last month’s Commission meetings, only three
issues of significance were discussed. After
these meetings, the Budget Committee finally
released the proposed budget for next year. The
first discussion of this budget will take place
Proposal for Next Year
At a meeting at the end of the month, the Budget
Committee announced, with great fanfare, that
they were proposing a budget that would not
require a tax increase. The proposed budget will
provide raises for all county employees. This
Unfortunately, under the proposed budget, the
County will spend nearly $5 million more than it
takes in. It will paper over this problem by
taking money from rainy day funds to cover the
The proposed budget just kicks the needed
spending cuts down the road for another year.
When all the rainy day funds are empty, there
will have to be major spending cuts or a huge
The proposed budget does nothing about paying
down the County’s crushing $230 million debt. In
fact, it takes money from the rainy day fund
that was set up to make sure the county can make
its debt payments if things get worse.
The proposed budget does nothing about the
runaway employee entitlements. County employees
will continue to pay nothing for their medical
insurance. They continue to enjoy the best
medical insurance deal in the state. Few, if
any, taxpayers get free medical insurance.
County employees can retire as young as age 50.
When they retire, the County is obligated to
continue to give them free medical insurance
until they are eligible for Medicare at age 65.
Again, few, if any, taxpayers enjoy this kind of
benefit. The County is not accumulating any
money to pay for this benefit. Currently, this
unfunded liability is adding $23 million to the
County’s crushing debt load. It grew by an
alarming $4 million from 2010 to 2011.
County employees also enjoy pension benefits
that few taxpayers can even dream of. The
employees contribute 5% of their salary to the
pension fund. The County taxpayers contribute
12.39%. This unfunded liability added another
$19 million to the County’s debt in 2009. No
recent estimate of this liability is available,
but you can be sure it has increased
These two unfunded liabilities add more than $40
million to the County’s $230 million debt load.
The bond ratings agencies are beginning to ask
questions. They will not be impressed by the
Commission’s failure to address these problems.
Most important, because there has been no
discussion of the proposed budget by the full
Commission, it probably does not represent the
priorities of the community. For example, the
new budget allows the Sheriff to spend $700,000
on more cars, when he already has nearly 100
more cars than he needs. At the same time, the
budget forces the schools to cut programs they
say are key to raising educational results.
These are the kind of issues that should be
discussed, in detail at the Commission.
Unfortunately, because of the crazy way we
prepare budgets in this County, these important
discussions will not take place.
So don’t get too excited when you read about the
proposed “no tax increase” budget. Serious
problems are being papered over, and community
priorities have had no serious discussion.
This is a UN sponsored effort to get countries,
counties and municipalities to yield their
sovereignty on planning and zoning issues to
various national and international bodies. Many
believe that the recent federally-funded
regional planning effort, called Plan ET, is
part of this agenda.
A resolution was introduced at the Commission
meeting, officially opposing Agenda 21, and the
yielding of the county’s sovereignty on planning
and zoning issues. The resolution was passed,
with only Commissioner Kirby voting against it.
Adopting this resolution may be just political
eye-wash, because the Mayor continues to support
the Plan ET regional planning process. In fact,
the Mayor, without the approval of the
Commission, contributed an additional $70,000 of
services to the $4.5 million federally-funded
Plan ET process. Unless the Commission acts to
require the Mayor to withdraw from the Plan ET
bureaucracy, this resolution will be essentially
As part of the on-going effort to improve
educational standards and effectiveness, the
state is requiring increased internet-based
testing of our students. In addition,
Superintendent Britt is using internet testing
to measure the effectiveness of new educational
Unfortunately, the school computer network often
slows to a crawl during these activities. It is
pretty hard for a teacher to keep a fourth
grader focused on a test, when it takes minutes
for a new test screen to appear.
High-speed fiber optic lines were installed to
some schools. Unfortunately this did not solve
the speed problem. The Commission was presented
with a $250,000 proposal to upgrade the switches
in the school computer network. While this
probably should be done for the long-term
effectiveness of the network, there was little
evidence that this was causing the slow response
time of the student computers.
After a detailed discussion with the school
system technical experts, two bottlenecks were
identified as causes of the immediate problems.
The speed of the main connection between the
school system and the internet needed to be
increased. Immediate action is being taken to
double the speed of this connection, at a cost
of less than $18,000 per year. The second
bottleneck was the fact that two anti-virus
programs were running on many student computers.
This is a known performance killer. The school
system will remove the second anti-virus program
from these computers over the summer.
With these issues being addressed, the school
system chose to continue with their $250,000
proposal to upgrade their network switches.
While I question the short-term need for this
massive upgrade, I have little doubt that this
upgrade will be required over the next few
years. I voted to support the budget increase
with the proviso that the school system take
immediate action to fix the problems described
above, put the upgrade out for competitive bids,
and NOT name a specific vendor. This should
assure the taxpayers get the best deal.
of a Tourism Authority
The resolution creating a Smoky Mountain Tourism
Authority came up for a final vote. No one has
explained why this major new government
bureaucracy is needed. The resolution does not
specify any goals and objectives for this new
Only one member of the ten-member Authority
Board must be an elected official. The others
will be from the Blount Chamber, or business
people from Alcoa, Maryville or Townsend. Other
areas of the county have no representation.
The Authority has the power to issue tax free
bonds for periods up to 40 years. The Authority
also appears to be able to use eminent domain to
force owners to sell their property to the
Commissioner Burkhalter argued that the
Commission still has the power to approve the
tax rate that supports the Authority, and could
control the Authority by simply reducing the tax
rate to zero. However, it seems to me that if
the Authority issues bonds secured by these tax
collections, and then the Commission reduces or
eliminates the tax rate, the County might be
committing fraud in the eyes of the bond
Creating an un-elected bureaucracy, with a ten
member Board, and all these powers, to manage a
staff of seven people does not make any common
sense. Commission French and I were the only
ones to vote against this nonsense.
can change YOUR government PLEASE come to
the Budget Public Hearing at 5:30pm on
Monday, June 11th.
Please also attend the Commission meeting
Thursday, June 21st at 7:00pm in Room 430
of the Courthouse.