Friday, October 30, 2009

October 30, 2009 Expect a Slow Revelation of Crumley's Handling and Mishandling of City Finances

The City of Morristown is in a financial mess--even more so than was previously admitted or known.

At least some of former City Administrator Jim Crumley's handling and MIShandling of city accounts is gradually coming out. The Mayor and Council may be looking at budget cuts and postponing projects as the true magnitude of the problems with the city's general government fund and sewer fund comes out.

The Trib will probably provide part of the story today.

Mayor Barile, Jim Crumley's staunchest supporter, was concerned in July that Crumley was "railroaded" out of his job, but she voted to "retire" him.  Click here.

Councilman Doc Rooney also supported Crumley until it became apparent that the votes were there to "retire" him.

Frank McGuffin supported Crumley even at the end of Crumley's reign, casting the lone vote not to accept Crumley's offer to "retire."

Bob Garrett, Gene Brooks, Kay Senter, and Claude Jinks led the effort to fire Crumley and in the end they accepted Crumley's offer to "retire" with a nice going away package ($145,000+) from the taxpayers.

The Mayor and Council, regardless of their feelings about Crumley and regardless of what has happened in the past, need to look in the mirror and then look at the taxpayers and say never again. Then the Mayor and Council need to take action to lead the city toward true transparency and accountability and FINANCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.

Forget the smoke and mirrors. Forget the spin.

Crumley was given way too much power to spend the city TAXPAYERS' money however he wanted to. Crumley was given way too much power to shift money around with little or no control and often without even having to make a report as to what he was doing or had already done. There was way too little oversight over his actions. The lack of checks and balances in city government is absurd.

Sure, it's efficient and easy to set a tax rate and then turn over the taxpayers' money to a city administrator. Sure, it's efficient and easy for the Mayor and Council to come to three or four meetings a month and act as a rubber-stamp for a city administrator.  Now, we find that this efficient, easy, and laissez-faire style of governance leads to abuse, waste, out-of-control debt, perks for the "good old boys," interest-only payments, and, ultimately, financial disaster.

Mayor Barile was always concerned that asking questions or trying to actually take part in the management of the city's finance would be seen as "micro-managing"!  Click here. So instead of asking pertinent  questions and following through, the Mayor and councilmembers are just now finding out what a financial mess the City is in.

The system needs to change, so that this situation doesn't repeat itself with a new cast of characters. Policies and procedures should be tightened. A system of checks and balances needs to be put in place.

Strict and accurate financial reporting to the Mayor and Council by the Finance Director, Budget Director, and City Administrator needs to be provided on a monthly basis.

Questions need to be asked about all financial reports, revenue, debt, expenditures.  And the Mayor and Council need to insist on answers--not namby-pamby, everything's OK answers, but answers that are backed up by financial reports that are provided to the council monthly and that are put on the city's website for the citizens and taxpayers, too.

You can bet that when there are financial problems, the Mayor and councilmembers will NOT be ponying up their own personal money to pay off the debt or to buy this property or that property or to clean up the sewer debacle. No, the Mayor and councilmembers will turn to others--taxpayers and ratepayers--for the money to take care of the city's finances.

Just since 2007, property taxes in the city have increased 25 cents. Sales taxes have increased by 1/4 cent. Sewer fees have gone up AGAIN. And red-light cameras have been installed to generate even more "revenue."

What happened?

Jim Crumley in 2006 said everything was fine. Click here for his glowing 2006 statement.

Then in 2007 (well BEFORE any national financial problems) Crumley and the council were saying there's a huge problem---a structural deficit in the city's finances.  That's when property taxes went sky high. Click here. 

Sales taxes went up the next year (mid-2008) as the City used taxpayer-money to help finance a political campaign to encourage city taxpayers to vote for the sales tax increase. In its political campaign to get a YES vote on the sales tax increase, the City used a little bit of what some would call tax "bribery" as the city promised to reduce the previous year's huge 40-cent property tax increase down to "only" a 25-cent increase if people would vote YES in the sales tax referendum. Click here to see the taxpayer-funded vote YES political campaign letters. For more info, click here and here.

The city took the county's "pick-your-poison" wheel tax referendum of years ago to a new level by giving city taxpayers the choice of just one big poison (40-cent property tax increase) or two smaller poisons (25-cent property tax increase plus a 1/4 cent sales increase)!

Of course, red-light cameras were also put up to enhance city coffers---and make an out-of-town company rich, too!

In 2009, sewer fees went up dramatically. Click here.

Where has all this additional revenue gone? When will someone step in and ask for a real, detailed audit of the city finances? The cursory sampling of financial transactions in the yearly audit has limited usefulness. Someone needs to get in there and find out what's really going on.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October 20, 2009 Can a Deputy Sheriff Campaign and Run for Sheriff Without Violating Federal or State Law?

The state attorney general has issued an opinion (AGO 09-167) addressing the question of whether deputy sheriffs who run for sheriff (without first resigning their deputy position) violate any state or federal law.


If the deputy sheriff's position or duties are in connection with an activity financed in whole or in part by federal loans or grants, then the federal Hatch Act would prohibit him from running for the office of sheriff unless he first resigned from employment as a deputy sheriff. 

Additionally, a deputy sheriff in a county that has adopted the County Sheriff's Civil Service Law of 1974 is prohibited from making an endorsement of any candidate in any campaign for elected office. A deputy sheriff's announcement of his or her candidacy for the office of sheriff would constitute an endorsement of that candidacy. Accordingly, the deputy sheriff would be in violation of Tenn. Code Ann. Section 8-8-419 unless he or she first resigned from employment.

The complete opinion is here

This Tennessee AG's opinion could have implications for the current sheriff's race in Hamblen County as well as other counties.  The Tennessee attorney general has opined that certain deputy sheriffs can not continue to serve as a deputy sheriff and run for sheriff at the same time. The AG's opinion is generally considered as persuasive authority, but it does not have the force of law. If a candidate for sheriff somewhere decides that he or she wants to challenge the right of a  particular deputy sheriff to run for the sheriff's office, this AG's opinion may end up being tested in a court of law.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

October 11, 2009 One of My Public Requests Is Answered: Committee Agendas Are on the Hamblen County Website

Wow!  For a long time now, I have asked the county commission to put committee agendas and minutes on the Hamblen County website.

At long last, County Mayor David Purkey and his staff have finally done it. And it wasn't hard at all.

Click here to see the agenda for tomorrow's October 12 Finance Committee meeting.  [You will also see that agendas for nine Finance meetings long gone by (January 09-September 09) have just now been posted, and if you hit on archives, even older agendas are available.] 

[NOTE: The chairmanship of the Finance Committee has been changed by Chairman Stancil Ford.  Ford has removed Joe Spoone from his position as Finance Chairman. Ford has named Commissioner Louis "Doe" Jarvis, who was appointed earlier this year to replace Joe Swann, as Chair of this year's Finance Committee. Joe Spoone is rumored to be contemplating a run for County Trustee, a position being vacated by Bill Brittain who is running for County Mayor. Ford is the one who named Spoone as Finance Chair for 08-09, but he has replaced Spoone as Chairman for the current 09-10 year.]

The Public Services agenda for October 12, 2009, is here.  As with Finance, Public Services agendas for Jan 09-Sept 09 have just now been posted, and if you hit on archives, even older agendas are available.

When I made a request for posting of agendas and minutes of committee meetings in late 2006/early 2007, committee minutes were posted for January 2007 and then no more minutes. Agendas were posted from January 2007-August 2008 and then no more. 

Even when the Mayor and his staff stopped posting the agendas, I continued to ask privately and in public meetings for better use of the website, more information, and agendas and minutes in particular. Because I believe in open and accountable government, I am extremely pleased to see that the agendas for tomorrow's meetings have not only been posted--but they were posted BEFORE the meeting.

NOTE: An article in the local newspaper dated September 18, 2009, Page A-3, had stated that agendas would be posted after the meetings had taken place. From the article Beginning in October, Shelton (Amber Shelton, the Mayor's Executive Assistant) will post committee agendas but not until after the committees have met, she said.  The next paragraph quotes Shelton: "We're looking at putting them on before but sometimes there's just not enough time before the meetings. This way (posting the agenda after the meeting), people will have a reference so they can look back and see when an issue was discussed." 

When this article appeared in the paper, I, like most people, questioned the usefulness of an agenda posted AFTER a meeting. I knew that committee agendas are prepared and printed and mailed out to commissioners about 5 days before the committee meetings, so I knew the agendas could be posted online about 4-5 days before the meetings in order to give citizens and taxpayers a heads-up on what is coming before the committees--if the Mayor wanted it done.

The next web project should be to post MINUTES of these committee meetings. It's important to know what is going to be discussed (Agendas), but it's just as important to be able to see the minutes of those meetings to find out who was present, what discussion took place, what recommendation, if any, is coming out of the committee to the full commission, and the record of votes taken.

And, finally, a very important change would be to have those committee meetings at a time when citizens and taxpayers can actually attend if they want to.

You can have an agenda and you may be interested in a particular item that is going to be discussed, but unless you are retired or don't work or can take off work for an extended and uncertain period of time, you probably can't make it to a set of meetings that start at 11:30 AM with no set time for any meeting except for the first one.

Stancil Ford was elected to the commission in 2006 and became chairman in September 2006. Stancil, as Chairman, changed committee meetings from an afternoon meeting time to 11:30 AM and said that he changed to the 11:30 meeting time so people could attend the meetings on their "lunch hour."  Give me a break!

Stancil and several commissioners are retired. Other commissioners own their own company or have high managerial positions that allow them to leave work and attend these 11:30 AM meetings without losing pay. Working citizens and taxpayers don't have the same scheduling luxury that these commissioners have.  Stancil could change the meetings to a more taxpayer-friendly meeting time next month if he wanted to. Of course, other commissioners could also bring this up for public discussion if they wanted to see taxpayer-friendly meeting times.

The commission meets as a body once a month at 5:00 PM on the Thursday after the 3rd Monday. At commission meetings, it's usually just push-a-button, record the vote, and meeting adjourned.  

Committees of the full commission meet on the second Monday of each month. Committees are where the real discussion, if there is any, takes place, before an item is sent to the full body. More time is allowed for public input at committee meetings. Committees should meet at or near 5:00 PM like the full commission does--a more taxpayer-friendly meeting time--instead of 11:30 AM meetings which effectively shut out the average working taxpayer.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

October 6, 2009 City Agenda for Today Posted Yesterday: Work Session Includes Discussion of Meeting Times

I contacted the City yesterday morning when I saw that the agenda for today's meeting and work session had not been posted on the city website as is customary.

I received a reply e-mail yesterday afternoon that said that the agenda was usually posted on the Friday before the council meeting (Monday morning at the latest), that it was not posted last Friday due to an employee being out, and that it had just been posted. You can see the agenda that was posted yesterday here.

The work session agenda includes "Discussion of Council Meeting time." Charles Cook brought this up at a council meeting several weeks ago asking that meetings be held later than 4:00 PM so that more people can attend if they want to. Click here for Mr. Cook's request. 

Hopefully, the council will decide to have regular council meetings and also Finance Committee meetings at a later time when more people can attend if they want to. 

The Finance Committee meetings, which are currently held at 3:30 PM on certain Thursdays, are where real discussion and information sharing takes place, so it would be particularly important to have those at a time when the working city taxpayer/sewer fee payer can attend.

Finance Committee agendas need to be provided in advance of the meetings so people can decide whether an item of interest to them is on the agenda.

The discussion of later council meeting times will take place in "work session." Council meets in work session after adjournment of the regular council meeting, so you have to stick around if you are interested in work session discussion.

Click here, here, here, here, and here for last Thursday's Finance Committee items to see why Finance Committee meetings are especially important!

Monday, October 05, 2009

October 5, 2009 City Looking to Bones Seivers with Tennessee Municipal League Bond Fund for Help with Debt

In addition to the KIA building/community center that received little support and TDEC's potential fines of $175,000/$15M of sewer corrections, another item that came up at the October 1 Morristown Finance Committee meeting was debt.

I arrived a little after the 3:30 start time for the meeting and missed the first part of the presentation, but apparently Charles "Bones" Seivers of the Tennessee Municipal Bond League Fund (TMLBF) is putting together a loan package of around $7.8 million dollars for the City. Councilmembers said the figure could go up or down.

Several councilmembers commented that Bones was full of energy and spoke/delivered his presentation with the passion of a preacher.

For a couple of fairly recent statewide articles on Bones Seivers, click here and here. Or just "google" Charles "Bones" Seivers. 

There is also an article here that states that Bones' TMLBF overcharged some cities for fees that were not due. According to the article, one of the cities that was overcharged was Morristown. The article names two other cities that were overcharged: (1) Nashville and (2) Murfreesboro, former Morristown City Administrator Jim Crumley's new employer!.

It's a small world.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

October 3, 2009 City Plans

In addition to the discussion about the KIA Property and Sewer/Wastewater problems, there was one other discussion at Thursday's City Finance Committee meeting that deserves mention.

Councilmember Kay Senter suggested that council meet to discuss where the city wants to be five years from now.

Gene Brooks responded: "Out of debt."

Friday, October 02, 2009

October 2, 2009 Crumley and Wastewater Head Bryan Fowler Apparently Kept Sewer Problems and Repair Costs from the Mayor and Council

At yesterday's regular meeting of Morristown City Council's Finance Committee, several councilmembers grilled Wastewater Head Bryan Fowler about potential fines of up to $175,000 that have been levied against the City by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) Division of Water Pollution Control.

Fowler provided the council with copies of the TDEC Commissioner's Order. The Order cites and alleges numerous violations by the City of the Water Quality Control Act (T.C.A. 69-3-101 et seq) which, among other requirements, limits the volume or strength of wastes discharged into waters of the state.

The Order apparently stems from a December 17, 2008, Compliance Evaluation Inspection at the Morristown Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Here are some excerpts from the Order:

Self-reported violations showed "numerous" overflows of the collection system.

During the monitoring period of January 1, 2008-February 28, 2009, the City reported violations of its wastewater permit, "including 56 self-reported overflow events. The overflows constitute unpermitted discharges of untreated wastewater."

In addition, the City reported that the influent flow meter was "out of service" during that entire period. "Failure to have an operational flow meter is a violation of the permit."

The City provided explanations for the discharge violations citing "mechanical failures, blockages in the lines, and grease as the primary causes of the dry weather overflows. Inflow and infiltration of storm water... (were) cited as the primary causes of wet weather overflows."

"To date the (inflow) meter is still not functioning."

Fowler stated that some of the findings were not accurate and would be appealed. Fowler said that the $175,000 in fines can be avoided if the City spends a lot of money to address the list of problems and comes into compliance in a timely manner.

Councilmember Bob Garrett commented: "They don't fine you $175,000 if you're doing a good job."

 Fowler said that he needs more manpower and equipment in his budget.
Councilmember Kay Senter said that council doesn't control his budget and that rates (revenues) are supposed to be set to cover costs (expenditures).
Fowler said that he presents a budget but sometimes things get cut.
Senter said that we (council) don't cut anything and asked who made cuts.
Fowler said "People over me."

Who was "over" Fowler? Former City Administrator Jim Crumley. 

When were sewer rates and the sewer budget set? In June 2009 after a cost and rate study and presentation by Lamar Dunn & Associates of Knoxville. Click here. That rate study provided for a 3-year rate increase. Now the question is whether rates will have to go up even more. 

Frank McGuffin and Bob Garrett asked that City Attorney Dick Jessee work with Lamar Dunn in handling the appeal of the TDEC Order. McGuffin and Garrett also want Dunn to look at the TDEC Order, estimate the cost of rehabbing the system to come into compliance, and then inform the council about any additional rate increase that might be needed--over and above the rate increases that passed less than four months ago.

Some Councilmembers then peppered Fowler with variations of the famous two-part Watergate question: What did you know and when did you know it?

Fowler said that "we" had been anticipating this Order. No doubt this anticipation stemmed from the fact that Fowler and his boss Crumley knew of the self-reported violations from January 1, 2008, through February 28, 2009, and they knew about the deterioration of the sewer system downtown and on the west end with  aging and crumbling concrete and clay pipe. 

Why were problems cited in the TDEC Order not reported to council in a timely manner? Fowler said he was following the directions of the lawyers. Kay asked, what attorneys? City attorney Dick Jessee? Fowler said "we" have several lawyers due to lawsuits.

Crumley's legacy of keeping information from the Mayor and Council is gradually being exposed. Those who worked under Crumley and kept information from council have no cover. Hopefully, the new council will continue to be assertive, ask for information and reports on a regular basis, and watch out for the ratepayers who are the victims of this mess.

The recent (June 2009) three-year sewer increases were hard to take. If yesterday's predictions by councilmembers are accurate, it looks like even higher sewer fees are just around the corner as the real condition of the sewer system and its operations are revealed.

October 2, 2009 Purchase of KIA Property for Morristown Community Center Gets No Traction

At yesterday's meeting of the City Finance Committee, councilmember Kay Senter turned the presentation over to Realtor/County Commissioner Paul Lebel.

Lebel noted that a community center has been a topic of discussion in Morristown for a long time. He stated that the KIA property on West Andrew Johnson Highway is in foreclosure and this presents an opportunity to purchase the property at a reasonable price and develop it into a community center with good planning.

Lebel estimated that the purchase might be made for $2 or $2.5 Million dollars. He said that the City is the only entity that could do this, and if the community center project fell through, the city could remarket and sell the property.

Bob Garrett said that we don't need to take the property off the tax rolls by buying it out from under a private purchaser.

Doc Rooney said he didn't mind taking it away from private individuals, but he didn't think the location was a proper place for a community center.

Kay Senter said that it's not good for athletics at this time and that we're not in a position to buy it outright. During the discussion, Kay also mentioned the Encore Theatre, Theatre Guild, Chamber of Commerce, an Antique Car Museum, and weddings. She said she had talked to some private individuals who might be interested in a public-private partnership.

Gene Brooks said: Where's the money?

Interim Administrator Buddy Fielder mentioned annual operating costs of around $500,000-$600,000 if fully staffed and operational.

Lebel commented that if this is not done now, "I bet everyone in this room will be dead before it's done."

Frank McGuffin told Kay that if there is someone interested in a public-private partnership, we can revisit this then.

No recommendation was made. The property is scheduled for foreclosure sale on October 8, 2009.