Sunday, June 29, 2008

June 29, 2008 That Was the Month That Was

The month of June has not ended, but it has been a busy month thus far. Local government and other no particular order...include

County Commissioner Frank Parker, under indictment for two Class E felonies (theft over $500 and official misconduct), filed for pre-trial diversion (June 18) and then resigned his commission seat on June 19. In his letter of resignation, Parker made no mention of the indictments, instead saying that he was resigning because he was "uncomfortable" having to abstain from votes involving Cherokee Park where he continues to serve as Park Director.

Morristown City Administrator Jim Crumley was honored as City Manager of the Year. The Tribune links usually don't stay up very long so catch it while you can. This type of award--with an "administrator" telling elected officials and the public (2006) that city finances are great followed by the revelation of the true financial disaster the next year (2007) and then getting a wonderful award for his superior "management" from his peers (2008)--is so commonplace as to be laughable.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, upheld the Second Amendment and the individual's right to bear arms. In a lengthy opinion with a vigorous dissent, the Supreme Court issued an historic ruling that overturned Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns and on self-defense in the home. Here's a shortened version of the holding in District of Columbia v. Heller. I was pleased with the ruling and the analysis of the majority but find it distressing that the vote was so close (5-4).

The Hamblen County School Board tossed out figures of $68-$81 million to address building costs for local high schools--depending on whether a new East High is built or whether the old East High is renovated. Commissioner Stancil Ford wants to meet with Director Dale Lynch, Mayor David Purkey, and Trustee Bill Brittain to see how much more debt the county can service. The School Board then added Board member Roger Greene to the group.

How much more debt can the county service? Well, right now we have close to $70 million of debt and for years we've been making interest-only payments on a large part of that debt. Maybe the first thing Stancil and other members of the group should address is "truth-in-debt."

The figures tossed out by the School Board--$68-$81 Million--do NOT reflect the true and complete cost to the taxpayers of these projects. Interest will also have to be paid on that "debt." Conservatively, the county will likely obligate itself to pay the principal back over 20 years + or -(based on past bond issues). This means that the "true" cost to the taxpayers of borrowing $68-$81 Million could be as much as a $110-$125 Million payback or more depending on the interest rate!

And even that staggering payback could be higher if the county (like the 1998 commission on which Stancil Ford served) again sets up the school bonds with interest-only payments for the first 8-9 years, thus passing the entire principal debt and still accruing interest onto our children. Again, it's a Tribune link so it may not be active very long.

Stancil and other members of the group, you can tax, license, and "fee" the poor and middle-class residents of Hamblen County into oblivion if you want---and you, with help from the City, the state, and the national government, are doing a great job of that.

People are already taxed when they earn, taxed when they spend what's left of what they've earned, taxed for stormwater, taxed when they operate a business, taxed when they own property, taxed when they sell property, taxed for licensing a car (wheel tax and state license), and taxed when they buy $4/gallon gas for their car (if they can afford the gas at all). Taxed, taxed, taxed! "Tax, fee, license, permit"--it's pretty much the same.

Speaking of county debt, the county's financial advisor Cumberland Securities told the county this month that most of the county's bonds are with companies whose financial ratings are being downgraded---meaning the county's interest rates will likely go up. Joe Ayres of Cumberland Securities recommended that the county refinance $59 Million of its $69 Million of bond issues.

County Mayor David Purkey is quoted as saying, "We are in a good position to deal with our debt." Oh, yeah, sure we are. And Mayor Purkey probably thinks that if the lenders would just let the county make interest-only payments forever, we'd be in an absolutely great position with our debt! [The Mayor's quote is in a Tribune link, so catch it while you can. Updated information on continuing interest-only payments by the county as found in the 2007 audit can be found in a previous noe4accountability blog post.]

Statewide, the federal corruption trial of former State Sen. John Ford is finally set to get underway in Nashville on June 30. Ford, a Memphis Democrat, is accused of taking $800,000 in consultant payments from TennCare contractors to promote those private companies' interests while he held elected office. [Last year Ford was convicted of bribery for taking $55,000 in the 2005 Tennessee Waltz scandal to promote legislation for a fictitious FBI company.]

After a major change in pro-tax campaign tactics, the sales tax increase referendum passed in the City of Morristown. Morristown businesses will now charge customers 9.75% sales tax on top of the product purchase price. The City has now maxed out the local sales tax rate---at least until the state legislature raises the limit in the future.

Already, individuals only get to keep a portion of what they earn after payment of social security, medicare, and income taxes. Now when they go to spend what they were allowed to keep, they have to pay an additional 9.75% sales tax. Pretty soon the government will tax you when you breathe in and again when you breathe out! Already on the horizon: a "county only" referendum in November to max out the county's sales tax rate as well. If at first you don't succeed, do an end-run and force it down their throats.

The Tennessee Open Records Act was updated to provide that records custodians have seven days to provide records or explain why there is a delay. It also provides that the Office of Open Records Ombudsman will be funded and will operate within the State Comptroller's Office.
An editorial appeared in the local paper supporting the addition of a paper trail to voting machines to preserve the integrity of the ballot. Well, it wasn't really a local editorial. Like most editorials in the Tribune, it had been copied from some other newspaper, in this case the (Sevierville) Mountain Press. Technology and touch screen voting have their benefits, but having a verifiable paper trail is vital. Hamblen County faced problems with new voting machines and discrepancies in reporting vote tallies in 2006. [Tribune links are usually deactivated quickly. Catch it while you can.]

June---quite a busy month.

Friday, June 20, 2008

June 20, 2008 Commissioner Frank Parker Resigns; Hamblen 2008-2009 Budget Passes

The 2008-2009 Hamblen County budget passed yesterday by a vote of 10-1. Ricky Bruce cast the lone dissenting vote. Commissioners Paul Lebel, Frank Parker, and Nancy Phillips were absent.

Prior to the budget vote, there were a few surprises. (1) A commissioner resigned. (2) A last-minute insurance decision was made. (3) Trustee Bill Brittain reported on a special meeting of the county's executive committee that was held just prior to the full commission meeting to discuss the county's debt.

(1) Commissioner Frank Parker, who has not attended the last several committee or commission meetings, submitted a letter of resignation. In his letter to Chair Stancil Ford and County Commission, Parker said:

Please accept this as proper notice of my resignation from the County Commission (District 7) effective June 30, 2008.

For some time now, I have found in necessary to abstain from voting on the Commission due to my position as a county employee. This has made me uncomfortable. I want to concentrate on my work at Cherokee Park and feel that this decision will help me focus my efforts there.

I just want you and the other commissioners to know that I have enjoyed serving on the county commission. I just feel that this is the right decision at this time.

(2) The E-911 and Solid Waste employees, represented by EMA Director Eric Carpenter, asked to be allowed to piggy-back on the county's insurance. After intense questioning by Commissioner Joe Swann over the possible negative impact that these groups could have on county employee's insurance premiums at renewal time, the Commission voted to put them on the county's insurance for 6 months and "study" the issue.

These groups were previously piggy-backing on the city's insurance but, as Carpenter pointed out, they were left out when the City decided in May that it could save money by going to a self-insured plan that only included city employees.

(3) Trustee Bill Brittain said that the Executive Committee met with Joe Ayres of Cumberland Securities just prior to the Commission meeting to discuss problems with the county's debt. Brittain mentioned the subprime market and its negative impact on the county's debt--noting several county bond issues were involved.

The Commission approved appointment of County Mayor David Purkey, Finance Director Nicole Buchanan, and Trustee Bill Brittain to research this issue and report back.

Monday, June 09, 2008

June 9, 2008 Televised Commission Meetings: WSCC Pulls Out

This will be a quick post--with more detailed information to come.

Walters State Community College, which has been taking the tapes of county commission meetings and airing them on Ch. 7 (cable gov/ed channel) on Tuesday and Saturday nights at 9:00 pm, recently informed the City and County that the college will no longer provide this service when its contract to manage the "City of Morristown's government and education channel (Channel 7)" expires on June 30, 2008.

History: Hamblen County Commission meetings have been taped and played on the cable government/education channel since 2002. Morristown City Council, however, has consistently refused to videotape and air its meetings.

During the 2002 county commission elections, several candidates--including me--pushed for televising commission meetings for those who could not attend meetings.

After the 2002 elections, newly-elected commissioner Nancy Phillips talked with Charter and secured a large equipment donation.

Nancy and I then obtained and donated microphones and other equipment at no cost to the county.

Nancy, Tom Lowe, and I and other private individuals personally paid for the taping costs of the first meetings---before the City turned "its" channel over to WSCC.

Good news (hopefully). It is my understanding that the plug will not be pulled on airing county commission meetings.

It is hoped that Charter--and perhaps even MUS--will continue to air the meetings on the respective cable channels that have always been set aside for government/education programming.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

June 4, 2008 Citywide Sales Tax Increase Passes

Not surprisingly, the citywide sales tax increase referendum passed.

The vote was 979 YES and 525 NO.

Very low voter turnout.

County Commissioners will no doubt implement step two of the Plan B alternative countywide sales tax referendum in short order.

[Plan A was the failed February 5 referendum for a countywide sales tax increase.]

Plan B is the alternative two-step countywide sales tax increase.

Step one: passage of the citywide sales tax increase through a carrot-and-stick "pick your poison" offer to city voters. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Step two: passage of the sales tax increase by county voters (outside the city) through a campaign to capture $1 million of the city's $2 million sales tax increase for education. County voters will NOT be offered even a temporary property tax rollback as were city voters.

Watch for the word "opportunity"---that's the latest buzzword. This will be an "opportunity" to add $1 million to education spending.

In the end the result is the same as the initially rejected countywide referendum. It just took more time and effort to educate and persuade those pesky voters. Plus offering a temporary carrot or two to get the desired long-term outcome.

According to the government (just ask them or watch the news reports/press releases), government financial problems are always the result of low taxes/lack of revenue.

Government doesn't issue press releases and rarely do you see news reports (locally, anyway) about overspending due to multiple levels of administration, job creation and promotion for relatives and cronies, and perks that go beyond standard benefit packages.

And this brief list doesn't even include basic financial mismanagement due to no-bid contracts, multi-million dollar wish lists, and years and years of interest-only debt payments so that you just pass the debt on to the next generation.

It's far easier to just scream "more money" and put out press releases and use tax dollars to send out letters to get a YES vote on a tax increase than it is to tackle the real expenditure problems and to work to save and protect those hard-earned tax dollars.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

June 3, 2008 On Election Eve, Tribune Front Page Banner Headline Mentions Sales Tax Referendum

Sales tax election tomorrow

That was last night's headline in the Tribune. The report is that 577 people voted early.

During this election, the Tribune has carefully avoided the front-page infomercials that were the core of its "news" reporting during the failed February 5 countywide sales tax increase referendum.

Instead the promotion of this citywide sales tax increase referendum has been by the City with promotional letters sent out at taxpayer expense with the specific request that the recipient vote YES on the sales tax increase. [I may have missed it, but I don't remember the Tribune reporting that these letters went out--even though the Tribune, its owner-publisher, and most staff and reporters would have received these official letters.]

The City plans to slide a permanent sales tax increase in with the offer of a temporary 15-cent property tax increase.

Then the plan is for the county to come back and try to pass the sales tax increase in the county.

If at first you don't succeed (countywide), try, try again (citywide and then county only).

The fall back plan (city vote, then county) began as soon as the countywide referendum failed.

That's likely why the City, despite early talk of supporting the schools, has NOT agreed to provide any of its extra $1 million in projected sales tax money to the schools. That leaves it open for the county to call for another referendum in the fall and say we need to pass a sales tax increase in the county so we can swipe the extra $1 million back from the City "for the children."

The City will say fine and, boom, the permanent sales tax increase is in countywide despite the initial resistance of those pesky voters.

And then the good old boys can resume the practices of administrative overstaffing, hiring relatives, making interest-only payments on debt, overspending, $100 M city wish lists, and $50M? $70M? county building programs.

Conflicts of interest, no-bid contracts, nepotism, special raises to select workers, and take-home vehicles and lots of late model chrome for the elite can continue!