Jim Folts Blount County Commissioner
“To stand in silence, when they should be
protesting, makes cowards out of men” - Abraham
Report on our County Schools
October 2013 - Blount
County Commission Monthly Report
The Commission approved more than $240,000 of your taxpayer money to fund a Probation Department program, even though department’s own plan requested $143,000.
The Probation Department provided a plan to reduce the jail population by 40 inmates. The plan called for releasing the inmates and using electronic ankle bracelets to track their movements. The plan provided for a full 12 months of salaries and benefits for the two additional people needed to run this program. The appropriation request, approved by Finance Director Vineyard and Mayor Mitchell included all the money to cover the full 12 months. However, there are just 8 months left in the current fiscal year. Therefore, the appropriation included 33% more money than the department requested.
Another line item in the plan allocated $100,000 to fund, in advance, 12 months of rental payments for 40 ankle bracelets. The plan specified that the daily rental on each bracelet was $3.20. Doing the math, that only added up to $46,720. That would amount to less than $31,000 for the 8 months left in the current fiscal year.
At the Commission work session, held 10 days before the Commission meeting, I thought these problems might have been a simple mistake in the appropriation process. I asked the Finance Director Vineyard and Mayor Mitchell to bring the adjusted numbers to the Commission meeting. I followed up this request with an email to Vineyard.
When the matter reached the Commission, Vineyard and Mitchell had made not bothered to correct this nearly $100,000 error.
I introduced an amendment to correct the problem, by reducing the appropriation from $240,000 to $143,000. In the course of the discussion, the head of the Probation Department was asked whether the corrected amount would be adequate to run the program. She said it would. Then, Commissioner Burkhalter suddenly began to forcefully argue for more expensive ankle bracelets, costing as much as $6 to $8 per day. This was surprising, since the Probation Department did not include any mention of these more expensive suppliers in the plan. Burkhalter never really gave any reasons why he wanted the high priced suppliers. In the end, my amendment to make the appropriation correspond to the Probation Department’s plan, was voted down. Only Commissioner Samples and myself voted for the correction.
Commissioner French then tried an amendment that would correct the appropriation to correspond to the 8 months left in the fiscal year, but provide for the $6/day bracelet supplier that Commissioner Burkhalter mentioned. Burkhalter was still not satisfied and French's amendment was narrowly defeated, with Commissioners Carver, Gamble, Hasty, Helton, Lambert, Melton, Moon, and Wright opposing the lowered appropriation.
In the end, the appropriation, containing nearly $100,000 more than the Probation Department requested, was approved, with only Commissioner Helton and myself voting against it.
This episode showed a
disturbing lack of professionalism by the County’s
Mayor and Finance Director, because they did not
even bother to correct the appropriation, even
when the errors had been pointed out ten days
before the meeting. The same lack of
professionalism can be attributed to most
Commissioners, because they did not consider a
$100,000 error important. The discussion also
lacked common sense. Why have a budget, if the
numbers in it do not reflect reality? All this
showed a total lack of regard for the hard working
taxpayers of the County.
Jail Study - $95,000
The Sheriff says the jail is overcrowded. He fails to mention that he is keeping more than 100 Federal prisoners, that the County is under no obligation to take. The Sheriff often speaks of the revenue this brings to the County, but he rarely mentions the cost of keeping these extra prisoners. In fact, many analysts believe the County is losing money on the deal. They suspect the real reason for keeping Federal prisoners is to add employees to the Sheriff’s payroll, who are likely to vote to keep him in power.
Expanding the jail, to add the two pods the Sheriff talks about, would cost the taxpayers $15 to $20 million. To justify this addition to the huge debt burden already imposed on the taxpayers, the Commission was asked to approve nearly $95,000 for a consultant to study the “jail overcrowding” problem.
The study outline contains two pages of items to be delivered. A glaring omission is a detailed breakdown of the costs of keeping a prisoner in the jail. (The Probation Department had used a cost of $40 per day in their plan, mentioned above. But, Finance Director Vineyard admitted he had no basis for that number.) It is difficult to understand how jail alternatives (bracelets, workhouses, low security detainment centers, etc) can be evaluated, without knowing the existing costs of keeping a prisoner.
The study outline also seemed to assume a result. One item reads “Estimation of Facility Construction Costs”.
I introduced an amendment to add an item to the study, aimed at getting an accurate picture of the costs of keeping a prisoner in the jail. Only Commissioner Murrell and myself voted for it.
In the final vote on the $95,000 “study”, I was alone in voting against this nonsense.
Mayor Commits Taxpayer Money Without Authorization
When the Federal government shutdown closed the National Park, Mayor Mitchell volunteered local taxpayer money to reopen the park. This could have cost Blount and Sevier counties more than $65,000 per day. The deal was actually accepted. Fortunately, the shutdown ended the following day.
The problem is that the
Mayor has no legal authority to appropriate money.
Only the Commission has that authority. Rather
than following the law and calling a special
meeting of the Commission, the Mayor went ahead
anyway. Many citizens contacted me to tell me they
were not happy paying twice for the Park - once in
their Federal taxes and again in their property
Just before the Commission meeting, in violation of Commission rules, a resolution was introduced providing funds to cover the Mayor’s seemingly illegal action. I was the only one to vote against this.
Sweet Tax Deal for Blount Memorial
Another resolution submitted at the last minute, in violation of Commission rules, provided for “in lieu of” tax payments by the Hospital on their recently acquired East Tennessee Medical Group facility. You see, the Hospital is a quasi-county government entity, that is not required to pay property taxes like other citizens and businesses. Instead they negotiate a special "in lieu of" tax agreement. The complex agreement was given to the Commissioners just before the meeting. One provision jumped out immediately. The Hospital’s “in-lieu of” tax payment could not be increased by more than the consumer price index in any year. All our citizens would love to have that protection against property tax increases.
I do not believe any taxpayer should get preferential treatment. I introduced an amendment to table this matter for one month, to give all the Commissioners time to read and consider the proposed contract. The amendment was narrowly defeated, with Commissioners Carver, French, Gamble, Helton, Lambert, Melton, Moon, Samples and Wright voting against taking the time to read the agreement.
It Takes Better People Running For Office to Improve Your Government
Many people tell me they are
disgusted with Blount County Government. To change
it, we need good people to step-up and run for
office. All County offices and Commission seats,
except the Assessor, will be voted on in 2014. In
the past, many people have been elected to
positions simply because there was no opposition
candidate. Please consider picking up a petition
at the Election Commission and running for office.
Petitions must be filed by February. Since we
often have one party government in the County, the
Republican primary, held in May, determines many
of the elections. Good government requires good
people, and contested elections.
Only YOU can change YOUR government
Please attend the Commission meeting on Nov. 21st at 7:00pm in Room430 of the Courthouse.