Jim Folts Blount County Commissioner
“To stand in silence, when
they should be protesting, makes cowards out of men” - Abraham Lincoln
Next Commission Meeting
May 2011 Report
More on the tax increase. Does Sheriff Berrong have his hand on YOUR wallet?
At its June 9th and June 16th meetings of the Blount County Commission the Commission will decide whether to impose a tax increase on the hard-pressed citizens of the County.Stop this madness.
A recent study by Citizens for Better Government (CFBG) found that Blount County is spending 23% more, $9.7 million, than the AVERAGE of the spending of the three counties closest to us in population (Washington (Johnson City), Sullivan(Kingsport) and Sumner(Gallatin). (See the CFBG slides at http://www.blounttn.net). Blount County outspends every Tennessee county of similar size. Blount County has also been spending money it does not have. The county debt per person is 47% higher than the next highest County in the comparison.
The CFBG study shows Sheriff Berrong is responsible for more than half, $5.3 million, of the wasteful spending. This overspending amounts to more than 25% of the Sheriff’s nearly $20 million budget.
When the Mayor and the Budget Committee asked all department heads to cut their budgets, Sheriff Berrong refused. While most of the other department heads were holding the line on hiring, and not replacing people who retired or quit, the Sheriff added eight new employees since the beginning of the year. While other department heads were holding the line on salaries and promotions, the Sheriff promoted 28 people, further adding to his already to top heavy (lots of chiefs and few Indians), expensive management structure. The Sheriff seems determined to insult the taxpayers. He promoted several bad actors, including an individual who used county money to buy a bogus diploma, another who destroyed taxpayer documents at a Commission meeting, and another who planned a midnight service of a misdemeanor warrant that resulted in a citizen being shot five times in the back and a $10 million lawsuit against the County. He also used promotions, salary supplements, overtime and other devices to increase the compensation of some of his inner circle, while many taxpayers and other county employees got no increases.
At the last Budget Committee meeting, the Sheriff offered a token budget cut, agreeing not to purchase of some new cars for one year. Since the Sheriff has at least 100 more cars than he needs, this was a very small step in the right direction. He did nothing about the nearly $1 million per year that his extra 100 cars, pick-up trucks and SUVs are costing the taxpayers.
More wasteful spending on the Sheriff's digital radios
Last August the Sheriff spent more than $2 million on new digital radios. We questioned the deal at the time, because the state was negotiating a new contract that would have saved the taxpayers hundreds of thousand of dollars. The Sheriff refused to wait. The new state contract confirms that hundreds of thousands were wasted by the Sheriff. Unfortunately the story of waste did not end here.
The radio system requires several radio towers. At the August meeting, in response to a direct question from Commissioner Murrell, the Sheriff said the towers were included in the deal (See the Sheriff video clip here). At the May Commission meeting, Sheriff Berrong came to the Commission for an additonal $160,000 for an additional radio tower. The law requires that contracts over $10,000 go out for bids. The Sheriff's representative (Berrong was a no-show) said the Sheriff didn't bother with bids, because none of the other three towers in the area would do the job. Experts say it would have been possible to use the other towers. The Sheriff did not seem interested in the alternatives. The engineering drawings were completed for his favorite tower in February, even though he did not bother to seek Commission approval of his deal until May. (See the video of the radio tower debate here)
The Sheriff misled the Commission by saying the radio towers were included in the deal. He did not bother to go out for bids as requried by law. He ignored the Commission's approval authority by permitting all the work to be done on his selected tower before even bring the matter to the Commission. When the vote came, only Commissioner Murrell and myself voted against this waste. (Click here to see the video clip of your Commission discussion on this)
The Sheriff does not seem worried about any additional costs. It is only YOUR money.
Overspending in Mayor's departments - some progress
The Sheriff is not alone in his waste. The CFBG study shows the Mayor’s departments are spending more than $3 million over the AVERAGE spending of the three similar sized Tennessee counties. The Mayor’s response to this information has been totally different from the Sheriff’s. He reduced the number of people in the Environmental, Stormwater, Information Technology, Finance and Purchasing departments. He wanted to combine the Human Resources department with the Risk Management department to save another $100,000, but was stopped from doing this by the county employee dominated HR committee. Mayor Mitchell even cut his own salary. He still has a long way to go to bring the spending in his departments to the average of the other counties, but at least he is taking concrete steps in the right direction.
Circuit Court Clerk overspending
The Blount County Court system, led by Circuit Court Clerk, Tom Hatcher and the Judges, is another area of wasteful spending, showing $840,000 more than the AVERAGE of similar Tennessee counties. They did nothing to address this wasteful spending in the new budget. In fact they increased spending!
Commission refuses to even discuss budget
Most regular readers know the Budget Committee has not done the hard work necessary to cut the wasteful spending from the County budget. Worse, they have refused three offers to look at information developed by Citizens for Better Government, which shows the County is spending $9 million (23%) more than the average of the three Tennessee counties closest to Blount in population.
The full Commission has never even held a discussion of the new budget. At the Agenda Commission, I made a motion to put a discussion of the budget on the agenda for the Commission’s May 19 meeting. The idea was to get all 21 Commission members to understand the County budget problems and look at all available data to make smart cuts. For example, Sheriff Berrong is responsible for more than $5 million of the overspending, but was virtually unchallenged when he came before the Budget Committee. An open discussion of this, and other areas, of major wasteful spending could lead to ways to avoid a tax increase. Clearly, the Sheriff’s political cronies on the Commission did not want a discussion of this overspending, and voted against the motion. The motion was voted down 6 to 14. Only Commissioners Murrell, Lewis, Hasty, French, Carver and myself were interested in spending the time to examine the budget. Click here to see the video clip of your Commission inaction.
Rules Committee refuses to look at expanding discussion of the budget - but decides to forbid applause
I asked the Rules Committee to consider adding a monthly report on the budget to the regular agenda for the Commission meeting. The report and discussion I proposed is at this link. Unfortunately, the Rules Committee rejected this proposal.
The Rules Committee did vote to forbid applause by the public at Commission meetings. It was a tie vote which allowed the applause prohibition to proceed. Commissioners Lewis, Caylor and Hasty voted to prohibit applause. Commissioners Murrell, French and Carver voted against this nonsense.
Commission refuses to look at a study of medical benefit costs
Last year, the County paid for a major study of the level, and cost, of employee medical benefits to our County, and how they compared with other counties in Tennessee. The study concluded that Blount County employees are contributing far less ($0 for the employee and $100 for family coverage) to their medical benefit costs than employees of other Tennessee counties. The Human Resources Committee, where 8 of the 10 members are county employees or close relatives of county employees, refused to even hear a presentation of the study. Since medical benefit costs are a major budget item, I made a motion to have the study presented to the full Commission at the May 19 meeting. The motion was voted down 5 to 15. Only Commissioners Murrell, Hasty, Gamble, Carver and myself voted to listen to the presentation of the benefits study. Medical benefits are one of the largest budget items, consuming nearly $15 million of taxpayer money. This study could save million of dollars for our hard pressed taxpayers, yet few Commissioners seem interested. Could it have something to do with the fact that many Commissioners are County employees or close relatives of County employees.
Budget Committee avoids the hard work of cutting the budget and resorts to gimmicks
The Budget Committee, without even looking at the Citizens for Better Government information comparing Blount County spending with the three counties closest to us in population, decided on a budget that cut less than 5% from county spending. The CFBG study showed the Sheriff was spending more than 25% more than the average spending of the three other comparison counties, yet the Budget Committee let him off with just a 3% cut. This new budget requires a $2.40 tax rate. The Budget Committee announced a $2.15 tax rate. They used a series of budget gimmicks to show the lower tax rate. First, they used $2.6 million in one time grant money to pay on-going salaries. Next, they forced the Schools to dip into their rainy day fund for another $600,000. Finally, they took $1.6 million out of Debt Service Fund to pay on-going expenses. These moves virtually guarantee a tax rate of $2.50 in the following fiscal year, nearly a 25% increase from where we are today. It is sad that the Budget Committee would rather impose a major tax increase on the citizens, than cut the budget to the AVERAGE level of spending of the three Tennessee counties closest to us in population – Washington (Johnson City), Sullivan(Kingsport) and Sumner(Gallatin).
I am at a loss to explain why, presumably intelligent people, refuse to look at information that might help solve the County’s serious financial problems. Apparently, many Commissioners feel it is easier to impose a tax increase on the citizens, than to address the overspending of politically powerful officials like Sheriff Berrong.
Attend the Tax Protest Rally at the Courthouse June 9, from 5:30 to 6:30pm.
Please attend the Commission meetings on June 9 and June 16.
Only YOU can make a difference.
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