing about the overspending in the Sheriff’s department. They simply told the Finance Director to go back and ask the County departments to cut more. The Finance Director reminded them that they had tried this before with poor results, but they had no other ideas and told him to do it again.
County employees pick their HR Director, decide what benefits they will get, and what they will pay
Even worse, some Commissioners are working to undermine some of the cuts being made by the Mayor. In February, the Mayor asked the Human Resources Committee to consider having County employees pay a small portion of their medical insurance costs, perhaps $35 per month. Blount County currently offers Cadillac medical benefits, at no cost to the employee. Family coverage can be added for just $100 per month. Most citizens are paying $200 to $1000 per month for similar benefits. The citizens are paying more than $15 million per year to provide these benefits to County employees for free. No other similar County offers their employees such a great deal. (Click here to see what some other counties do) The HR Committee, where 8 of the 10 members are either County employees, or close relatives of County employees, refused to even listen to a presentation on the subject.
The Mayor announced that he would save the taxpayers $100,000 by not replacing the Human Resources Director, and instead have the head of Risk Management, Don Stallions, take the Human Resources position along with the Risk Management job. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the Human Resources Committee, led by Commissioner Gary Farmer, Commissioner Helton and the Sheriff, objected to the Mayor’s plan. Farmer and his Committee went one step further, introducing a Commission resolution taking away the Mayor’s power to select the HR Director, by insisting that four members of the Human Resources Committee be required to approve any selection. Worse, the resolution hamstrung Mayor’s ability to run the HR department, saying that from now on, the Mayor would only have responsibility for the department’s “daily operations” and the Human Resources Committee would have to approve “any changes of policies, procedures and operations”. The result would be an absurd organization, where the County employees who control the HR Committee, would set their own benefits, and the cost of those benefits. When I objected to this nonsense in the Commission meeting, Commissioners Farmer and Helton showed how desperate they were to force this resolution through the Commission. They tried to end debate half way through my discussion of all the reasons this resolution was a very bad idea. Their attempt failed. I am deeply grateful to Comissioners Burchfield, French, Gamble, Greene, Hasty, Lewis, Samples and Wright for showing great courage and voting to defend my right to speak. After I pointed out that the resolution might violate the law, the resolution was sent back to the HR Committee. That should be the end of this nonsense, but I doubt it.
More Budget Gimmicks
In the meantime, the budget crisis continues. In the latest Budget Committee meetings a budget based on financial gimmicks was presented. This budget will use one-time grant money to pay for on-going expenses. This will produce a ten percent tax increase this year and a larger increase next year. In this variation, the Sheriff threw the Budget Committee a bone, by agreeing not to buy $900,000 worth of new cars next year. Of course the Sheriff did nothing about the other $4.4 million of his wasteful spending, and the Budget Committee did nothing to pursue the issue. It is far easier to raise taxes than to challenge the politically powerful Sheriff. After all, it’s only YOUR money.
Outraged? Call or email the Sheriff (firstname.lastname@example.org) and other wasteful officials. And, come to the Commission meetings on May 19th and June 16th in room 430 of the Courthouse at 7:00pm.
In another development, the Commission made a very good decision. The Commission rejected proposed zoning changes that would have permitted campgrounds to be opened in many residential areas of the County. Campgrounds are not a bad idea. Permitting campgrounds on as little as five acres, off of narrow rural roads, without noise and light pollution restrictions, without provisions regulating sewage dumping and garbage facilities, was a very bad idea. The zoning change died for lack of a second.
More Stupidity – Forbid citizens to applaud
At the Commission Rules Committee, Commissioners Helton and Melton introduced a new resolution to forbid our citizens to applaud at Commission meetings. Yes, you read that correctly. Even though citizens are free to applaud the President at events like a State of the Union address, in Blount County applause will not be permitted at public Commission meetings. Some Commissioners seem to have forgotten that they work for you, the citizens. Instead, they seem to think they are members of a special ruling class, and can make any rules that suit their interests. Hopefully, this insult to the citizens will be voted down by the full Commission.
Ratings Agencies Downgrade County’s Financial Outlook
Two ratings agencies, Standard and Poor and Fitch, downgraded the outlook for the County’s credit. Both expressed concern about the $105 million the County still has in variable rate debt and swaps. Both also were concerned that, instead of balancing the budget, the County has been draining its savings accounts to make up for budget short falls. This is a very serious development. In the next six months, the County must renew bank letters of credit covering its $105 million of variable rate debt. A downgrade of the County’s credit rating could make these renewals difficult and provoke another debt crisis. The ratings agencies have put us on notice that they are watching the County’s financial moves, carefully. They will not be impressed by a budget that further drains savings accounts and uses one time funds for on-going expenses. They will probably be further alarmed by the recent moves to permit county employees to set their own benefits and benefits costs.
Budget Committee – Mayor Mitchell, Mike Lewis, Kenneth Melton, Holden Lail, and Steve Samples
Human Resources Committee - Mayor Ed Mitchell, Sheriff James Berrong, Highway Superintendent Bill Dunlap, Tonya Burchfield, Gary Farmer, Ron French, Holden Lail, Mike Lewis, Phyllis Crisp, and David Murrell