Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 29, 2009 The Tribune Is Way Too Easy..."Reporting" on Debt Via Press Release

Gotta love it. I blog about the county and city debt and then the Tribune jumps in with not one, but two front-page news articles--- actually they're more like front-page press releases---with the county and city saying everything is just fine while ignoring the real issues with the structure of the city and county debt.

If you ask the wrong question, you'll get the wrong answer. And that's exactly what the Tribune did with the county debt.

The county article was about the county's bond rating. The key questions, however, are NOT about the county's bond rating or whether the county can eventually pay off its debt. The county can pay down its bonded debt; it just hasn't done so for the last 10 years! The county keeps refinancing and passing the ever-growing debt down to another generation. What a legacy "for the children." This county has taken its cue from the feds. Debt is great. Even more debt is better. And handing debt off to the unborn is the best--after all, the unborn aren't here to complain.

The right questions to ask about county debt are: 1) why has the county not paid down one penny of the 1998-2001 county-school bond issues and why has the hospital not paid down one penny of its bond issues? 2) why did the county get into technical, complex, and risky derivatives/swaps? 3) does the county now owe even MORE in bonds than it owed just one year ago? and 4) why in the world does the county let a person (Joe Ayres) who has his finger in every piece of the financial pie provide financial advice that always leads to more fees, more commissions, and more money for Joe?

Who's looking out for county taxpayers? Where's the person who'll stand up and say "Whoa! We've got to get this fox out of the henhouse and start paying off our debt!"

The Tribune ignored the key questions and just provided front-page space for a county press release on bond ratings. Our bond rating may be OK---but why is the county making interest-only payments and why is the county allowing someone (Joe Ayres) to lead us into financial deals that line his pockets over and over and over again? The Tribune never once mentioned that the county's financial advisor-- Joe Ayres -- made national news in the NY Times--and it wasn't a pretty sight.

In the City debt article, Morristown City Administrator Jim Crumley was very defensive. The article on the City's debt was longer, more interesting, and didn't seem as much like a press release, but answers to crucial questions were left out such as: Why did the Tennessee Municipal League (TML) sever its relationship with Bank of America? What other seven municipalities--in addition to Morristown--is Moody's reassessing? Is Moody's going to look at the debt of other municipalities? Why were eight cities singled out for reassessment? If so, why?

And isn't it "convenient" that Moody's report on the City debt won't come out until after the city council elections!

And isn't it convenient the city audit (for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2008) still isn't ready and won't come out until after the city council election! Wonder why?

The City pays a tidy sum for an annual audit. What a shame that the City can't see its audit until over 9 months after its fiscal/audit year ended. Imagine trying to prepare a budget for FY 2010 when you still don't have the audited figures for FY 2008! And who knows if anyone has a clue about where the city really stands in the current FY 2009?

How many "bonuses" and "pay raises" and "car allowances" has Crumley single-handedly handed out. Who got what? How much other money has he spent, where did he spend it, and from what line item did he pull the money--without notifying city council!

It's time for the City to pull its financial act together. The Council needs to step up and say we don't just appropriate one big lump of money and hand it to the City Administrator to spend and shift around however he chooses.

Then City Council needs to say to Mayor Barile and Crumley, "Paying attention and asking where the money goes is NOT bad and is NOT micro-managing. It's our job! Questions and oversight by the council provide a system of checks and balances instead of a City Administrator-run dictatorship."

And the City sure needs to get its long-time auditor on-the-stick or have someone else perform the city audit. Did anyone consider letting several CPA's submit proposals to do the audit?

The county used to wait and wait for the same auditor to finish the county audit. When I was elected to county commission in 2002, my first proposal was to eliminate the use of a private auditor and have state auditors perform Hamblen County's audit. The result was two-fold: 1) the county saved a bundle since the state auditors charged less than 50% of what the private auditor had been charging; and 2) with a new set of eyes on the county's finances, a lot of violations of state law and other irregularities that had been going on for years and years were spotted and corrected.

The first year (2003) that the state auditors performed the Hamblen County audit over 27 findings and irregularities were reported. In that year Hamblen County had more findings and irregularities than any other county in the state. [The previous year, the private auditor reported only one finding/irregularity]. Click here for a summary. At long last, a lot of problems were straightened out and processes were improved.

The city and county--despite the Tribune's many press release articles--have spending problems, debt problems, and serious accountability and openness issues.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April 28, 2009 Why Won't the Tribune Report Hamblen County's Debt Mess?

The New York Times ran an article weeks ago about how many counties in Tennessee are being hit with additional debt due to debt swap agreements arranged by Joe Ayres of Cumberland Securities, Joe Ayres of Morgan Keegan, Joe Ayres of Regions Bank, and Joe Ayres of TNLoans.

Yes, the fox (Joe Ayres wearing his many financial hats) guarding the henhouse (taxpayers' pockets) and getting paid big bucks by county governments, including Hamblen.

It's a nationwide story, and, yes, Hamblen County is one of Joe Ayres' many clients. But the local Tribune is quiet. No series of articles. No front-page story. You'd think the Trib would print the NY Times article since the Trib prints editorials from other papers.

Even if the Trib doesn't consider this a story, you can read about what Joe Ayres and his many companies have gotten Tennessee counties, including Hamblen, into by clicking here for the New York Times article.

No wonder Hamblen, after shelling out millions in interest, still owes the same money that it owed 10 years ago. Click here and here.

And is anybody checking out the City of Morristown and its debt?

Monday, April 27, 2009

April 27, 2009 Sevier County Voting on Sales Tax Increase (Again)

The News-Sentinel has an article and interesting comments on a second sales tax increase referendum in less than a year in Sevier County. Hamblen County also has a second sales tax increase referendum on the May ballot.

There are many similarities between the Sevier and Hamblen sales tax increase referenda. The article and online comments on the Sevier referendum are here.

Sevier County voters defeated a sales tax increase about 10 months ago. Hamblen County voters defeated a sales tax increase a little over a year ago.

The powers-that-be in Sevier (school board, county commission, etc.) have put the sales tax increase referendum back on the ballot in Sevier. Ditto for Hamblen County.

The leaders in Sevier think that the voters didn't understand the issue the first time. Ditto for Hamblen.

This time, the powers-that-be in Sevier are trying to better educate the public in order to get the voters to vote in favor of the sales tax increase. Ditto for Hamblen.

The sales tax increase in Sevier is, of course, for the children. Ditto for Hamblen.

There is one interesting difference, however, between Sevier and Hamblen.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters says he has agreements from the cities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg to give all the sales tax that would normally belong to each city to the schools.

Hamblen County Mayor David Purkey has never gotten an agreement from Morristown--the only city in Hamblen County--to give all or a large part of the sales tax that would normally belong to the city to the schools.

The City of Morristown goes on and on about education when the City is trying to garner votes for a sales tax increase. Click here.

But Morristown-- unlike Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg--quickly forgets about education once the sales tax increase passes. If a sales tax increase passes, Morristown keeps every penny that it can instead of giving all or a large portion of its share of the sales tax increase to the schools. Click here for more information.

Whether the current sales tax increase passes or not, Maybe Mayor Purkey and Director of Schools Dale Lynch ought to contact Morristown Mayor Barile and see if she can get the City to donate all or a large portion of the City's sales tax to education.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

April 25, 2009 Joe Swann Becomes Chairman of the Hamblen County Election Commission: Lifelong Dream Realized

Right after voting this morning, I dropped in on the Hamblen County Election Commission meeting which was just starting.

This was a reorganizational meeting since the composition of the Election Commission has recently changed. There are now three Republicans on the Election Commission (Judy Blackburn, Lyle Doty, and Joe Swann) and two Democrats (Gayle Bruce and Dwaine Evans). [Previously there were three Democrats and two Republicans.]

Joe Swann, a Republican who resigned his county commission seat in order to accept Sen. Steve Southerland's appointment to the local election commission, was elected chairman. Dwaine Evans, a Democrat and former Election Commission chairman, was elected secretary.

The Election Commission discussed how to handle the counting of paper ballots in the current election and indicated that they might count the ballots themselves to save money. Wanda Neal, the current election administrator, added that an Election Commission employee might help also.

Today, Joe Swann's longtime dream of being on the Hamblen County Election Commission came true! According to the Tribune, Swann recently said of his appointment: "This is what I've always wanted." Joe's wish has indeed come true.

[Note: Joe ignored violations of state law (Tennessee Open Meetings Act) when he served on the Hamblen County Commission. Until a lawsuit was filed, he ignored another violation of the Open Meetings Act when he served on the Hamblen County Ethics Committee. I'm sure that as Chairman of the Election Commission, Joe will now be careful and make sure that all meetings of the Election Commission are announced to the public and that all deliberations concerning public business are held in public.]

[Another Note: Joe's brother is Bill Swann. Bill is the former head of BASF (Enka) and also former manager of the Morristown Utility System. Bill Swann is currently a candidate for an at-large seat on the Morristown City Council.]

April 25, 2009 Tax Increases: The Tribune and Chamber Love 'Em


The Tribune actually wrote and published its own editorial! Yep. The April 15 editorial was apparently written in Morristown, Tennessee, instead of being copied out of some other newspaper.

The Tribune editorial supports the May 5 county sales tax increase referendum and is actually not a surprise at all. I predicted it was coming here. After all, the Tribune is FOR just about every local and state tax increase.

The only surprise is that someone at the Tribune actually wrote an editorial.


The Chamber of Commerce is for the county sales tax increase. Surprise, surprise. Lynn Elkins, Chamber president, wrote a letter to the editor (of the Tribune) to let everyone know that the Chamber backs increasing the sales tax just as they did when the city started the sales tax increase push over a year ago.


Well, I've got three in a row now. See my predictions here. Postcards have been sent out supporting the county sales tax increase.

THREE HITS SO FAR: Editorial, Letters To the Editor, and Postcards.


And in a most interesting front-page article on April 19, Director (of Schools) Dale Lynch listed a lot of ways that more sales tax money "could" be spent.

Let's see, it "could" be spent to help make payments on a new school building program OR

It "could" be spent on nurses, guidance counselors, and SRO's OR

It "could" fund Pre-K classrooms OR

It "could" buy math and science textbooks OR

It "could" buy 1225 computers OR

It "could" pay for re-roofing projects.

Lots and lots of "coulds."

The question, however, is not what "could" you do with more money. Everybody knows that you "could" do lots of different things and Dr. Lynch made that clear with his list of "coulds."

The real question is what "would" you do with more money--what is most important for education? What are the real spending priorities?

Friday, April 24, 2009

April 24, 2009 Hamblen County's Chief Financial Officer, County Mayor David Purkey, Finally Asks for an "Objective Appraisal" of the County's Debt

Well, lo and behold, County Mayor David Purkey at long last wants to get an "objective appraisal" of the county debt.

In previous posts, audit documents have shown that the county borrowed $40 Million between 1998 and 2001 and still owed the full $40 Million as of 2007 and 2008. In addition, the county borrowed $28 Million for MH Hospital and those payments have also been---drum roll, please---interest-only!

Joe Ayres of Cumberland Securities set Hamblen County up with interest-only debt back during the 1998 school building program. County Mayor David Purkey, who also refers to himself as the county's Chief Financial Officer, and several current commissioners--Larry Baker, Guy Collins, Stancil Ford, Doyle Fullington, Herbert Harville, and Joe Spoone--were involved with the 1998 debt set-up.

Recently, conflicts of interest have finally caught up with Joe Ayres/Cumberland Securities/Morgan Keegan and TNLoans (another Joe Ayres entity). See my previous post and read the NY Times article.

Being aware of the county's ever-increasing debt problems, on April 13 I requested complete debt information from the Mayor's Office on the refinancing deals that the Mayor and Finance Director worked out with Joe Ayres in the summer/fall of 2008.

Just a short ten days later (April 23) County Mayor David Purkey invited the school board to join the county commission on May 12, 2009, in the large courtroom at the courthouse where an "objective appraisal" of the county's debt will be presented. In other words, Joe Ayres probably won't be there.

The Mayor described the May 12 meeting in this way: The UT County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) will present a final report of a detailed status of the County's debt and potential for additional debt needs. This objective appraisal of our debt situation has been long awaited and should provide the foundation for future discussions.

"Long awaited"? That's a major understatement! It's "long awaited" because the Mayor apparently before never asked for an "objective appraisal" of the county's debt from a disinterested party. Joe Ayres certainly can't be considered an independent financial advisor when he and the many companies with whom he is affiliated (Morgan Keegan/Cumberland Securities/TNLoans) profit from both the size and structure (interest-only) of the county's debt.

Fox guarding the henhouse? Absolutely. Conflicts of interest? Everywhere. Objective financial advisor? No way.

Interestingly, CTAS is encouraging counties to use RFP's (Request for Proposals) when issuing new debt. An RFP asks several firms to present what they have to offer a county instead of automatically going with Joe Ayres or anyone else.

[Using a Request for Proposals process for financial services is the very same thing I finally got the county to do in 2006 for architectural/engineering services. An RFP opens up the process for several companies to offer their services. Most people "shop around" when there is a major expenditure. A Request for Proposals is one way a county can "shop around" to get the best financial product/service at the best value for the taxpayers.]

And the City of Morristown ought to be doing the same thing---getting an "objective appraisal" of its debt and using RFP's when it seeks independent financial advice or issues additional debt.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 22, 2009 More Questions on the "Joint Meeting" That Was Announced But Didn't Take Place

Well, things just get curiouser and curiouser.

The Tribune reported on Sunday, April 19, that there would be a joint work session meeting of the Hamblen County Commission and School Board on Monday, April 20, at 6:00 PM. That joint work session didn't happen.

Yesterday, the Tribune reported that County Commission Chair Stancil Ford and County Mayor David Purkey told Director of Schools Dale Lynch "last week" that the county commission wouldn't be attending. Click on Tribune for yesterday's explanation of why the joint meeting that was a front-page story on April 19th didn't happen. [And if the Tribune links above aren't working, call the Tribune 581-5630. For some reason, they are very quick to take down links to their stories.]

Here are the unanswered questions. If county commission cancelled out of the joint meeting "last week," why in the world did the Tribune go ahead and announce on April 19 that the joint meeting was still taking place on April 20? If the County Mayor and Commission Chair Stancil Ford told Dr. Lynch that commissioners would not be attending, why didn't the Tribune report that on April 19?

I know the county has trouble providing notice of meetings to the public. Now, it looks like the county, the school board, and the press are just plain confused about what's going on.

April 22, 2009 Car Allowances for County Officials

Expect cars and car allowances to be a topic of discussion in Hamblen and other counties.

Which counties may provide car allowances for salaried county officers? Which officers?
Which counties may provide cars for salaried county officers? Which officers?

For a full discussion, see Tennessee Attorney General's Opinion 09-60.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 21, 2009 Open Meetings Act in Hamblen County: Now Meetings Are Announced That Aren't Taking Place!

On Sunday, the Tribune announced in a front-article that "Hamblen County commissioners and school board members will meet in a work session Monday to continue their discussion on the future of the school building program."

According to the paper, the work session was set for 6:00 PM in the old East High library.

The only commissioner present for the "commission-school board work session" was Ricky Bruce.

We've gone from no public notice of meetings to front-page notice of meetings that don't take place! [The "green" link to the Tribune's Sunday front-page notice of the meeting is working now but don't expect it to work for very long--for some reason, the Tribune doesn't leave permanent links up to its stories. My "blue" blog link is still good.]

The rumor is that the county called or attempted to call the meeting off last Friday, but the school board/Tribune either didn't get the message or ignored it and went ahead and announced the meeting in the paper.

At the "joint" meeting, Dr. Lynch discussed the commission's refusal to fund purchase of the McCorkle property on 25E for a new East High. He then passed out info to Board members and the press and discussed properties that could be purchased around the existing East High.

City Administrator Jim Crumley has apparently given the following estimated sales prices to Lynch: Talley-Ward could be sold to the school system for $810,000; Long-Reel track for $505,000; and King Park for $160,000.

Lynch said other private properties available have an estimated purchase price of around $692,000.

Then talk of one high school v. two came up. School Board Chair Janice Haun said she opposed one high school. Carolyn Spoone Holt (Commissioner Joe Spoone's sister) said most parents want two high schools.

Clint Harrison said he had never heard of one high school until recently, and added that one high school should not be built just to save money.

Carolyn Wolfenbarger said she was "adamantly" against one high school.

Former Morristown High and West High School teacher Coach Gene Quarles talked at length about maintaining two high schools and said he could see the benefits of a third high school in order to keep the population of each high school at around 900 students.

He said that some of those behind one high school are driven by a desire to have the top athletic program rather than a top education program.

Friday, April 17, 2009

April 17, 2009 Are You An OCTODUDE?

Taxing Tennessee has a picture of OCTODUDE.

Of course, you can also see Octodude in a nearby mirror.

April 17, 2009 April 15 TAXES and TEA parties

From TaxGuru via Taxing Tennessee.

Cut out the middleman Middleman=IRS

April 15. Income tax returns were due, and taxpayers across the nation were coming together for TEA parties.

TEA=Taxed Enough Already!

Time will tell whether April 15, 2009, marks the start of a third political "party" made up of millions of taxpayers----the TEA Party.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

April 11, 2009 Referendum on Sales Tax Increase in Hamblen County

The committee to increase the local sales tax in Hamblen County from 9.5% to 9.75% was formed on Monday.

If enough money has been raised or if the Tribune extends credit, the Win The Vote sales tax increase committee will probably have a big ad in the Tribune tomorrow asking Hamblen County voters to support the sales tax increase from 9.5% to 9.75%. Letters or postcards may follow. Then students, school employees, or parents passing out literature at work, sending e-mails, and going door-to-door.

We may see an original editorial--unlike the typical Tribune editorial that has been copied from some other paper. There will probably be an onslaught of letters to the editor and the proverbial Tribune "series" of articles on schools and the sales tax--all with the Tribune's and School Board's classic pro-tax stance.

You can blame this third push for a sales tax increase directly on the City of Morristown. In the first (countywide) sales tax referendum in February 2008, the City tried to get city votes by promising a city property tax decrease. The city and county both noted that part of the money would go to education--- "for the children." David Purkey and Stancil Ford prepared and signed letters on county stationery that were sent out to county voters. That referendum failed.

Despite the setback, the City was determined to get a sales tax increase approved despite the initial setback. So the City held a second referendum--just for city voters--again promising city voters that the City's 2007 historic 40% property tax increase would be rolled back to a 25% increase if the sales tax referendum was approved. Letters were sent out by Mayor Barile and the council saying in no uncertain terms vote "Yes." Sort of like the county's "pick-your poison" wheel tax referendum in 2002. The citywide referendum passed.

City voters reduced one poison (property tax) by voting for an increase in another poison (sales tax). Then the City--which had joined in expressing passionate concern for education in the first referendum--decided to keep ALL of the sales tax instead of voluntarily contributing part of its sales tax increase to "the children."

In this third sales tax referendum, the county is pushing to make the city's sales tax increase countywide---just as it would have been had the first countywide referendum passed. The county is NOT offering any roll back in property taxes to county voters.

The city and county have orchestrated a two-prong approach to force/extort/blackmail voters into finally approving, in effect, a countywide sales tax increase. The City went first and offered a property tax reduction to finally get the sales tax increase passed in the city. The County is going second and, if the tax passes, city, county, and school officials will have gotten what each wanted all along--more tax money.

With the never-ending push for more money, where is the plan describing exactly how additional money will be spent, what improved educational outcomes will be realized, how much test scores will rise, how student literacy will be improved, or how much graduation rates will go up?

From the Win the Vote committee: This is about "the children." The answer to all school woes is money, more money, and still more money.

From the taxpayers: We love the children. The answer to all school woes is NOT money. And can you tell us how much taxpayer money will be enough? Just a ballpark figure will be OK. 25%, 50%, 75%, 100%?

Friday, April 10, 2009

April 10, 2009 Tennessee Attorney General on Replacing County Election Administrators

Tennessee State Attorney General Robert Cooper has given an opinion on whether and under what circumstances local county election commissions can replace local county election administrators.

Opinion 09-52 is here.

This goes back to the 2008 legislative races. Republicans finally became the majority party in the state legislature (House and Senate combined).

The legislative majority party gets to name the majority of members to each county election commission.

In Hamblen County there is a 5-person election commission. Because the Democrats have held a majority of seats in the state legislature for years and years, the local election commission has been comprised of 3 Democrat election commissioners and 2 Republican election commissioners.

With a new Republican majority in the state legislature, the local split will soon be 3 Republican election commissioners and 2 Democrat election commissioners.

In fact, Joe Swann, who was just elected to the Hamblen County Commission in 2006, recently stated that he will resign his seat as a county commissioner in order to accept appointment as the 3rd Republican on the local election commission. [The Tribune story is here but it will be gone before you know it.] Swann is quoted as saying: "This is what I've always wanted."

Election commissioners in each county will be reading the Attorney General's opinion carefully to determine if and/or how to legally make a change in appointment of each local election administrator, a plum high-paying position.

Hamblen County's long-time election administrator is Wanda Neal.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

April 9, 2009 County Debt: Fox Guarding the Henhouse

The New York Times has broken the story about Morgan Keegan investment bank and complex debt instruments (bond derivatives) issued by Morgan Keegan for many Tennessee counties and cities.

Click here for the NY Times article. [C.L. Overman of Morgan Keegan is mentioned in the article but would not make a statement. Several years ago Overman was City Administrator for Morristown. Through Morgan Keegan, Overman has handled debt financing and refinancing for the City of Morristown]

Joe Ayres of Cumberland Securities/Morgan Keegan is also mentioned in the article. Joe, the long-time financial advisor for Hamblen County, steered the county into numerous complex bond derivative instruments--like those mentioned in the article--during the 1998 school building program. The debt was structured so that millions of dollars in interest would be paid for years and years before even ONE PENNY would be paid to reduce the principal of the debt.

The school/county debt (1998-2001) totals about $40 Million. Morristown-Hamblen Hospital debt is another $28.7 Million for a total of $68.7 Million dollars of debt.

Hamblen County began accumulating its $68.7 Million of debt in 1998. Ten years later, after paying for financial advice and paying financing and refinancing fees and charges, the county still owes the same $68.7 Million of debt.

Conflict of interest? Churning debt over and over to make commissions and fees?

One Mayor whose town was burned by Morgan Keegan cancelled the town's relationship with Morgan Keegan and said, "We...need[] advice from someone who [is] not trying to sell us something."

In counties and cities across Tennessee, the fox was guarding the henhouse and was getting paid three times for his services. Paid to advise. Paid to handle the initial debt issuance. And in many instances paid a third time when things fell through and the city or county had to refinance to get out of the derivative debt instrument!

And the New York Times broke the news to Tennessee and the nation.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

April 8, 2009 City Council Meeting: Accountability vs. Micromanaging

Morristown City Council met yesterday.

The official meeting was routine. The work session that followed was anything but.

On the work session agenda were "car allowances, raises, and appraisals."

During the discussion that followed, Rick Trent said that increases in car allowances for City Administrator Jim Crumley and other staff were apparently negotiated in the past by Crumley and former City Mayor Gary Johnson without the knowledge of City Council. Crumley shot back that these increases were in the budgets that were approved by City Council.

Based on the back-and-forth at the meeting, it appears that the increases were in the budget, but Council didn't know that the increases were in the budget figures that they approved.

Then there was a lengthy but quite civil debate about money spent on appraisals at Walters Drive intersections. Councilmembers claimed that they had indicated in work session that they did not want to proceed with the Walters Drive work while Crumley said it was his understanding in work session that the Council wanted him to spend money on an estimated rather than a full-blown and costly appraisal of right-of-way costs.

Discussion of these items resulted in Mayor Barile accusing councilmembers of trying to "micromanage" the operations of the city---"micromanage" being the Mayor's way of chastising council members who disturb the smooth flow of government business by asking too many questions about what is going on.

Councilmembers Rick Trent and Claude Jinks took offense at the Mayor's characterization of their concerns as micromanaging.

Claude Jinks said the public is fed up. He added that that is the reason there are so many people running for city council and that is the reason he had an opponent last time.

Jinks made it clear that he resented the Mayor's derogatory use of the term "micromanage" to describe what he views as responsible representation of the people who elected him.

Councilmember Kay Senter said it's a lack of communication. She also expressed some concerns about the current authority that the City Administrator has to spend or shift up to $10,000 of budgeted funds without prior Council approval.

It looks like some councilmembers are suddenly and belatedly finding out that spending and raises and increased car allowances--and who knows what else--are being doled out and they don't even know that these items are in the budget because they have been "negotiated" outside of official council meetings or allegedly "authorized" at work sessions without a vote.

Some councilmembers are starting to see that granting authority to the City Administrator to move money around in increments of up to $10,000 means there is very little accountability for city spending. The Council approves a budget and then the City Administrator --through multiple money transfers--can change a lot of things.

Of course, Mayor Barile is not the first politician to scream "micromanage" when questions are asked. County Mayor David Purkey and former Commission Chair Maudie Briggs used to throw that word around liberally when I or anyone else came to county commission meetings to ask about county or school spending and money being shifted around without authorization.

The micromanage epithet is a convenient one-word criticism of those who dare demand accountability from government officials. It sounds ominous and demeaning, but it's nothing more than political code for "don't be up here asking us about how we spend your money."

Another neat political code word that is thrown out when questions are raised is "vendetta." When legitimate questions are raised about the conduct of government business, the mere mention of the work "vendetta" is supposed to make people look at the questioner rather than the question.

But back to City Council and Mayor Barile. Labeling those who ask questions as micromanagers is childish and was clearly meant to be dismissive of legitimate concerns. Jinks rightly took offense at the Mayor's use of this word.

Elected government officials and citizens SHOULD be asking questions--lots of them. In fact, elected officials, above all others, have a DUTY to ask questions. It's not micromanaging, and it's not a vendetta. It's called doing your job.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

April 7, 2009 Ricky Bruce Leads Committee Supporting Sales Tax Increase

A committee to support increasing the sales tax in Hamblen County in the area outside the city limits was formed last night at the Hamblen County Board of Education offices. The committee is encouraging voters to vote FOR increasing the sales from 9.5% to 9.75% on the May 5, 2009, referendum ballot.

The committee was named "Win The Vote."

Hamblen County Commissioner Ricky Bruce moderated the meeting and broke the attendees into five groups (Finance, Advertising, Youth Volunteers, Other Volunteers, and Strategy).

Hamblen County Commissioner Tommy Massey led the Finance Committee. Sitting with Massey's group were Commissioners Dana Wampler, Joe Spoone, Stancil Ford, Herbert Harville, Dennis Alvis, Reece Sexton, Nancy Phillips, Mayor David Purkey, School Board Member Joe Gibson, and School Business Director Traci Antrican.

Massey first proposed raising $10K for newspaper ads, print ads, and posters at every voting station. Massey, noting that Commissioner Lebel had once discussed sending out a letter from commission to voters, asked Commission Chair Stancil Ford about this. Ford gently nixed that idea, responding that there had been some controversy over a previous sales tax letter that had been signed by Mayor David Purkey and himself and sent to voters.

Massey suggested that if each of those sitting with his group donated $100, there would be about $1,000 to start with. Later in the evening, Tish Jones of HC*ExCell and P-16 told everyone that you can't take donations until you have registered as a single-issue committee. Tish supports just about every tax increase.

Commissioner Nancy Phillips and School Board member Joe Gibson said they would get on the phone and try to raise money. Bruce said he would take care of committee registration on Tuesday. Massey said all contributions could be sent to his mailing address (P.O. Box 339, Talbott, TN 37877).

Traci Antrican, Business Director of Hamblen County Schools, was named treasurer of the "Win The Vote" committee.

SB Member Joe Gibson is worried that voters are not going to vote for the tax because of the way it is worded on the ballot (FOR or AGAINST increasing the sales tax). Gibson wanted to promote the sales tax as a "choice"--EITHER vote for the sales tax increase OR there will be a property tax increase. Gibson's remarks brought back memories of the "pick-your-poison" approach that the county commission used in 2002 to trick/blackmail/extort voters to support the Wheel Tax Referendum.

Commission Chair Stancil Ford--of state income tax fame--discouraged Gibson's "pick-your-poison" approach, noting that such a statement would bite you down the road. Stancil knows that voters remember all too well the infamous "pick-your-poison" statement when Commission Chair Maudie Briggs told voters that they could EITHER vote for the wheel tax OR there would be a property tax increase. Then just a few months after blackmailing voters into supporting the wheel tax, Maudie and other commissioners turned around and voted to increase property taxes at the same time!

The Strategy Group report was given by School Board Chairman Janice Haun. The very first strategy she mentioned was a proposal to contact ministers to see if they would be supportive and perhaps put info in bulletins. Even aside from the obvious question of legality, I was very surprised to hear a group propose using churches as part of a pro-sales tax strategy. Her group also proposed lots of social networking through Facebook, MySpace, PTO's, HCEA, E-mails, and phone calls.

The Advertising Group report was given by school system employee Teresa Ayers. She said she would develop a logo on Tuesday and added that she would have flyers printed "here" and ready for distribution on Wednesday. She was also going to develop a Powerpoint for PTO's and PTA's to use.

[Note: There was apparently some discussion after the meeting broke up about Teresa doing her pro-sales tax committee work at the Board of Education building on school/taxpayer time. I was sitting in the parking lot after the meeting and for some reason Teresa came over and knocked on the car window just to let me know personally that actually she was going to work on the sales tax powerpoint "at home" instead of at work. I said you're probably going to work on the flyers "at home," too, and she agreed. I didn't ask, but I expect that her comments also meant that no printing would be done on school equipment.]

The Youth Volunteers probably had the most specific action report. Teacher Cari Swann Ashford assisted the group. The two youth presenters proposed asking parents to hand out sales tax increase flyers at work, encouraging 18-year old students to vote FOR the sales tax increase, putting signs up in schoolyards, designing T-shirts, having student workers at poll sites, and campaigning door-to-door. Signs in schoolyards--except on Election Day--might be questionable. Sort of like Teresa Ayers doing single-issue sales tax committee work on school/taxpayer time with school/taxpayer computers, equipment, and supplies.

The Other Volunteers report was given by Paula Bruce Combs, who is a school principal and Commissioner Ricky Bruce's sister. If I remember correctly, Paula became an assistant school principal right after Ricky was elected to county commission in 2002, and then became a principal shortly after that. Some of Paula's proposals included contacting and seeking support from PTO's, friends and family, faith-based groups, retirees, and Red Hat Society members. She also encouraged making announcements to groups, using e-mail, and seeing if a FOR sales tax message could scroll across the bottom of cable Channel 4 screen.

Monday, April 06, 2009

April 6, 2009 2008 Hamblen County Audit: Drowning in Debt and Treading Water with Ten Years of Interest-only Payments

The Hamblen County Audit has been available on the Comptroller's Website for about a week.

Click here to go directly to the Hamblen audit.

For Hamblen County debt, go to pages 141-143 of the audit.

Here's the status in a not-so-pretty nutshell: The county borrowed large sums, primarily for school construction, from 1998-2001. The county has also borrowed large sums that were then lent to MH Hospital.

In a "plan" devised in 1998, the county has made interest-only payments on the $40 Million borrowed between 1998-2001. The MH Hospital debt of $28.7 Million has also been interest-only payments.

Drowning in debt and treading water.

$40 Million borrowed, the bulk of which was for the last (1998) school building program. [Page 141]

2008: $40 Million owed. [ Page 141]

$28.7 Million borrowed for M-H Hospital. The hospital is supposed to make payments to the county for this debt using hospital revenue. [Page 142]

2008: $28.7 Million owed. [Page 142]

Friday, April 03, 2009

April 3, 2009 My "April 1st" Blog Entry Was a Prank! Mayor David Purkey Still Thinks Taxpayers Shouldn't See the Proposed County Budget Online

I received several calls on April 1 and April 2 from people who had read my April 1 post and were excited to find out that County Mayor David Purkey was actually going to post the proposed county budget on the county website.

They were also pleased that my April 1 post reported that Mayor Purkey had actually decided that they--the citizens and taxpayers of Hamblen County--were smart enough to understand what a proposed budget is and that changes might take place during the budget process.

When I pointed out the date of the post (April 1) and the significance of that date (April Fools' Day pranks), one of them laughed and added that she definitely got pranked. Until we talked, she actually thought David Purkey had had a change of heart, had come out in the open, and had decided that the taxpayers pay enough to be able at least to see the proposed county budget online.

I had fun writing the April Fools' Day post, but, no, David doesn't want you to see the proposed budget, and yes, he still thinks little old taxpayers would just be "confused" by the big old budget and budget changes.

David, like 99% of politicians, just wants you to dutifully pay those sales taxes, pay those property taxes, pay those wheel taxes, pay those business taxes, pay those litigation taxes, and on and on and on.

Now that April 1st is over, I'll put a note at the end of that post to let everyone know that nothing has changed in County Mayor David Purkey's Office---

David still does NOT want taxpayers to see the county's proposed budget on the Hamblen County website.

David still thinks taxpayers couldn't possibly understand or handle seeing changes to the proposed budget during the budget process. They would be "confused."

David is still afraid of "someone sitting in a law office somewhere."

And I don't have a clue as to what David's assistant Amber Shelton does for David with those extra FIVE hours per month that she said she has to assist him.

The only thing that is clear at this point is that David will NOT ask her to use those hours to serve the public and post the proposed county budget on the county website.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April 1, 2009 Mayor Purkey Reverses Himself. He WILL Post the 2009-2010 Proposed County Budget On the County's Website

Wonderful and surprising news from the basement of the Hamblen County Courthouse!

In a press release today, County Mayor David Purkey states that he is going to make sure that the proposed Hamblen County budget for 2009-2010 is available for taxpayers to view on the Hamblen County website!

In the press release, Purkey apologizes for earlier remarks that posting the proposed budget and changes to the budget would "confuse" taxpayers. Purkey now admits that the taxpayers of Hamblen County are smart enough to understand budgets and changes that are made to budgets.

By way of explanation, Purkey states that Hamblen County taxpayers have personal budgets and have had to make often painful changes to their personal budgets during these exceptionally difficult economic times. He adds that these same taxpayers who are struggling with personal budgets should definitely be able to see the county's proposed budget and the spending plan that they will be asked/ordered to pay for!

In another gracious comment, Purkey admitted that he was wrong when he said at a public meeting on March 9 that one of the reasons he didn't want to put the budget online was because he didn't want "someone in a law office somewhere" looking at the budget. Thank you, David.

In a sidenote, Purkey adds that he is going to have his administrative assistant, Amber Shelton, assist with seeing that the proposed budget is posted on the website just as soon as it is available. David just remembered that several months ago --when the commission switched from folders to binders-- Amber pointed out that as a result of the switch she would have an extra FIVE hours every month to help the Mayor!

David has asked Amber to use the extra FIVE hours for May and the extra FIVE hours for June to help the Mayor post the proposed budget and updates on the county's website.

During the other ten months of the year, Amber will use that extra FIVE hours each month to keep the Mayor's office climate-controlled just in case he drops in.

[APRIL 3 UPDATE: The above entry was posted on April 1 and, unfortunately for the taxpayers of Hamblen County, was just an April 1 prank. See my April 3 post for more information]