Thursday, July 28, 2005

July 28, 2005 When is a "cut," not a cut?

A recent July 26th story in a local newspaper was headlined "Director: No budget, no school." The story went on to say that the school budget had been "cut" about $1 million dollars.

So when is a "cut" not really a cut?

When you ask for $4 million dollars of new funding and you get $3 million of new funding instead---and that is what the proposed 05-06 school budget provides ($3 million in new state and local funding).

I would love to have a "cut" like that any day of the week. You probably would, too. Suppose you go to your boss and ask for a $4/hour raise and you get a $3/hour raise instead...are you going to go to your fellow employees and complain and tell them that you got a pay cut? Probably not, because in fact you got a pay RAISE of $3/hour.

Another item in the story reported that the school system was only able to add 1.5 teachers last year due to last year's "shortage of funding." Well, the state BEP school funding formula last year showed that funding calculations were based on 14 new teachers. Obviously, 14 new teachers were not hired. So where did that money go?

A lot of people, including the public, teachers, and some school administrators as well, are just now beginning to understand that BEP state funding is just a formula for calculating how much money the schools will get--it does not mandate where the additional money will be spent.

In fact, once the money is in the hands of the Hamblen County School Board (whether it's state BEP money or local taxpayer money), the Director of Schools, with the approval of the Hamblen County School Board, makes the determination of where the additional money goes-- whether it's $1 million or $3 million more. The Director and Board decide whether to use the new money to hire one or 14 new teachers, to offer AP courses, or to buy textbooks.

The extra money can go to hire new teachers or it can go to pay experienced teachers to retire--that's a decision that the school board makes.

The extra money can go to improve technology or it can go to provide more administrative personnel and pay--that's a decision that the school board makes.

The extra money can go to provide pay raises for all personnel or for teachers only--that's a decision that the school board makes.

Back to the original question: When is a "cut," not really a cut? When you get $3 million dollars in additional money to spend! That's only a cut if you live in the land of school board politics where you pull out the word "cut" when you are telling custodians and bus drivers that they don't get a piece (pay raise) of the $3 million dollar pie because the school budget was "cut."

It may have happened at some time, but I have never heard of the local school board getting, or expecting to get, all the money it requests. Besides, part of the political game that is played is that we don't really talk about education, we just talk about money. And our decisions are based on the assumption that money= education.

As part of the never-ending political game, the school board always asks county commission for about twice what it needs or expects to get. Then the county commission says "sorry" we can only give you this much. There is some haggling and negotiating behind the scenes. Then the school board meets and tells custodians or bus drivers or cafeteria personnel or teacher assistants that they won't get a pay raise because of that mean old county commission--the school board never says to the custodians or bus drivers or cafeteria personnel or teacher assistants that they will not get a pay raise because the school board has chosen not to spend the 05-06 new funding on raises for non-certified personnel.

The School Board is now in phase II of the money game. In this phase, the Board, assisted by the media, says that the school system is faced with budget "cuts" when actually the school board is faced with deciding where to spend $3 million more dollars.

(By the way, in the game that is played, the school board never expected to get the $4 million more that they requested anyway. They likely hoped to get $2.2-$2.6 million. Even though they are ahead of real expectations, the rules of the money game say they have to berate county commission and hard-working taxpayers and shout "cut," "cut, "cut" wherever they go).

Now we'll see a series of newspaper articles and editorials with posturing and commentary by the Board, the Director of Schools, and the local newspaper saying that education and children have been short-changed. Again the premise is money=education.

During the 10-year period that covers school years 1993-2002, student enrollment held steady. 1993: 8710 students. 2002: 8932 students. About 222 students TOTAL were added in the 10-year period from 1993-2002. That means we were adding on average about 22 students each year. In the last 2-3 years, however, there has been a growth of about 250+ students each year. Most of the increase in student numbers for 2004 and 2005 is found in Hispanic enrollment figures. That's not a racist statement. That's a simple fact that has been presented in newspaper articles using data provided by the Director of Schools and the school board.

The proposed 2006 school budget provides millions in new school funding. But (as always) county commission and local taxpayers will have to endure attacks that they don't love the children because they didn't provide the full $4 million dollars that the schools requested. And for some reason, everybody is trying to ignore the county budget that shows a deficit of $760,000. Where does the money come from next year to cover recurring county expenses? Where are the long-range strategic plans?

Is there a solution? Is there a way to get rid of the county's current projected deficit of $760,000 for 05-06 and still provide nearly $2.4-$2.5 million new funding for the schools? Yes. See my post of July 21, 2005. But don't hold your breath for that to happen.

The game has to be played out. It has to happen every year, like clockwork. The special government game that everybody knows. But, of course, no one is supposed to look at the real facts and figures or think outside the game box.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

July 23, 2005 "Oops"

Remember your mom telling you, "haste makes waste"?

At the Commission meeting on July 21, the Finance Director and County Mayor David Purkey got kind of hot when I expressed my frustration at being handed financial figures and budget info during the meeting and not having an adequate opportunity to review them before a vote was taken.

My point was that we need time to review figures to see if they match what was voted on previously in committee. The whole thing reminded me of what happened just two weeks ago when we received the certified tax rate and the Trustee took those figures and calculated new revenue totals and Mayor Purkey and Ms. Epps took those figures and gave us new budget summaries and then ...

OOPS, I took a look at the calculations and found out the new tax rate had been miscalculated--it was 11 cents too high. That meant that the revenue projections were $1.2 million too high, and the budget summaries were no good. Haste makes waste!

The word I used to describe my feelings at the meeting on Thursday, being handed figures and then told to vote, was "stunned." Yes, I am stunned that we sit there while papers and numbers are thrown at us on the day we are to vote. In this instance, some of the papers and data were handed to us in the middle of the meeting while other business was being handled.

When I got home Thursday evening, I had time to review the data and found that the general government fund was showing "only" about a $460,000 deficit where it was about a $760,000 deficit when we left the July 19 meeting.

On Friday afternoon, July 22, I planned to e-mail Mayor David Purkey and Finance Director Nicole Epps to see if the $300,000 difference was related to the extra $300,000 that Herbert Harville and 8 other commissioners had voted to take out of the county government fund and give to the school system on top of the $2.8 million in new funds that the schools were already getting.

I went to work and didn't get home until 5:30. There was no use in sending an e-mail then--everyone at the Courthouse would be gone. My question about the $300,000 that was left off would have to wait until Monday.


On Saturday, July 23, guess what arrived in the mail?

An "Oops!" letter from County Mayor David Purkey and his Finance Director Nicole Epps. There was indeed a $300,000 mistake in the General Fund. The $300,000 that Commissioner Harville had voted to give to the schools from Trustee's fees had been left off of General Fund expenditures. Long and short of it: the figures we voted on so hastily and without reviewing them were wrong.

"Haste makes waste?" Yes, it certainly does.

Friday, July 22, 2005

July 21, 2005 Deficit Budget passes

To no one's surprise, the County Commission approved a deficit general fund budget yesterday. The General Fund is about $500,000 in the hole.

How can you cover that deficit? The same way a family would-- you pull out of your savings (fund balance).

Why would you pass a deficit budget without looking for ways to cut expenditures? I can't answer that. I was fully prepared to take the time to meet with department heads to review each budget and make cuts. Commissioner Joe Spoone had outlined some pretty hefty cuts in a brief conversation with me and some other individuals just two days before. I don't know why those cuts weren't put forward for discussion on July 21.

With some effort, we might have found additional cuts that would have given us a balanced budget in 05-06. One thing is certain. Since we didn't look, we'll never know. Another certainty: we will never get a balanced budget if we do not control spending.

We have growth in the county. We could have a balanced budget if we had the courage to make sure that our spending did not exceed our additional revenue growth. The schools could have had $2.4 million in new money and the county could have had a balanced budget if we had taken new steps to structure the revenue.

Lately, it has been interesting to watch the changes as various commissioners have morphed away from their 2002 campaign promises of accountability and have become big spenders who don't even look for ways to cut expenses.

Several commissioners have apparently now decided that we have a revenue problem (you aren't taxed enough) instead of a spending problem. If you don't think there is a spending problem, then you quit looking for ways to cut spending as happened with the 05-06 budget.

Then you shift money around. The shell game. Example: First you budget insurance in one big line item. Then you don't. Then you budget insurance in some departments and the rest of it in a single line item. Then you don't. Then you budget insurance in every department. Keep the money moving.

The budget will be published in the Citizen-Tribune and then the Commission plans to vote on it on August4.

If our spending continues to outpace our growth in revenues, we are heading toward a train wreck (huge tax increases) in the general fund. Will anyone apply the brakes?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

July 21, 2005 Budget will be main topic at commission meeting

The July Commission Meeting is today at 5:00 p.m. in the large courtroom in the old section of the Courthouse.

The Budget Committee, "committee" is a misnomer of sorts since this "committee" is made up of the entire commission, will recommend general fund and school budgets today to the whole commission.

The proposal will be to budget $3.1 million new dollars for the schools (see my post of July 20).
The proposal for the general government budget for law enforcement, courts, planning, assessor, county court clerk, and all other offices is to approve a deficit spending plan and to draw down the county's "savings," or fund balance, to cover the shortfall of $760,000.

NOTE: The original shortfall for the county was $460,000 until 9 commissioners, taking a cue from Commissioner Herbert Harville, agreed to take $300,000 out of the county budget and give that to the schools on top of the growth money.

I keep hearing that a number of commissioners are still contemplating throwing a wheel tax increase into the mix--and they'll say it's a fairer tax because it hits "everyone." Well, as Commissioner Reinhardt said, a wheel tax doesn't hit everyone. It doesn't tax McDonald's. It taxes the lady or gentleman, young or old, working the counter at McDonald's for minimum wage. It taxes the '95 Chevy with 150,000 miles on it the same as the brand new 2005 Lexus.

Right now, we have some commissioners who are so excited about being in the "in-group" and getting called to the Courthouse for special one-on-one meetings that they have forgotten that there are people out there on a fixed income, people who have no jobs, people who have no insurance, people working for minimum wage, people who sometimes must choose between buying medicine or food, people who don't live in the "average" $100,000 house that Commissioner Briggs talks about, people who don't have the "average" Hamblen County income of $24,000 per year, people who rarely say anything because they learned long ago that people in government don't really listen.

By the way, when you hear that there is no tax increase in the proposed budgets, remember that the property tax dollars that you pay to the county come from multiplying TWO figures: "your assessment" x "tax rate." Check your new property tax assessment and you may find that you are already going to be paying more property tax dollars to the county next year (even without a rate increase) simply because your assessment has gone up so much.

It is a sad situation when you have a commissioner state in an open meeting that our records and accounting are so bad that it really doesn't matter what kind of budget we pass. Just pass something and be done with it.
It is unfortunate that commissioners who took all budgets "under advisement," now are not willing to look for savings.

I used to hear several commissioners say that the county budget, like a family budget, should depend on our revenue. We shouldn't spend more than we take in. Those commissioners are now waffling and saying revenues don't really matter after all. We have this much spending we want to do, and we'll do that spending even if we don't have enough revenue. We'll just pull from our fund balance (savings).


What happens next year when you need this money again to cover your expenses? We've been told that our growth has flat-lined. With only so much space in Hamblen County, growth eventually has to stabilize. That's common sense. Is it time to stabilize and review our spending as well? Is it time to collect all revenues that are due the county--with regular delinquent tax sales, with communication between the planning commission and the business tax office so that business licenses are purchased and taxes are collected on new construction, with service of warrants, etc.

There are solutions. Instead of adding more taxes, revenues can be increased by collecting what is due. Treat all employees the same. Spread the cuts around to all departments. And remember that these so-called "cuts" are not really cuts at all. If we "cut" a county department or a school budget or the garbage budget, all that means is that they don't get all the funding they have requested on their wish-list.

Yes, keep spending within revenues. And if some commissioners are worried about building up a fund balance, don't lose any sleep over that. Commissioner Tom Lowe offered the perfect solution to that "problem," use any surplus to pay down the county's roughly $40M debt. Paying down debt is not a glamorous idea, but a common sense idea is rarely a showy thing.

The county has a pile of debt, and some people don't want to even think of trying to reduce it. It seems insurmountable. But you start even the longest journey with a single step. Paying down our debt is the ultimate win-win proposition. When the county pays down its debt, it's like you paying off your car. You still have your same income but now you don't have to spend money on the car payment, now you can spend it on house improvements or a vacation or education expenses.

The same thing would happen if the county paid down its debt. Revenue would still come in. But by cutting debt expenses, more money would be available for schools, law enforcement, public health and safety. Common sense.

We could even set aside and build a reserve fund for future capital expenses. Like a family might start saving now to be able to pay cash for a car 3 years from now. The government could save and try to handle big ticket items on a "pay-as-you-go" plan instead of suddenly raising taxes to pay for a bond issue.

Do I expect this to happen? Not now. Right now we don't even have the courage as a commission to insist on answers to audit questions about where last year's dollars went. Right now, some of the six new commissioners have forgotten how they were handed an unbalanced budget right after taking office--now some of these commissioners are going down that same path. Right now, some commissioners have forgotten that in 2002 $923,000 was pulled out of fund balance and that the next year (2003) the county general fund was "broke"--the only thing that kept us from being declared bankrupt was that several miscellaneous funds were dumped into the general fund.

Right now, too many commissioners have forgotten our recent financial history and have forgotten about accountability.

My only hope is that we don't wait until we have broken the general fund again before we wake up and smell the coffee.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

July 19, 2005 Tiptoe around the Taxes

Good news: Two of the tax whammies (see post of July 16) may have been avoided.
Bad news: The county passed a budget for its general government fund that is $760,000 in the red.

Hamblen County Commission's Budget Committee met. Commissioner Phillips proposed a plan to give the schools local property tax growth of about $500,000 and to "predict" and budget local sales tax growth of about $700,000. Net result is about a $1.2 million increase in local school spending on top of the $1.6 million increase in state BEP funding. This passed in committee 7-6. Commissioner Ricky Bruce was absent. This still must go to full Commission on July 21 for approval.

Then Herbert Harville, copying an idea from a Knox County School Board member, proposed to pull $300,000 out of the county's general government revenue and put this part of the county's revenue into school revenue. Harville's surprise maneuver, taking county government revenue and placing it into school revenue, passed with only a handful of "no" votes.

The county's general government fund was $460,000 in the red when we walked in to start our meeting. After Harville's proposal passed to take an additional $300,000 away from the county's general government fund (that is for law enforcement, county court clerk, veterans service officer, court, planning commission, etc.), the county's general fund budget was suddenly $760,000 in the red.

Harville is an ex-superintendent of schools and his son Stan is the principal at Witt Elementary. Harville is good with numbers, so he knew full well that his plan would put the government's general fund even deeper in the red. That apparently didn't matter to him. He supported a deficit budget spending plan for the county--a plan that is $760,000 in the red. It passed. I voted "no."

The previous Commission tricked voters into voting the 'temporary' wheel tax permanent via Briggs' "pick your poison" statement in April 2002. The previous Commission, eight of whom still serve on the currenet Commission, then went back on their "pick" statement and gave the voters a second dose of poison, voting in August 2002 to go ahead and enact a $0.15 property tax increase on top of the wheel tax extension. In 03-04, the new Commission enacted a $0.21 property tax increase on the outside garbage rate to rescue a garbage fund that was "broke." Then there was a litigation tax increase. And during this time (02-04) the Commission twice took money out of the debt fund, transferred about $700,000 to the general fund, and spent it.

Question: How can you make the wheel tax permanent (about $1.4 million in revenue), enact a $0.15 countywide property tax increase (about $1.5 million in revenue), enact a $0.21 garbage property tax increase (about $700,000 in revenue), raise litigation taxes, and then move about $700,000 into the general fund from the debt fund and still find yourself with a $760,000 deficit budget? More and more tax money has been raised, but we still find ourselves saying it isn't enough.

Maybe revenues will be better than expected. Maybe expenditures will end up less than expected. Maybe we'll be OK.

No one wanted to look for cuts. Commissioner Phillips said she had called county offices, and no one could cut anything other than a little here and there. Commissioner Osborne said our processes and accounting are so poor that it would be useless to look for any savings anywhere. I agree that our processes and accounting are poor--we know this from our audits and from the deafening silence from our "chief financial officer," County Mayor David Purkey, who insists on keeping two sets of financial numbers but who won't tell our audit committee why he moved $360,000 around from fund to fund in 2004 without authorization from county commission. I do not agree with Osborne or Phillips that it would be useless to look for every saving there is--big or small.

I noted again Commissioner Spoone's remarks that in all his 20+ years on Commission, he had never seen Commission accept all budgets without a cut. I suggested that a committee of up to 3 commissioners be appointed to examine the budget closely, talk to department heads, and report back with any savings. That didn't go to a vote.

Harville and several commissioners won't even talk about or look for cuts. Instead, they voted to put the general fund deeper into debt than it was when we walked into the meeting.

Lots more to come about how we got here...

Saturday, July 16, 2005

July 16, 2005 Taxes: Beware the triple whammy

Hamblen Taxpayers,

Guard your wallet and all valuables.

Some commissioners may be planning a triple whammy on taxes.

1st whammy: Increased appraisals. As Commissioner Harville correctly pointed out on July 13, if your property appraisal has gone up more than 12% or so, you are in line for a tax increase whammy even if the Commission doesn't raise the new state certified property tax rate. First whammy.

2nd whammy: Tax rate increase. Several commissioners don't want to even look at reducing expenses (see my post of July 15). They are prepared to increase the tax rate. For taxpayers who already have an apppraisal increase, this would be the second whammy.

3rd whammy: Now, there are behind-the-scenes rumblings about a wheel tax increase. Third whammy.

Also: Watch for some possible changes/revisions in budgeted revenue or budgeted expenses before the Budget Committee meets again on Tuesday, July 19.

Maybe we'll just do like the state of TN did a few years ago. If the budget appears to be short on money, just predict and project more revenues.

Sure wish this kind of sleight-of-hand worked in a family budget!

Who knows? Maybe posting this will make some people think twice and not try this kind of stuff.

Friday, July 15, 2005

July 15, 2005 The County Budget--Cost Savings

Dear Residents and Taxpayers of Hamblen County,

The Budget Committee met on Wednesday, July 13.

Sorry, no county commissioner (except yours truly and perhaps Joe Spoone) wants to take the time to look at our county's deficit budget to see if anything can be cut to come up with a balanced budget proposal. Sorry, no county commissioner (except yours truly) has put forth any cost savings ideas.

During the preliminary budget process in May and June, County Commission took no action on any department budget. Instead, each departmental budget was presented by the department head and was simply taken "under advisement" by Commission. At that time, reappraisals and appeals were not complete. We didn't have a certified tax rate from the state. We didn't know about our Worker's Comp Insurance rates. We didn't have a lot of information that we now have.

Last week, we were told that most property reappraisal appeals had been completed and that Hamblen County had received its new state certified tax rate (see my post of July 8). New revenue projections were calculated, and we now know that we have a deficit of about $450,000 if we simply approve everything as it was presented to us without cuts. We are now ready to get down to the job of adopting final budgets and tax rates-- we either cut expenses or raise taxes at this point.

Thus far, not one commissioner, with the exception of yours truly, has put forward a single idea for saving a penny. It appears that only two commissioners (Joe Spoone and I) are willing to take the time to review the budgets we originally took "under advisement" and the new revenue figures that we just got.

I have been on the Hamblen County Commission for nearly 3 years, and I regularly attended Commission meetings for about three years before that. That an elected official would not have a single idea for saving money and, worse, would not be willing to take the time to look for and discuss the possibility of spending cuts is not fair to the taxpayers who foot the bills.

I'm willing to work with department heads and other commissioners to find the areas where we can cut. I made a motion to begin the budget review process to look for areas where spending could be cut to keep our spending within current revenues. Commissioner Joe Spoone seconded it.

Commissioner Spoone remarked that he had never seen Commission just adopt the county government budget without a second look and without a single suggestion for a cut. Commissioner Ricky Bruce said he didn't think there was anything that could be cut. Spoone withdrew his second to my motion because he didn't think the proposal to look for areas to cut would pass.

What can be cut? I put forth a proposal last week that would save the county $60,000+ without cutting services at all. Currently, the Hamblen County Sheriff pays out about $65,000 for civilian crossing guards at the schools. My proposal is that the City of Morristown handle school crossings on city streets and that the Sheriff assign on-duty deputies to cover school crossings outside the city limits.

Before I put this forward, I checked with other counties and found that this is the way school crossing safety is handled in many other areas. This would provide not only greater safety for our children at school crossings, but it would also save money. Commissioner Harville said it was useless to even ask the City about this.

Well, I don't think it is ever useless to ask, and the committee agreed to let me talk to City Council about this. There have been a lot of city-county squabbles in the past, but I hope that the City will agree to provide officers to ensure greater safety at school crossings in the city limits, leaving the county to handle crossings outside the city limits.

County Mayor David Purkey also put forth a savings proposal, saying he thought $25,000 could be saved by cutting out some new equipment upgrades at the jail.

Well, with just those two ideas, there is $85,000 in savings. Not exactly pocket-change as was pointed out by a taxpayer in the audience.

Wonder what a closer examination might find?

Are Commissioners willing to look for other savings? I am.

PS If there are some Commissioners who just don't want to take the time to look for savings, wonder if they would at least appoint a small sub-committee composed of those commissioners who are willing to work on this to look for savings? No.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

July 14, 2005 Briggs: Mayor Purkey might "slip up and incriminate himself"

Calm before the storm…

The first three committee meetings (Finance, Public Services, and Personnel) went as smooth as silk.

We discussed joint city-county Metro government. I proposed that we ask that County Mayor David Purkey meet with Morristown City Mayor Gary Johnson to get a feel for how the City might view establishing a Metro Study Committee.

I am hopeful that the City will at least be open to discussing and studying Metro. Most everyone I have heard from thinks it’s time to look at this. This proposal will go to the full Commission on July 21.

In other action, Planning Commission appointments from the Mayor are to be forwarded to the full Commission, and a change to the Personnel Handbook is planned so that exempt/salaried employees will be treated in the same way as non/exempt employees now are.

The storm…

During the Audit meeting, Commissioner Maudie Briggs said that County Mayor David Purkey probably doesn’t want to come and answer audit questions because he’s afraid he might “slip up and incriminate” himself.

At the end of the meeting, Briggs added that Hamblen is just a “peon” county.

Here is what led up to those comments and that outburst. It was amazing.

Audit Chairman Edwin Osborne called the Audit meeting to order at 5:00 pm. Commissioner Maudie Briggs and I, members of the Audit Committee, were present. Jim and Mary Young, Hamblen County residents, were there to watch and took notes.

Commissioner Ricky Bruce is a member and had been present for the other meetings, but he left and didn’t attend the Audit meeting. Commissioners Herbert Harville and Joe Spoone left to attend a Planning Commission meeting. Joe Spoone came back to the Audit meeting after the Planning meeting was over, but Herbert Harville did not.

Commissioner Osborne began by pointing out that County Mayor David Purkey has refused to attend audit committee meetings and has refused to answer written questions about the 2004 audit. As a result, the role of the audit committee is unclear.

Osborne noted that Mayor Purkey maintains that the audit is the official financial “Bible” for Hamblen County. Osborne, a CPA, stated that a financial audit is a look at a very small number of financial transactions that have been taken from a very few sample areas. In Osborne’s opinion, a financial audit cannot be held up as a financial “Bible,” and he said the state auditors themselves would never call it that.

Osborne also pointed out that Enron and Worldcom had "clean" financial audits right before they collapsed.

Osborne expressed concern that Mayor Purkey and Finance Director Nicole Epps always respond to any financial questions about 2004 with a pat answer: “We’ve been audited.” He said a financial audit, which is different from a performance audit, does not mean that everything is OK.

To explain it in laymen’s terms. A financial audit is important, and the state auditors are doing an outstanding job with that. But a financial audit is a bit like a person looking only at his year-end bank statement and a few checks he wrote during the year and trying to figure out from that if everything is OK. The financial audit, like the year-end bank statement, will tell you what you have left, but it does not examine in detail how you got there or whether you have spent money properly and as intended.

I then remarked that it is very troublesome to me that financial questions about 2004 audit problems are being ignored. That’s when Briggs pounced. She said my questions were threatening. When asked to explain what was threatening about a simple financial question, she said it was my use of the word “why” in my question. That’s what made it threatening.

PS: Next time, I’ll remove the word ‘why’ at the beginning of my question and I’ll try to ask it in a way that Briggs would approve—“For what reason did you move $350,000 around from fund to fund in 2004 without authorization from County Commission. Please explain what past errors you were correcting.”

Briggs didn’t stop there. She added that in her opinion I am out to get two elected officials and hang them from the lanyard. She seemed to be longing for the good old days when nobody reviewed figures or called Nashville to check out facts. She ended by asking, “What does Nashville care about this ‘peon’ county in East Tennessee anyway?”

Whoa! Let’s calm down. First, we are not a peon county. Second, a financial question about the spending of public money is not a threat. Third, a financial question can’t ‘get’ anyone --unless there are serious problems in the handling of funds. Fourth, open and honest answers are the easiest way to get rid of financial questions.

Lastly, I certainly hope that Mrs. Briggs did not mean it when she said that County Mayor David Purkey was afraid to come to meetings and respond to financial questions because he was afraid he might “slip up and incriminate” himself.

Let’s try to stay focused on accountability. Let’s avoid the personal attacks...It's all about fiscal responsibility and taking care of tax dollars--the people's money.

My questions have always been about what has been done financially, not who’s doing it.

The answers should always be about what has been done financially, not who’s asking.

Monday, July 11, 2005

July 11, 2005 Response to Financial Questions: SILENCE

The Hamblen County Commission has committee meetings today--finance, personnel & policies, public services, and audit. All meetings are open to the public. They begin at 3:00 in the large courtroom on the 2nd floor in the old portion of the courthouse.

Silence. That is the response thus far to my June request for a review of the recently completed Russellville sewer grant, for documented verification of the total costs of capital improvements/building projects, for a revised (accurate) list of county-owned vehicles to address vehicles that have not been reported in the past or that were placed in the wrong department, and for an answer to what county money was switched around in 2004 and why this was done without authorization by county commission.

Silence is not an appropriate answer to financial questions, but that is the response thus far and that is exactly what I expected. Silence or attacking the messenger has been the favorite tactic of various individuals every time an audit, accounting, or financial question has been asked.

Both of these responses tell us that (1) there is a lot of financial information that no one is willing to talk about or explain openly, (2) there must be a lot to hide if no one is willing to answer questions about county finances, and (3) there are no or, at best, very inadequate controls over county spending.

Our new state auditors have done a terrific job in their first two financial audits (2003 and 2004). However, it's been a struggle to get some of the county officials at the local level to be open and transparent in discussing the state auditors' findings and to be open and transparent in answering questions about the handling of county funds.

The hallmark of accountability is openness. We're not there yet, but we're on the way.

Friday, July 08, 2005

July 8, 2005 Trust, but verify! Saving Taxpayers $1.2 Million

"Trust, but verify."

We had a Budget Committee meeting yesterday, July 7. Commissioners got work packets and financial data to prepare for the meeting on July 5. In our work packets, the state had reported a new countywide certified tax rate of $1.95. The Trustee had taken this new tax rate and had run new revenue calculations. The Finance Director had prepared a new budget summary using the new rate and revenue calculations. BUT...

Fortunately, the packet included the worksheet showing how the new tax rate of $1.95 had been calculated by the state. I looked at the state's calculation of the new rate and immediately spotted a problem. A wrong number had been plugged in to the calculation. The rate had been miscalculated and appeared to be too high by 11 cents.

I called the Assessor who immediately called Nashville and within a short time we had a new LOWER tax rate of $1.84. Anybody can make a mistake. As the old saying goes, "Trust, but verify." That's the only way to be accountable and take care of tax dollars. In this case, a simple review of the figures resulted in a savings to county taxpayers on their tax bills of close to $1.2 million dollars.

The Assessor, Trustee, and Finance Director handed out corrected information on the tax rate, revenues, and budget summary, and the Committee discussed the 06 budget briefly. There was some good financial news presented at the meeting. Our worker's compensation premiums have gone down significantly.

Since 05 closed out on June 30, I asked that the Trustee and County Mayor/Finance Director provide updated 05 revenue and expenditure reports before we proceed further with budget deliberations. It will be helpful to get a final, more accurate picture of revenues and expenses of the year just completed before we finalize a spending plan and set a tax rate for the next year. These officials agreed to provide the 05 figures before we meet again on Wednesday, July 13.

I also brought up Metro, joint city-county government. I keep hearing commissioners and residents say it's time to look in to this, but we haven't taken any concrete step toward exploring this. Several commissioners said that they think the City of Morristown will resist any move toward Metro. I certainly hope there won't be any knee-jerk opposition to Metro. Geographically, Hamblen is the third smallest county in Tennessee, and there is only one city in the county. We are an ideal candidate for a Metropolitan form of government. It's a proposal that deserves full and fair consideration. There has been way too much city-county bickering in the past.

More on the Budget and Metro to come....

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

July 5, 2005 Founding Fathers Letter to Editor

I found this excellent Letter to the Editor in an online edition of a Tennessee newspaper. The 4th of July is behind us, but the message contained in the words and deeds of the Founding Fathers is the same every day--- be visionaries and doers, have a passion for freedom, and work to protect and preserve freedom for future generations.

To the Editor:

America's Founding Fathers were doers. They collectively identified a problem, labored as a whole to devise a course of action and executed a plan to set America on a path to real freedom.

Nearly 250 years later, we still commend their spirit, laud their documents, and allude to their wisdom and foresight. Sadly, very few Americans today have much in common with those visionaries. We've become a population of watchers, voyeurs to our own existence and our nation's future.

We've come to expect that politicians will lie, that corporations are fueled by greed, that corruption is simply the way the game is played and there isn't anything we're ever going to do about it.

We've rationalized our discontent with jokes and the occasional snort. In our truly indignant moments we may even mutter "someone should do something." But "someone" won't be us because we're too busy, too tired, too this and too that. We have an inexhaustible supply of excuses that allow us to continue watching.

We have people who are happy to tell us what to think, what it means, why we should, why we shouldn't, and what's best for us. By letting them deal with those things that would require our time and energy to address, we can go on watching.

This Fourth of July, amidst all the hoopla of processed patriotism, we'll hear many references to our Founding Fathers. I wonder where we'd be today if those great men had been watchers instead of doers?

Mark Wehner

Friday, July 01, 2005

July 1, 2005 Independence Day Blessings of Liberty

Half the year is gone, and we are coming up on the 4th of July.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend and holiday. My husband Ron's sister and brother-in-law always host a 4th of July cookout for the whole family. Everyone has a terrific time.

Good food. Lots of laughter. Lots of fireworks-- A special family time to celebrate the birth of a wonderful, generous, and good nation that has endured through good times and bad.

I was talking with my children recently about the hardships the early patriots faced. Mostly we talked about the patriots' passion for freedom, and their willingness to sacrifice all, even their lives, for their beliefs.

This is a special country. Blessed. A beacon of light to the world. May we continue to hold freedom dear.

Happy 4th!