Thursday, September 29, 2005

September 29, 2005 State Ethics Recommendations

I decided to delay my report on the Commission meeting of 9/22/05 in order to post a joint policy statement that was recently issued by Tennessee Tax Revolt and the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. The policy statement concerns an issue that, in my opinion, is very important to Tennesseans-- ethics. This ethics statement has a direct relation to my focus on accountability, open meetings, open records, and eliminating conflicts of interest.

September 27, 2005

Tennessee Tax Revolt, the State’s largest taxpayer advocacy group, and the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, Tennessee’s free market public policy research institute, joined to co-author an open letter to Governor Bredesen and the Tennessee General Assembly encouraging simple ethics reforms to restore confidence in our State government.

Among the letter’s recommendations are:

1. Recording and posting all House and Senate floor, committee and subcommittee votes on final action for any bill on the General Assembly website within two hours of the vote.

2. Providing that every bill scheduled for a floor vote for final action be made available in fully amended form on the legislative website 72 hours before the vote.

3. Amending both the Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act so they apply to the proceedings of the General Assembly.

4. Offering video streaming and archiving of all Senate and House general sessions and committee sessions.

5. Requiring FULL disclosure on the legislative website of amounts spent by those that employ lobbyists or spend money to influence legislation and completely outlawing contingency lobbying fees.

6. Prohibiting lobbyists from serving on State boards and commissions

“While not every legislator is part of the problem, all legislators must be part of the solution,” said Tennessee Center for Policy Research president Drew Johnson. “There is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that can only be resolved through common sense approaches that foster government transparency and encourage citizen involvement in the political process.”

According to Tennessee Tax Revolt spokesman Ben Cunningham, the recommendations promote leveling the playing field between lobbyists and interested citizens. "Easy and complete access to voting records is our birthright as citizens of Tennessee, it is not something reserved for highly paid lobbyists," said Cunningham.

My comment: "Well said."

I would add that conflicts of interest at the state and local level are a serious problem. Too many legislators at the state level as well as county commissioners and city councilmembers at the local level do not abstain from voting on legislation that has a particular economic effect, direct or indirect, on them or their immediate family.

I would also add that access to public records is absolutely vital in promoting accountability at the local and state level.

Knowledge is power. Government officials know that, and that is why some of them seek to keep all the power (documents & information) in their hands. These are the government officials that cause citizens and others to wonder why they are so secretive about the conduct of public business and why they are so difficult to deal with when citizens want public documents.

Thankfully, most elected officials are open and accessible and freely discuss and share information and documents. These are the ones we tend to trust.

The letter is available in its entirety at

Thursday, September 22, 2005

September 22, 2005 Update on county vehicle reports

I received the vehicle report from the Work Release Director yesterday. Don Baird said he had tried to send it before, but there was a problem with the county e-mail system. He finally just sent it from his personal e-mail.

That leaves only two departments that haven't responded in writing or by e-mail to the Sept. 13 request for mileage/condition info. The departments that are left are the Maintenance Dept. and the Sheriff's Dept.

I'm hoping that these two departments will provide a written or e-mail list soon since they are the only two still hanging out there.

Tomorrow, I'll give a full report on today's County Commission meeting. It was long. But it was one of the best meetings that we have had. There was a lot of good, thoughtful discussion on important issues. Commissioners were willing to listen to one another, to send problem areas back to committee, and in general work together well.

We decided to send a contentious rezoning issue back to the Planning Commission.

We voted to approve a 3-year contract with the Comptroller's Office (County Audit) to continue performing the county's audit in 2006-2008.

If state law doesn't change the amount charged, we will continue saving $18,000/year by having county audit perform our audit. That was my central campaign plank and we've already saved $54,000 in the past 3 years (2003-2005) by having state auditors instead of local private auditors perform the county audit.

As important as the savings, I think all commissioners now realize that state auditors specialize in this work and that, as a result, we are getting a far better audit (along with the savings) by having the state auditors handle this. They do an outstanding job, and they have helped the county come into compliance with state law and adopt procedures that provide for better record-keeping and greater accountability.

I'll have more on audits later--they are very important but they have certain limitations as well. Audits are like a spot check. The auditors do not (and are not expected to) check every payment, every deposit, every grant, every insurance enrollment, every gasoline purchase, every bid and contract, every time sheet, every payroll check, or the accuracy of inventory reports.

September 22, 2005 Same song, umpteenth verse, "more money"

Hamblen County School Board to Hamblen County Commission: We know the county budget is not balanced and the school budget is not balanced, but could we have $50,000 or $60,000 more, please?

The Hamblen County Commission passed all county and school budgets on August 4. The County General Government Fund has a deficit 05-06 budget, the County General Debt Fund has a deficit 05-06 budget, the County Road Department has a deficit 05-06 budget (with each of these departments planning to spend more than it expects to receive in revenues and hoping that revenues will somehow be higher than expected or expenses will be lower than expected.)

The Hamblen County School System also has a deficit 05-06 budget in spite of the fact that it received a total of $3.1 million in new money to spend in 05-06---$1.5 million of which came from a county (Hamblen County) that can't balance its own general government budget and $1.6 million of which came from new state BEP funding.

Now, seven weeks after all budgets were passed, the Hamblen County School System is coming hat in hand to the County Commission to ask for a "donation" of $50,000 or $60,000 for its International School. The International School was announced many months ago with grant funding from the Niswonger Foundation out of Greeneville.

The idea for this "school" is to take the growing ELL (English Language Learners) student population and bus these students from their home schools to a new "school" at Walters State for 1/2 day of instruction and then bus them back to their home schools.

Jefferson Federal Foundation has apparently offered to give the school system $50,000 or $60,000 toward the International School, but there are strings attached to this gift. They say they will only give the money to the school if the City of Morristown provides a matching amount and if the County provides a matching amount. Hence, today's request for a "donation."

I had one person ask why Jefferson Federal didn't challenge other area banks to match its contribution. I was talking to someone else who thought that Jefferson Federal should consider the $1.5 million in new local money that has already been provided to the schools as the county's "match."

What will happen when the time comes to vote on the donation? Who knows?

It was just a little over 3 years ago (May 2002) that voters were persuaded to vote for extending the temporary wheel tax in the infamous "pick your poison" referendum.

Since then, the wheel tax has been made permanent, there have been two recent property tax increases, subdivisions have been added to the county's tax rolls, debt has been refinanced, money has been switched from fund to fund, and a litigation tax has been added. End result of all this new and extended tax revenue and growth: the county still cannot balance its government budget, its road budget, or its general debt budget.

The School Board is doing no better. It can't balance its budget even though it has new state and local money totaling $3.1 million dollars for 05-06.

If you have more and more taxes and revenue and you still cannot balance your budget, that is a spending problem-- a spending problem that is marked by little, or no, fiscal discipline.

With government at all levels, if something sounds good, the vote is do it, buy it, spend, borrow--go in debt, whatever it takes.

It seems like the only people who have to live within their means are the taxpayers.

Friday, September 16, 2005

September 16, 2005 Two more vehicle reports come in

Two more county vehicle mileage/condition reports have arrived.

Most county officials are very co-operative in providing information about county (taxpayer) cars, trucks, and equipment.

Barry Poole and his staff (Bob Gouge, Jeff Wisevarver, Rex Epps, and Melody Roxburgh) at the Highway Department and Garbage Department are among those who are always co-operative and helpful. They sent in mileage/condition reports on the trucks, tractors, and equipment for the Highway and Garbage Departments. I received the reports today.

After I sent out e-mails requesting this information on Tuesday afternoon (Sept. 13), the responses have come quickly.

In fact, I need to mention that Frank Parker, director at Cherokee Park, actually handed me the mileage/condition information for the Cherokee Park vehicles and equipment at the September 12 Finance Committee meeting--right after I asked. I didn't send Frank an e-mail request because he was at the Committee meeting and responded on the spot.

Right now, I think only two small departments--workhouse and county maintenance--and one large department--the Sheriff's Department-- haven't responded yet. It really shouldn't take long for the workhouse and county maintenance to work up mileage reports since they only have a small number of vehicles.

Sheriff Otto Purkey has a lot of vehicles in his inventory, so I'm guessing it may take one or two more days for him to list the mileage and condition of each. Strangely enough, County Mayor David Purkey's vehicle is run through his brother's (Sheriff Otto Purkey's) Department instead of being listed in the County Mayor's Office/Department.

Even more strange to those who tend to think that each department or official should include the cars that he or his employees drive in that department's budget and inventory, it appears that County Mayor David Purkey's vehicle, the one that is listed in Sheriff Otto Purkey's inventory, was actually paid for and purchased with funds out of the Juvenile Court budget.

It may be that Mayor D. Purkey gave an old car to Juvenile Court and then let Juvenile Court pay for the Mayor's new car...and then Mayor Purkey's new car, the one that was paid for out of the Juvenile budget, was put into Sheriff Otto Purkey's inventory, leaving Sheriff Purkey to pay for his brother's gas, maintenance, etc. out of the Sheriff's budget instead of out of the Mayor's budget. Are we confused yet?

Maybe all this shifting explains why last year:
(1) the Juvenile Court 2004 inventory report didn't show any vehicle at all (even though Juvenile Court did have a vehicle at the time); and
(2) Finance Director Nicole Epps in 2004 asked for and provided mileage information for all county vehicles except all those listed in the Sheriff's inventory.

As I mentioned in Tuesday's post (Sept. 13), the 2005 inventory is also interesting for the pieces of equipment and other items that have apparently been left off of certain department lists. I'll have more on what appears to have been left off the 2005 inventory sometime after Commission's September 22 meeting--after I check on a few things and try to talk with the County Mayor and Finance Director about the inventory.

It appears that the same thing (leaving items off) happened with the 2004 inventory as well. Lots of equipment, computers, and even the Juvenile Court vehicle--items that were purchased many years ago and that actually should have been included on the 2004 inventory report-- were left off the 2004 report.

We need to be very careful with our inventory. Several hundreds of thousands of county taxpayer dollars have been spent on computers, phones, vehicles, tractors, and other equipment. We need to know that everything is accounted for and is where it should be.

Have a good weekend!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

September 15, 2005 Several departments respond quickly to vehicle request

See my post of September 13: COUNTY INVENTORY.

After reviewing the 6/30/05 County Inventory, I asked Finance Director Nicole Epps at a September 12 Finance Committee meeting if she would get mileage and condition information for all county vehicles listed on the county inventory. [County Commission passed a resolution almost two years ago that it wanted to have this information on an annual basis.]

Nicole Epps' boss (County Mayor David Purkey) was also at the Finance meeting. After I asked her for the information, she told me that it was not required by the auditors and then her boss (County Mayor David Purkey) said that I would have to ask each elected official and department head directly for that information myself.

Well, I'm not shy about asking for information, so I went ahead on September 13 and began sending out e-mails at about 3:35 pm requesting this information from officials and department heads.

About 45 minutes after I sent out my first e-mail request, I received a copy of an e-mail from Finance Director Nicole Epps showing that she was suddenly starting to request the information for me.

I was surprised by her e-mail since I had specifically asked her on September 12 if she would get this information and her response then was that it wasn't "required" and her boss's response (Mayor Purkey) then was that I would have to request it myself from each department.

I e-mailed her back that I had already started to get the information myself like I'd been told to, and we didn't need to duplicate our efforts.

Let's be realistic. County Mayor David Purkey detests financial questions. Since I ask them and actually follow through to get the answers (from others if necessary), County Mayor David Purkey detests me. He has made that evident in three years of vicious personal attacks.

I think that most of the anger that causes him to blow up so often can be traced to my proposal after taking office to have the state auditors perform the county audit in 2003.

The state auditors came in and suddenly Hamblen County, which had only one audit finding or problem reported by the local auditors in the 2002 audit, had 29 findings of irregularities and violations of state law in the 2003 audit. That was more findings than any other county in the whole state.

Mayor Purkey's anger bubbles to the surface every time I ask a question or try to get information. He even got upset when the full commission asked him to do something really simple--like put a county decal on his county car. Now, why in the world did he blow up and refuse to put a Hamblen County decal on the car that the taxpayers provide for him (along with gas, insurance, and maintenance costs, too)? Go figure.


In my September 13 post, I mentioned that most elected officials and department heads are responsive and willing to share information about county (taxpayer) property.

Well, I want you to know that one official responded more quickly than anyone could have imagined. Assessor of Property Keith Ely sent the mileage and condition information back on the same day I sent the request. Keith is one of the most open and accessible elected officials around, and he is always willing to discuss and provide information about his office.

I worked with Keith about two months ago when I called him to let him know that I had found what appeared to be a rather large error in the new state-certified property tax rate that the state had sent us and that our Trustee and Finance Department were using in calculating our county revenues and budgeted expenditures. After my call to Keith, he called the state and asked them to review and check our new property tax rate.

The state agreed that it had made an error and sent back a corrected figure that reduced the new property tax rate for Hamblen County taxpayers by 11 cents. That 11 cents meant a total savings to county taxpayers of nearly $1.2 million dollars, and it was all taken care of in one day.

There are several other officials who have already responded to the request for vehicle information: Eric Carpenter (EMA), Danny Young (Planning Commission), and Cyndi Trent (Juvenile Court).

It will probably take a few days for a response from the Sheriff and the Road Superintendent/Garbage Dept. because those are the two departments that have the largest number of vehicles.

There are just one or two other departments that haven't responded yet, but I'm sure they will because, as I have said before, most elected officials and department heads are very open and very willing to share information about county (taxpayer) property.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

September 14, 2005 Healthcare: "Minute Clinics"

I just read an interesting article in the Tennessean about health clinics that are operating out of CVS pharmacies in the Nashville area. They are designed to provide fast healthcare service at a low price.

The clinics are called "Minute Clinics" with nurse practitioners available to treat and even prescribe medications for minor illnesses. Among the illnesses they can treat are strep, mono, ear infections, and bladder infections.

There is a maximum wait time of 15 minutes, and the clinics are open 8 am to 8 pm weekdays with reduced hours on Saturdays and Sundays.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield and United Heathcare Insurance is accepted and TennCare Insurance may be accepted in the near future.

It will be interesting to see how these clinics fare.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

September 13, 2005 More Spending

Check my September 2 post: "Waiting for the other (budget) shoe to drop"


The Planning Commission is going to ask for a 14% budget increase.

The County Commission approved the Planning Commission budget on August 4--in the exact amount that the Planning Commission itself requested.

Yesterday, however, the other budget shoe began to drop as the Planning Commission passed a budget amendment to increase their budget by $32,000. It appears that this request for increased spending may come to the full Commission on September 22 or more likely October 20.

Unless something really unusual happens, the amendment will pass. Two of the members of the Planning Commission are county commissioners (Joe Spoone and Herbert Harville) and voted for the original Planning Commission budget and have already voted for the budget increase as members of the Planning Commission.

The Hamblen County Commission passed a deficit county budget on August 4--meaning we expect to spend $460,000 more than we expect to take in during fiscal year 2005-2006. See my post of August 5. This Planning Commission amendment increases spending by $32,000 but may be accompanied by a prediction of increased revenues due to higher charges that have been implemented for fees and permits.


I just received a copy of the county inventory as of June 30, 2005. I don't want to comment too much on it at this time--except I will tell you that there are huge differences in the inventory reported 6/30/05 and the inventory reported on 6/30/04. Some of the differences are expected and are the result of reporting new equipment, vehicles, and items that were purchased in the 2005 fiscal year. But a large part of the difference can be traced to inaccurate reporting on the 2004 inventory--lots and lots of county equipment that should have been on the 2004 inventory was somehow "left off" and is just now showing up on the 2005 inventory.

When I asked whether there would be any report on mileage and hourly meter readings for vehicles and equipment as requested by the full commission almost two years ago, the Finance Director stated that GASB (that's "governmental accounting standards board") doesn't include mileage and condition in inventory reports. Of course, GASB wasn't even part of the discussion. I simply wanted to know if the Finance Director would send out an e-mail or request to department heads to include the mileage and condition information with the inventory. She did that last year for every department except the Sheriff. The County Mayor, who was sitting in a chair on a back row, answered and said if mileage information was desired, I would have to ask each department for it. Again, "don't ask and I won't tell/ Do ask, and I still won't tell."

I remember, when commission was discussing buying new patrol vehicles a few years ago, Commissioner Joe Spoone said he'd like to know about the mileage on the old vehicles that we were replacing. There is obviously a difference in, say, a 1999 vehicle that has 50,000 miles and the same vehicle with 125,000 miles. You might consider trading in the high mileage vehicle but not the low mileage one regardless of the model year.

That's why finding out and keeping up with how many miles are being put on county vehicles is important.

I'll keep you posted on the response as I ask for the vehicle and equipment information today and tomorrow.
Thus far, I have found that most department heads and other elected officials are quite co-operative when a commissioner or citizen asks a question.

There are only a very few who get upset when questions are asked and who resort to personal attacks on those who ask questions about public money and public property.

Most officials know that citizens pay the bills, and citizens have a right to know how their money is being spent.

Monday, September 05, 2005

September 5, 2005 Labor Day

A happy and safe holiday to all. This holiday is usually a "catch-up" day for me where I try to get to chores that just haven't gotten done. This Labor Day, however, I just continued to ignore the many chores that I have already ignored for weeks. The fancy and politically correct word for that is procrastination.

I spent most of the day helping my son Will install a rail on his new deck and paint walls in his house. My own chores didn't get caught up, but maybe later...

Now, I am blogging and typing with paint spots all over my hands and on my clothes. No problem with the clothes--I have an official painting outfit. I just wear the same outfit for painting each time and add more and more paint spots. I even have painting shoes--they look like somebody dropped every color of the rainbow on them.

I admit it. I am a drippy painter. That's why I really like drop cloths. The more drop cloths, the better! Even though I'm kind of messy, I enjoy painting. It's amazing to see the difference that a fresh coat of paint makes. And it's fun to try new colors in different rooms.

Got to start cleaning up my mess now.....

Saturday, September 03, 2005

September 2, 2005 Waiting for the other shoe to drop

What's ahead on the accountability front?

Hamblen County's deficit budget that I spoke out against and voted against on August 4 is going to come back to haunt us sooner than we think.

The Planning Commission will probably come back at some point and ask for more money. (Commissioners Herbert Harville and Joe Spoone serve on the Planning Commission)

Gas prices: It may be time to look at the county's vehicle use policy and possibly eliminate take-home privileges for some vehicles. Departments hopefully are already eliminating anything other than absolutely necessary travel. Families are certainly being forced to cut back and eliminate unnecessary travel and trips. Let's make sure the government does the same.

County Inventory: The county's fiscal year ended June 30, 2005. The Finance Director indicated that she would have the county inventory ready by September 1. This is a multi-page document that lists each department and then the county vehicles, tractors, computers, desks, chairs, and other county-owned equipment assigned to that department.

I asked some questions after reviewing the 2004 vehicle inventory. In 2004, the inventory did not show a vehicle assigned to the Juvenile Court Department even though the county budget in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005 had appropriated money to the Juvenile Court for the lease-purchase of a vehicle. (The car purchase had been placed in the line-item for "office equipment" but that is another audit story for another day.) I checked with Juvenile Court and they do have a Ford Taurus for transport. Maybe the Juvenile vehicle is listed in another department's inventory like the County Mayor's car is or maybe it was left off the county's inventory entirely.

In another strange twist, the car that County Mayor David Purkey drives is apparently listed in Sheriff Otto Purkey's inventory. Since there is nothing in Mayor Purkey's budget for gas, insurance, and maintenance of a vehicle, I guess the gas, insurance, and maintenance for the Mayor's vehicle also comes out of Sheriff Purkey's budget.

There may even be a car or cars (that are not undercover vehicles) that are not listed in any department's inventory.

The state auditors require that the county maintain an inventory as part of the audit process, but the state auditors don't go through our inventory and check that every vehicle, desk, and computer is listed. The accuracy of the list itself is the county's responsibility. This is another example where local officials have to be paying attention and asking questions in order to provide the accountability that the citizens deserve and that the officials, in our system of checks and balances, are elected to provide.

The inventory problem ties in with other recent questions about the 2004 audit. In the 2004 audit, the state auditors reported that the County Mayor switched money (over $360,000) from fund to fund without coming to county commission for approval and without even informing commission of his action. The explanation that County Mayor David Purkey provided to the auditors was that after consulting with Trustee Bill Brittain and Finance Director Nicole Epps, he (Mayor Purkey) ordered the shifting of money (over $360,000) to correct errors in past years and to "restore" those funds to their proper amounts.

The obvious questions that local officials should ask are exactly what errors happened in the past? Was revenue put in the wrong funds or were expenditures paid out of the wrong funds or both? Were these truly mistakes? If so, how did these errors happen-- by Mayor Purkey's own admission -- for years without detection? Were these employee errors or a problem with our accounting system or both? What has been done to make sure that this isn't still happening and that it won't happen again in the future?

Aren't those the questions that you would ask if it were $360,000 of your own money? What happened? How did it happen? If it happened for "years," exactly what has been done to keep this from happening again? It reminds one of the famous Watergate question posed by Sen. Howard Baker: "What did you know and when did you know it?"