Wednesday, August 31, 2005

August 31, 2005 County Mayor David Purkey "blows a gasket"

The biggest news is the news that hasn't been reported yet. Isn't that usually the case?

What local news has not been reported? The "answer" from County Mayor David Purkey as to why he and the Finance Director have not come to Hamblen County Commission Audit Committee meetings and have not at least sent written responses to questions that were submitted months ago about the 2004 audit.

It's hard to find any hint of co-operation and answers to financial questions anywhere in the letter. It is easy, however, to find explosive anger and pent-up hatred in his vitriolic and venomous response.

What, you might ask, has prompted yet another outburst from the County Mayor? Financial questions. Now just why would financial questions cause the county's "chief financial officer" to blow a gasket?

The Audit Committee submitted written follow-up questions to the state auditors months ago about findings in the 2004 audit. The state auditors answered most of the questions. For audit questions that they could not answer, they referred the committee to the County Mayor and Finance Director. When the questions were submitted to Mayor Purkey, the county's chief financial officer, he just ignored them. Finally, the Audit Committee voted to have Audit Chairman Osborne send a letter to Commissioner Herbert Harville, a member of the Audit Committee and Chair of the Finance Committee, asking him to communicate with Mayor Purkey and attempt to get some co-operation and answers.

Here is the Mayor's reply to Herbert Harville's request on behalf of the Audit Committee for co-operation and answers. The letter was dated August 9, 2005, and provided on August 26. Even though Mr. Purkey was present at the Aug. 26 meeting, it was Commissioner Harville who read the letter to the Committee and to the public. It's long, it's threatening, and it's full of personal attacks. Since there were no financial answers in the letter, I asked Herbert jokingly, "Does this mean we won't get answers to the shifting of money?" Herbert didn't answer. He didn't have to because the answer is very clear. It's obvious that County Mayor David Purkey has taken the position that so many others in office take as soon as questions are asked: "I don't have to answer anything." His response to 04 audit questions is apparently, "Don't ask, and I won't tell" / "Do ask, and I still won't tell."
August 9, 2005

TO: Honorable Herbert Harville
Chair Finance Committee
FROM: David W. Purkey
Hamblen County Mayor
RE: Response to Edwin Osborne' s Letter of August 8, 2005

Thank you for sharing Mr. Osborne's letter which was apparently passed out at an unscheduled Audit Committee meeting yesterday. As you know, Mr. Osborne failed to provide me with a copy which has become standard operating procedure for Linda Noe and her cronies.

Mr. Osborne has publicly stated on multiple occasions that he will be a candidate for Hamblen County Mayor in the 2006 election. On one particular occasion, he appeared before the County Board of Equalization in an attempt to have his property taxes reduced. As a sitting county commissioner, Mr. Osborne responded to the Board's chastisement of this action by threatening to run for County Mayor. I join with the voices of other county commissioners and elected officials who have recognized Mr. Osborne's weakness as the Audit Committee Chair in allowing the processes of his committee to be tainted by his political aspirations. I can provide the names of others with whom he has declared his candidacy.

At any rate, Mr. Osborne states in his letter that his committee is at an "impasse". I would agree. The impasse has resulted from the blatant attempts by Ms. Noe and her cronies to utilize the Audit Committee as a political tool outside the parameters of state law. The Audit Committee's statutory authority is to recommend the employment of an independent auditor to examine the county's books. The committee then receives the audit document after the independent auditors have completed their work. Mr. Osborne is looking for a full-time job and I am sensitive to that. Clearly, his fixation on running for County Mayor has severely damaged his ability to lead the committee. I fully appreciate that he does not know how to proceed in this context.

Mr. Osborne's statement that "State Auditors indicated that they did not know Hamblen County had an audit committee last year" is puzzling since the committee has existed for over 25 years. In fact, Mr. Osborne's late father was the long time distinguished chair of that committee.

Mr. Osborne infers that there has been a "failure to follow up on and correct previously identified internal control deficiencies". The County Mayor's Office, the Finance Department, and the Road Superintendent received five (5) findings (one involved implementing centralized purchasing which we did immediately and was no easy task with existing resources). As detailed in our audit responses, all deficiencies have been addressed. Again, Mr. Osborne is posturing politically as he attempts to blame my office with findings in other offices. He and Ms. Noe know very well that the County Mayor does not supervise the school system, trustee's office, county clerk and others, where another elected official is in charge by state law.

Mr. Osborne states that the County Mayor has refused "to address certain repeat findings in the FY 04 audit." All findings have been addressed as they pertain to my office. He sees a finding and immediately throws blame. I see a finding and seize the opportunity to improve. That is a major difference in us. I would suggest that he read the state audit document.

Mr. Osborne accuses me of "urging other departments and elected officials to avoid audit committee meetings or provide responses". This is an absolute misrepresentation of the facts and he knows it. We all attended the meeting that Mr. Osborne himself called to sit down with state auditors and discuss the findings and responses within the audit document. His comment is an insult to every county-wide public official who attended that meeting and who is individually elected to office by the people of this county. I do not tell the other elected officials what they can and cannot do. I am a coordinator, not a dictator, as he alleges.

Mr. Osborne refers to "[my] willful decision not to provide requested information [which] compromise[s] the effectiveness of the Audit Committee in its oversight role." This is another untrue statement by Mr. Osborne. The state auditors have verified and said publicly at the very meeting that Mr. Osborne has developed amnesia about, that my office has done so and has been a pleasure to work with. My responsibility is to provide information and answers to the independent state auditors, not to his political campaign committee.

Mr. Osborne concludes by threatening all elected officials with a statement referring to, "future activities of the audit committee [as it] considers even more serious matters". Once again, let me be clear about the law. My responsibility is to the independent state auditors, not to Mr. Osborne as just another Linda Noe crony. He and Ms. Noe have clearly directed the committee outside of state law in a very selfish manner.

These people and others in their group appear to be dedicated to destroying the good name of this county. They never offer any solutions with their threats and conspiracy theories.

Mr. Chairman, I would both challenge and caution them to be ready to back up their lies and misrepresentations with actual facts when the time comes.

I can assure them that this time is coming, maybe sooner than they think...

Thank you.


Cc: All County Commissioners
All Elected Officials and Department Heads
County Attorney Rusty Cantwell
Councilman Claude Jinks

That's the answer from the "chief financial officer" of the county to financial questions from the Audit Committee of the Hamblen County Commission.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

August 16, 2005 Education

A reader recently made several good points regarding education in the blog comment section. She was concerned that students can not make change, speak correctly, or perform simple multiplication. I have heard this concern before, and it has been a real sore spot for me for a long time.

I have repeatedly stressed that teaching the basics and insisting on mastery of the basics--reading, writing, and arithmetic (OK, "math")-- is the essential foundation of education for all students.

I decided to post my reply to the reader as a regular blog entry--with a few revisions and additional comments...

It does take a lot of money to raise and to educate a child. Please let me share some information with you. By law, funding for education in Hamblen County can not go down--unless there is a substantial drop in enrollment or an economic crisis of some sort. Every year, funding for education from the state and from the local government has gone up. But has education really improved?

You point out that young people graduate from high school and cannot speak correctly, make change, and do basic multiplication. Will different textbooks correct these problems? No. Will new weight rooms correct these problems? No.

What can we do to address the problems about which you are concerned? Our primary focus should be on teaching the basics because the problems you have pointed out are examples of a failure to provide an educational foundation for basic success in life.

Unfortunately, it's not as easy as simply throwing more money into the "education" pot in order to get the better educational outcomes that we all seek--whether the outcome is as basic as being able to make change and speak correctly (as you have pointed out) or whether the outcome is as complex as being able to handle algebraic equations and analyze Shakespearean drama.

It will take a major revamping and overhaul of the educational system--both in Hamblen County and across the state--if we are to see real improvement and if we are to be assured that a foundation for success has been laid for every child. Does this require more money? Not necessarily. Does it require better management of existing funds? Absolutely.

Simply rearranging class schedules to provide significantly more instructional time for reading, writing, and arithmetic (aka "math") in grades 1-3 would bring about improvements in those basic skills that are the foundation for all advanced skills in later grades. Mastery of these skills is essential.

After school tutoring by teachers, volunteer tutors from Walters State and the community, and peer tutoring are all part of the solution--and some of this is being done now.

I believe that merit pay for teachers and a readjustment of pay scales with increased pay for those certified in areas of greater need (advanced math courses, physics, science) are also a part of the solution. (But this is one of those taboo areas that one doesn't talk about in polite company)

I believe that teacher tenure will soon be a relic of the past. I have mixed feelings about this. Tenure is good where it protects a good teacher from a politically-motivated firing; on the flip side, tenure is often perceived by the public as providing lifetime job security to marginal and even poor teachers.

I believe that we need to take another look at block scheduling that was adopted at our local high schools some 10 years ago. It may be an idea that sounded good in theory but that is not academically sound in practice. Some adjustments have already been made in math and other courses to provide year-round instead of semester instruction, but the entire block scheduling concept should be reviewed completely. I understand that a number of schools are starting to back away from the 90- minute classes that are the basis of block scheduling and are going back to the more traditional year-round 55-60 minute classes.

A number of different viewpoints and ideas for improving education should be considered--not just the same old "more money" requests that have failed in the past. It's time for new and creative ideas. And if something doesn't work, ditch it. Don't just keep throwing more money at it. By the same token, if a particular program does work, keep it and work even harder at it.

Many individuals, groups, and organizations in Hamblen County care about education. As for me, I have three children. As a parent, I was closely involved in my children's education every step of the way. All three graduated from the University of Tennessee.

As a teacher for 11 years, I was involved in the education of hundreds of young people. I enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of my students, and I worked hard every day to help them both academically and socially.

As a supporter of athletics, I coached middle school basketball. I was a member and officer in several booster clubs at West High. I was president of the all-sports athletic booster club at West High. But let me add this...while sports programs are wonderful, there is nothing more important than academics.

I was an early and vocal supporter of improved educational facilities. Back in 1997--many years before you arrived in Morristown-- I was one of those who was actively involved in getting a comprehensive school building program off the ground.

I was teaching English at the old West View Middle School on Economy Road at that time. [It has since been remodeled and is now called Manley Elementary.] The old West View Middle was one of the last of the "open school" designs in Hamblen County. You can imagine how difficult it was to teach English to a class of 25-30 students while another English teacher tried to teach a classroom of 25-30 students right next to you. With NO walls to separate the two classrooms.

I wrote letters to parents about our need for walls between the classrooms and other improvements. I helped organize meetings at West View involving parents, teachers, and school board members. I attended joint school board-county commission meetings to encourage the adoption of a comprehensive school building program.

Many people, and I was one of them, were ecstatic when the building program was adopted and funded by county commission in 1998. Unfortunately, the school board then took the $32 million that was provided for school improvements across the county and drafted questionable contracts that resulted in conflicts of interest, numerous (22 or more) single bids being received and awarded, and cost overruns that resulted in the elimination of many of the planned improvements.

Waste of taxpayer money always concerns me. Over 1-1/2 years after the first contracts were signed, I realized what was going on in the school building program--that they were paying people to manage and supervise themselves while cost overruns mounted up and classrooms were eliminated. The waste was very disheartening for those of us who watched and saw what was happening.

I think it is important to try to correct situations instead of just wringing our hands. No one would do anything about this waste on the local level--except for lip service here and there.

Other concerned citizens and I spoke to the State Comptroller in Nashville in August 2001 about the supposed "competitive" bidding and the reality of the conflicts of interest that the school board denied all along. As a result of our efforts, state law was amended unanimously in 2002 to prohibit the local school board and others across the state from handling school construction management in the way that the Hamblen County School Board did from 1999-2002.

All this is to say that I value education as much and perhaps more than many people in Hamblen County. I have been involved in supporting better facilities, and I have supported athletics as well. The touchstone, however, is always academics.

I know that education is the key to personal success--of course, a little luck along the way can be very helpful, too. My parents stressed the importance of education to me, and I have stressed the importance of education to my own children.

I wish that money were somehow a "silver bullet" that would solve the problems within the educational bureaucracy. But it isn't. We have problems that money can't begin to address. We have problems that go deeper than financial shortages.

To solve the problems you have mentioned--time, time, and more time devoted to the basics is needed. And the same is true of the problem of not having a highly educated workforce. We have many excellent teachers, and we offer a varied and challenging curriculum for those who choose to avail themselves of it.

It is my opinion that an excellent education is offered to students in Hamblen County, but unfortunately some students and parents do not see the long-term value in education. Therefore, some parents do not push, encourage, and help their children, and it is also true that some students do not push themselves to get as much from the educational offerings that are laid before them, free for the taking.

You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink.

Once we are able to get support from all parents and once we are able to help students see the value of their K-12 education, then we will have a major part of the answer to our educational dilemma.

Thank you for your comments. You make many excellent points. We obviously agree on the importance of education, and I'm sure we both hope that more parents and students will come to realize the critical importance of education. Students should take advantage of the wonderful and challenging opportunities for learning that exist within our local school system.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

August 14, 2005 The money merry-go-round

I took a few days off from posting...

But I'm back and ready to report on the Special Committee and its examination of the Russellville Sewer Grant and the Courthouse Addition on August 9, 2005.

As is almost always the case where financial information is involved, we were handed sheets with cost information after we arrived. Then we were expected to digest the information and ask questions on the spot.

I asked several questions, but I have several more that I will be sending to the Trustee and County Mayor.

( I think it would be very helpful, particularly where financial information is involved, to get a report 3-4 workdays ahead of the meeting, so you can check the figures , compare information, and get your questions together--but that's just the way I like to approach financial issues. )

HAMBLEN COUNTY COURTHOUSE ADDITION. Commissioners were given a document by the County Mayor/Finance Department in 2004 that said contracts for this project totalled $2.5 million and that the amount spent on this project was $2.5 million. I questioned that immediately. I know and everyone on commission knows that no building project comes out perfectly like that. It's either over or under. It's never perfect. I asked for the total cost figures for that project. I received no reply. Another individual asked for the breakdown of costs that the Mayor/Finance Director compiled and added to get the $2.5 million amount shown as “spent” on the courthouse addition. She received no reply. When she and I went to the Mayor's Office and asked for the report or spreadsheet that had been used to come up with the $2.5 million "spent," we were told that it had been done by hand and there was no report or spreadsheet to back up the total reported to commission.

"Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!" as Goober would say. The committee was handed a document months later entitled Hamblen County Courthouse Addition Construction Project. It showed that actually $2,671,825 was spent on the addition. It showed that the amount spent on the addition came from bond proceeds ($2,500,000), Capital Improvement Fund/Health Department ($94,324), General Fund/Other Charges/Data Processing ($50,000), EMA/E911 ($16,339), and Interest Earned ($11,162). This document was dated March 2, 2001---meaning it's been available for the past 7-8 months that people have been requesting information on the true courthouse addition costs. Why wasn't it provided?

I had someone ask me how the health department could donate or give back $94,324 to the county for construction on the county courthouse. That's an excellent question that I wondered about as well. It will require some follow-up.

It was also interesting to find that $48,154 of Courthouse Addition "construction" money was spent on digitized mapping.

You just sit and actually marvel at the way money is moved and spent and labeled as one thing but spent on another. The two sets of accounting numbers that the County Mayor/Finance Director insist on keeping come to mind every time I see money being shifted around.

The 2004 audit (p. 194) with its report of $360,000 being shifted from fund to fund without approval of county commission also comes to mind. Months ago, the Audit Committee requested that Mayor David Purkey and Finance Director Nicole Epps inform us as to why the money was shifted and what previous errors were being "corrected" by these shifts. No answer.

You have to marvel at that, too. County Mayor David Purkey, the county's chief financial officer, and Finance Director Nicole Epps won't tell the Audit Committee what they were "correcting" in 2004 when they shifted $360,000 around! Who had paid that much money out of the wrong funds to begin with? Who authorized the payments out of the wrong funds?

I asked the Tribune to report my comment on the Courthouse Addition since I asked the initial questions. They did not use my quote, so I include it here:

"There is a serious lack of accountability and responsiveness on the part of the Finance Department of Hamblen County. This is evidenced by the fact that a Special Committee of the Hamblen County Commission had to meet yesterday in order to obtain from the Finance Department documentation of what is said to be the true and accurate costs for the multi-million dollar Hamblen County Courthouse Addition and for the Russellville Sewer project that was completed in 2004.

On the Courthouse Addition, the committee found that when it was told in 2004 that $2,500,000 exactly had been the "contracts" amount and that $2,500,000 exactly had been "spent" on this project, the reality was that over $171,000 more than that was spent and that a large portion of that overrun was covered by funds that had originally been appropriated to the local health department. All this was shown on a document bearing a date of 3/2/01. Why was this not provided to commissioners or members of the public who asked for the total costs of that project months ago?

I sincerely hope that securing financial information about the spending of taxpayer dollars will not require appointment of special committees in the future."

RUSSELLVILLE SEWER GRANT. Questions about the sewer grant procedures, costs, who got free taps, and approval of the county match of $120,000 have been asked by me and a few others for months (at least since December 2004 when the county was told that the total sewer costs were $601,426.15). At that time, I asked for documentation of when the county approved the $120,000 match that was required in the grant application.

I was never opposed to the sewer grant. It was a much needed project for residents of that area (off Old Russellville Pike). I did, however, want to know about the grant process, the actual final costs, the list of residents who got free taps and those who paid for taps, and, specifically, when the county approved the $120,000 match that the grant required at the outset. I had seen in the commission minutes where the prior commission approved $100,000 in matching money in Feb. 2001, but I had never seen approval of the other $20,000 that the CDBG apparently requires to be on record before they will approve the grant.

Although government procedures are sometimes "unusual," I would be very surprised to find that the state approved the grant without having the county provide copies of resolutions passed by commission appropriating the entire county match of $120,000. At the meeting, Sharee Long, with the Mayor's office, couldn't provide any information about the remaining $20,000 county match--other than assuring us that she'd try to find out more about the match if there was still a question.

As for the costs, we were given a sheet that had about three different "costs" and you could take your pick. There was a CDBG line item budget total cost of $601,426.15. This is what Mayor Purkey had said the total costs were in December 2004. Then there was "approved contract amounts" of $602,626.15. Then there was a "Total Expenditures to date" of $603,305.09. There was also $2,700 that was added to the contract with Public Systems sometime after the grant application was made.

This was what I asked the Tribune to report as my comment on the sewer project report:

"The Russellville sewer project report showed a small discrepancy between what was reported as the total costs to commission in December 2004 and what was reported yesterday. Some of the questions about Russellville relate to if, when, and how the county approved the $120,000 funding match that was required before the grant could be approved. And just yesterday, the county found out that a contract with Public Services System of Alabama was increased by $2,700 at some time although this increase was not shown in the revised line item budget for this project as late as August 2004."

The Tribune did not report my comment.

And I would add...if county commissioners are not willing to stand up for accountability, to require accurate financial reports, and to insist on a response when $360,000 is shifted around as occurred in 2004, then as Pogo said long ago: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Monday, August 08, 2005

August 8, 2005 If you can't stand the heat...

We had commission committee meetings today. These are the pre-meeting meetings (like a work session) where we discuss items that will come up at the regular Commission meeting on August 18. Nothing big came up although there was a lot of good debate and exchange of ideas.

We will ask Charter Cable Company to dedicate a channel to the county for use in televising county commission meetings. Currently, we deliver tapes to Walters State Community College and lately there have been problems with the airing of those tapes. Sometimes, no tape was shown at all. Sometimes, the meeting was not shown in its entirety. (Once , this was because the entire meeting was not filmed. Other times, however, part of the tape would be shown on one day and the other part on another day instead of the full meeting being aired in one sitting).

If you can't stand the heat...

The last meeting of the day was the Audit Committee. Edwin Osborne is chairman. Members present were Maudie Briggs, Herbert Harville, Linda Noe, and Joe Spoone. (Ricky Bruce was present for an earlier meeting, but he left before the Audit Committee meeting began).

The main agenda item was a letter that had been prepared by Chairman Osborne and that was addressed to Finance Chairman Herbert Harville. The letter remarked on the difficulty (impossibility?) in getting answers to 2004 audit questions from the County Mayor or Finance Director. It said that the Audit Committee is at an impasse and noted that County Mayor David Purkey had "willfully" encouraged other elected officials and departments heads not to respond in writing to the Audit Committee and not to attend Audit Committee meetings.

The Mayor's statement urging officials and departments heads to boycott Audit Committee meetings a couple of months ago was very effective. No one attended the Audit Committee then, and no one attended the Audit Committee today. Today, as the Audit Committee prepared to meet, the Mayor told county employee Jeff Atkins and local news person Paul Meador, "let's go," and they did. They skeedaddled out of there, so you probably won't hear anything about what happened at the Audit Committee on tomorrow's radio news.

The boycott game appears to be part of a power play. Commissioner Osborne is in for a rough time as he starts to ask questions. It'll be even rougher if he actually insists on answers.

Of course, Harville stated that this was "political." Apparently, asking for financial information about the county is "political," but withholding financial information is not. The vote was 4-1 to send the letter that asks Harville, who is chairman of the Finance Committee, to try and get some response out of County Mayor David Purkey and the Finance Department in connection with audit questions that have been asked but never answered.

Harville was the lone dissenting vote.

Since he voted against sending the letter in the first place, I asked Commissioner Harville if he would have any conflict or difficulty in trying to resolve the audit situation and getting some answers from the County Mayor. Harville said "no." I didn't want to see Harville placed in an uncomfortable situation doing something that he really didn't want to do.

Harville then asked Commissioner Osborne if Osborne really thought that he (Harville) could get answers to audit questions when Osborne and the committee had been unable to do so in numerous prior attempts. That was a very good question. I guess only time will tell whether Herbert Harville can succeed in getting Mayor Purkey to provide financial answers where others have been unable to do so.

If Harville can get answers to the 2004 audit questions that have been ignored for months by the County Mayor and Finance Director, we'll have to make him the official liaison between the Hamblen County Commission and the Hamblen County Mayor/Finance Department.

Stay tuned...

Friday, August 05, 2005

August 5, 2005 The deficit budget passes

To no one's real surprise the Hamblen County Commission voted for a general government (General Fund) budget that is about $460,000 in the red yesterday. This is a deficit budget-- where the county starts the year expecting to spend about $460,000 more than it takes in. Spending more than you take in is not a good idea for a family budget. It's not a good idea for a government budget either.

This will be played as a "no new taxes" vote. Your property tax bill in October, however, may show that you owe more taxes than you did last year. Why? Because your property's assessed value likely went up. When the property tax rate goes up or when the assessed value of the property goes up, the property tax dollars you pay to the county go up. So when you hear "no tax increase" in the press, don't assume that you will be paying the same amount of taxes as last year.

The real significance of yesterday's vote? It is an admission that most commissioners can't or won't balance the county budget. Most commissioners are willing to use one-time money (pulling down the county's rainy day fund balance once again) to pay for recurring county expenses--an economic practice that eventually leads to bankruptcy.

Did we have a way to avoid a deficit budget in 2006 without raising the tax rate? Yes, we did.

At yesterday's meeting, I put forth the only balanced budget proposal for the General Fund that was made during the entire budget process. It was not rocket science. It was just a matter of returning the wheel tax revenues more in line with the split that was used in 1999 when the wheel tax was first enacted "to build up the general fund." In 1999, the $27 wheel tax was split into $23 for the General Fund and $4 for the School Fund. Over time the split changed with less and less going to the General Fund. With each change in the split, the General Fund got in worse shape and eventually reached an all-time low in 2003.

My proposal was simple. We could balance the General Fund budget by changing the $27 wheel tax split so that $21 would go to the General Fund and $6 would go to the schools. With this proposal, the General Fund was balanced (no pulling from fund balance, no using one-time money for recurring expenses, no simply postponing a tax hike), and the schools would receive $2.4 million in new additional funding for the 2005-2006 school year.

Tom Lowe, a staunch opponent of deficit spending, seconded my motion. It went to a vote and was defeated 12-2. Tom and I were the only supporters of the balanced budget proposal.

Although Commissioners Bruce and Osborne and a few others said they didn't like the deficit budget that was before them, they offered no alternative. If you grew up in the 60s, it reminded you of the line from Hee-Haw, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all." Only this time it would be, "If it weren't for a bad budget, we'd have no budget at all."

Other commissioners sat virtually silent during the whole process--no idea, no comment, no proposal.

Apparently after spending many hours over many months on a deficit budget, no one was willing to propose spending cuts, no one was willing to propose a tax rate increase, and no one had a proposal for a balanced budget--except for my balanced budget proposal mentioned above.

The silence and the lack of alternatives reminded me of a quote from Albert Einstein, "Don't expect the people who got you into a mess to get you out of it."

FYI: In my August 3, 2005 post, I spoke of the proposed General Fund deficit of $760,000. Things got changed around yesterday as the actual budget vote was taken. Yesterday, the General Fund ended up with a $460,000 deficit and the $300,000 that was originally going to be part of the General Fund deficit was instead taken out of the debt fund.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

August 3, 2005 A deficit budget in the making

The Hamblen County Commission meets tomorrow at 4:00 pm. The 7/1/05-6/30/06 budgets for Hamblen County General Government (General Fund), School Fund, Highway Fund, Garbage Fund, Debt Fund, and a few minor funds are on the agenda.

Most of the budgets have no serious problem. The only budget that is in the red, with a deficit of $760,000 is the county's general fund.

The current proposal is to give $3.1 million new dollars to the school system and to leave the county with a $760,000 deficit.

(The general fund deficit may end up being even higher because it appears that the Planning Commission plans to wait until after the budget is passed and then present commission with a request for an unspecified amount of additional money for an additional employee and perhaps other costs. Overcrowding in the jail is still "out there." What else could there be? I certainly hope that there isn't another hospital bail out or transportation emergency or super-fund site clean-up that we haven't been told about and that will be presented as an "emergency" with immediate action required.)

It appears that Commissioner Harville's plan to give the schools $300,000 of county trustee fees has hit a snag. Harville, whose son Stan is principal at Witt Elementary, decided on July 19th that $2.8 million new dollars was not enough of an increase for the schools, so he proposed giving the schools $300,000 more out of the county trustee's fees. On July 22nd, County Mayor David Purkey revised the county budget and showed the $300,000 as a "transfer payment" from the general fund to the school fund.

I tried to call Mayor Purkey yesterday and today, but he was either busy or gone. I wanted to share with him a letter that he provided to commission during the 2002 budget process--a letter from County Technical Assistance Services that seems to express the opinion that you can't do what the Mayor has shown-- transfer money from fund to fund.

I sent this letter to the county attorney for his review, and to Finance Director Epps today. With the letter, I noted that if the county wants to give another $300,000 to the schools while putting the general fund $300,000 deeper in debt, there are other ways to do this. For example, we can lower the general fund tax levy and increase the school tax levy or we can lower the general fund wheel tax revenue and add to the schools wheel tax revenue. Of course, we can just raise the school tax rate as well.

There will be a large number of school employees at the meeting tomorrow. They have been told to come and to protest the fact that county commission is only giving the school system $3.1 million new dollars instead of the full $4.1 million new dollars as requested. Some of these employees (cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians) have been told by the Board and by Director Lynch that they will not get a raise unless county commission provides more money.

Apparently, the school board is not spreading the millions of new dollars around to all employees and is blaming the county commission for the choices that the board has made in terms of who gets what and how much. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, the school board alone determines how the millions of new dollars will be spent. It can spread the millions out to all employees, or it can leave some employees out-- as it apparently has chosen to do.

Tomorrow, public address announcements will be made at the schools to rally the troops, memos will probably go out to school employees, and there will be a packed courthouse. During the hoop-la as the employed fight over more money and better benefits, will anyone think of the person who has no job or who works for minimum wage? Will anyone think of the people they know on a fixed income of $600/month? Will anyone think of the people they know who have no insurance? Will anyone think of the person who has no, or a meager, retirement? Will anyone think of the neighbor down the street who already faces a property tax increase due to the 2005 property reappraisal?

Will anyone think of the entire community and consider that maybe we should be thankful for what we have? Will anyone think of the general fund and how a $760,000+ draw down/deficit will affect it this year and the next? The big picture includes all citizens. Maybe it's time for moderation and even-handedness, instead of the "I want it all" attitude that we see too often at this time of year.

Yes, I taught school for 11 years. Yes, I loved to see a raise. Who doesn't? Maudie Briggs has said that our factories are gone and they're not coming back. Our trustee has pointed out that our revenues have flat-lined for now. It's a time of economic adjustment, and a lot of people are being hit hard. In the big picture, would it be so awful if some people took a smaller raise this year to ensure that their fellow employees are also able to receive a share of the pie? Would it be so awful if we balanced the general fund, gave the schools $2.5 million, and avoided the disaster that is being set up for next year?

We are rushing headlong toward a disaster during the next budget cycle if we go ahead and in our frustration pass what just about everyone knows is a bad budget. It's amazing to watch those who have preached long-range planning and those who have touted financial expertise express a willingness to wash their hands of it all at this point and just pass something, anything--even if it is bad for Hamblen County and a potential disaster for taxpayers next year.

Where's the concern about long-range, strategic planning in this budget? Where's the willingness to work for the taxpayers instead of throwing one's hands up in frustration? Instead of just mindlessly voting for a bad budget, who is going to put forth an alternative?