Wednesday, June 29, 2005

June 29, 2005 Reappraisals and State Certified Tax Rate

We had a budget meeting yesterday. We were given agendas as we arrived along with additional, updated information on some funds--like highway and sanitation. Right at the start, Commissioner Guy Collins moved for a 2% increase for some employees (about 9) in the sanitation department. Some commissioners were concerned about picking out some employees for a raise and not others and trying to give a raise when we don't yet have the certified tax rate from the state.

The motion passed with Herbert Harville, Nancy Phillips, and I voting "no." My no was not in opposition to the raise--I agree with Guy that these employees and all other county employees deserve a raise. I just didn't want to start picking out some employees for a raise and not others. It's a matter of fairness. Also, I want to see what the "certified" rate is before voting on any budget and raises.

If you are wondering what the "certified" tax rate is, it is the adjusted tax rate that the state will provide to us in the next few weeks. 2005 is an appraisal year, and most property in Hamblen County increased in value. After appraisals and appeals are complete, the state takes the new appraisals and adjusts the tax rate downward to get the certified rate. The purpose is for the new higher appraisals and the new lower certified tax rate to bring in the same amount of money to the county as the old lower appraisals did with the old higher tax rate.

When you apply all this to an individual taxpayer, it can be summed up like this---If your property increased in value more than the county average of about 12%, then you will likely be paying more property tax dollars to the county in 2005 than you did in 2004 just because of your appraisal increase. But be aware that Commission can also take the certified tax rate and increase it, regardless of the appraisals. Any increase above the state certified tax rate is a tax rate increase and that, too, can result in a higher tax bill for most people.

The Budget Committee will meet again on Thursday, July 7, at 4:00 in the Hamblen County Courthouse, large courtroom. These are open meetings, and visitors are welcome. Just a reminder to those who have cable TV- Tapes of county commission meetings are shown on Charter Cable channel 7 at 9:00 pm on Tuesday and Saturday evenings and on Adelphia Cable channel 73 at 1:30 and 7:30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Have a wonderful Fourth of July! We have much to be thankful for.

Stay tuned...

Monday, June 27, 2005

June 27, 2005 No Time for Checks & Balances

Well, last Thursday's vote by Commission to give up its authority to review and approve or reject budget amendments went like I thought it would. Commissioners surrendered their authority, threw up the white flag, and said the Mayor can move budgeted money around without Commission approval. The vote was 10-3. Ten Commissioners said the Mayor can move money without their approval---he just needs to tells them what he did with the money later.

Commissioners Tom Lowe, Edwin Osborne, and I opposed giving up this oversight function. Commissioner Maudie Briggs was absent. It was a real low-point in terms of accountability. Accountability seems to be a neat word to throw around at campaign time. It's pretty hard and takes a lot of time and effort to actually be accountable after the election's over. Some people don't have the time for that.

This vote boiled down to whether you want more financial power centralized in the hands of one person (County Mayor) or whether you want a government of checks and balances where the Mayor and Commission are involved together in financial decisions. This isn't about trust--because in handling public funds "trust, but verify" should be the standard. This isn't about streamlining the process--because you can't have checks and balances in government if you vote, as 10 commissioners did, to eliminate one of the checks. I'll have more about why we need more, not fewer, checks and balances on the office of the County Mayor in future blogs.

What's next? In remarks to my fellow commissioners at our June 23rd meeting, I let them know that I am no longer going to wait for the Commission to address the problems that we have. Many steps toward accountability have been proposed during my nearly 3 years in office. Mayor David Purkey has stopped nearly every one of them. The Mayor opposed my proposal that we adopt a policy requiring "fiscal notes" from the Finance Dept. that would outline the financial impact of proposed contracts and resolutions on county revenues and expenditures.

The Mayor vetoed another proposal that passed in the full commission. Commissioner Osborne, who is a CPA, presented a simple and logical accounting proposal that asked that the Mayor and his Finance Dept. clean-up the county's books after the auditors have come in and after they have told the Finance Dept. what adjustments are needed. Osborne said this would give the county "one set of numbers" at the end of our fiscal year and would eliminate the confusion that arises when a citizen asks for financial information and gets one answer if he looks at the audit and gets a different answer if he looks at the Mayor's records. I moved for adoption of this proposal in Commission. It passed. The Mayor vetoed it.

That veto took the cake and sent up a very red flag. Why does the Mayor insist on keeping two sets of numbers? When you ask for financial information, which number are you given? Which number is right?

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

June 22, 2005 State Audit Saves Us Money

Tomorrow is a regular commission meeting. Several important items are on the agenda. For those concerned about accountability--that would be me as in "noe4accountability"-- the biggest item is the county budget amendment process as we determine how amendments to the county's budget will be made and who can make changes. The big question to be answered is whether County Commission retains control and oversight over budget changes or whether we hand all control over to the County Mayor and his office.

I happen to thinUpload Image / Filek that the more eyes you have watching how tax dollars are spent, the better, so I will support County Commission retaining control and oversight over amendments that the county mayor brings to us. I will support the Commission and the Mayor acting together in reviewing and approving spending changes (amendments) as has been done in the past. Other Commissioners appear ready to give up Commission's oversight of the shifting of money.

You might wonder why the method of approving budget amendments is coming up at all right now and you might ask how budget amendments are done now. Well, in 2001, a year before I was elected to commission, the county mayor and county attorney drafted a financial management contract listing financial reporting requirements, setting up a finance department and a purchasing agent, outlining budget procedures and amendment procedures, etc. This contract was approved by the previous commission. Unfortunately, when it came to the budget amendment process, there was a problem with the wording in the contract--the wording about how amendments could be done violated state law although what was actually done in everyday practice did not.

The problem with the wording was pointed out to commission by auditors from the state when we received the 2003 county audit (the previous local auditors had never pointed this out). The state auditors said we needed to change the wording of our contract in regard to the amendment process.

NOTE: When I was elected in 2002, the very first thing I proposed was to have these state auditors come in and perform the annual county audit. This passed with an overwhelming majority and the first outside audit by someone other than the local private auditing company covered the 2003 fiscal year and saved the county close to $18,000. That audit was far superior to the previous audits and, as a result, revealed to citizens, taxpayers, and elected officials that handling of the county's finances was, at best, haphazard. The state auditors pointed out that state law was violated when money out of various funds was spent by the county mayor without appropriation or authorization by county commission. The 2003 audit showed a $5 million accounting error by the previous auditor in the posting of the debt of Morristown-Hamblen Hospital. I won't bore you with the other details--you can view the entire 2003 and 2004 audits at Let's just leave it at this-- Hamblen County was #1 in the state with a total of 29 audit findings (problems, illegalities, criticisms of procedures, missing money) among Tennessee's 95 counties--a #1 ranking that nobody wants! On the flip side, at least we are now aware of some of the many problems, and we can start turning things around and being more accountable if we choose to.

June 21, 2005, at a budget committee meeting, our county attorney said that our budget amendment wording problem is minor and that we can do one of two things to correct the way our amendment policy is worded: (1) Adopt state law (TCA 5-9-407 a-b) which requires that amendments be brought to commission for approval (which is legal wording and would mean that we would continue to do what we had been doing in the past) or (2) adopt TCA 5-9-407 in its entirety (which is legal wording but this would provide for several different ways for amending the county budget, one of which takes County Commission out of the process and lets the county mayor and/or finance director make budget changes and then tell commissioners what has been done after they've done it.)

If it were your money (and let's remember that all government money IS your money), I'd be surprised if you would spend weeks and months preparing a budget spending plan and then just say to someone, anyone, here's the plan but you just go ahead and spend the money however you want to and then tell me every once in a while what you're doing. That's not accountability--that's commission shirking its responsibility for oversight of the spending of your hard-earned tax dollars. It's an especially questionable method when every Commissioner knows or should know that the 2003 audit had 29 findings and that the 2004 audit points out that the County Mayor and his office were still violating state law, were spending money that hadn't been authorized in five different funds, and were shifting money around between funds without even telling Commission.

On June 23, the Commission will vote on this issue. 11 Commissioners have already indicated in committee that they are willing to hand over fiscal oversight of county spending to the County Mayor and his office, so it seems this measure will pass when Commission votes tomorrow. At that point, Commission will have thrown up the white flag and will have surrendered the current system of checks and balances that have enabled Commission to have some input over spending changes and the shifting of money.

Now, why would Commissioners--who set a tax rate and take your money and who often claim to be "conservative" and "accountable"--vote to give up their current oversight of county spending? Some will say it's because they trust other people to handle this job. That sounds good, but they forget a very famous and very true statement about government that applies here--"trust, but verify." They also forget that our most recent audit for 2004 pointed out that the County Mayor and his office violated state law numerous times in spending money that was never authorized by County Commission and that the County Mayor and his office are still shifting large sums of money around between funds without even informing, much less seeking, County Commission's approval for such transfers. Trust is earned. The 2003 and 2004 audits, which only look at a few sample transactions in the mayor's office, found such serious violations of state law and violations of the county's own procedures that I find it incredible that commissioners can say with a straight face that we should hand all financial dealings over to the Mayor. You don't ask the people who got you into a mess to get you out of it--not when they have been covering up the mess for years.

It's really rather fascinating to watch as the very Commissioners who complain the most about having given up too much of their authority in the past (when the road superintendent became an elected instead of appointed position*) will now vote to give up what few decision-making and oversight duties that they still have. But then maybe accountability was just a word and a convenient campaign slogan for them. I guess they think it would require way too much thought and effort and time on their part to actually be accountable with your tax dollars.


*I wasn't on Commission when the road superintendent position became an elected one, but I frequently hear comments from those who were on Commission then who say that Commission gave up a lot in making the change from an appointed to an elected road superintendent.