News Briefs:

Public asks questions at meeting on civic arts center bond issue
More than 15 people showed for a public hearing at the Blount County Courthouse regarding a bond issue to build a $42 million civic arts center at Maryville College.

The bond issue is to be paid by the cities of Maryville and Alcoa with $20 million in funds and the land contributed by the college as well as money from the state and federal governments.

Several at the meeting expressed concern over whether the county will have liability for the bond issue and were confused as to why the meeting was held at the courthouse. No officials from the college or the two cities were present, and the meeting was facilitated by Joe Ayers with bond-issuer Cumberland Securities. Ayers said the hearing was simply a time for the public to ask questions about the bond issue.

Several on hand were more interested to know details of when the cities chose to fund the reduced/revamped CAC plan after the Blount County Commission refused to fund any portion of it. While Ayers didn’t have exact dates, he said the legislative bodies of both cities had agreed to pay their portions of the fund balance.

The meeting started at about 3 p.m. in a former general sessions court room on the third floor when County Mayor Jerry Cunningham brought Ayers in and introduced him. Cunningham almost immediately was peppered with questions regarding the county’s liability if the two cities and the college defaulted on the loan.

"There is no liability," he explained. "We’re not part of the bond issue."

Several then asked why the hearing held at the court house, asking if the meeting was a "back door" attempt to get the county to participate in the center and be responsible for the note.

"We do this as an accommodation to the (Industrial Development Board)," Cunningham said.

When Alcoa resident Sunny Day said that the Industrial Development Board was a county entity, Cunningham disagreed. The Industrial Development Board is its own entity, the mayor said.

After answering questions from several others, Cunningham stepped out, and Ayers took over the meeting. One of the first questions was how the cities could pay bonds for a building on a private, church-affiliated college campus. Ayers said the college is a 501-C non-profit that is allowed to issue bonds.

"They can issue bonds like any other entities or non-profits just like hospitals or cities can obtain bonds," he said.

When asked what would happen if the facility didn't make revenue, then who would pay the bonds, Ayers said, "The cities of Maryville and Alcoa have pledged their full-faith and credit. The bonds will not fail. They will be repaid, regardless of whether there's revenue from the center."

Day asked repeatedly why, if this was a public hearing, no one from the college or city officials were there. Ayers said the meeting was held as a matter of federal tax code, but that no cities officials were required to be present.

"All (public) hearings for the project itself have already been conducted," he said.

When several asked when those Alcoa and Maryville city hearings occurred, Ayers said he had seen several of the audience members at those meetings. "You all have been involved in the process," he said.

Jim Folts of Citizens for Better Government arrived later and asked two questions: Is there any circumstance where the county would be liable and is there any way non-payment of these bonds could affect the county's bond rating? When Ayers said "No" to each question, Folts replied, "I'm a happy man."

Construction on the civic arts center is on track to begin in late fall 2007. It will include a 1,000-seat performance hall, a 140- to 150-seat flexible theater, a grand lobby with dining for 260 people, an art gallery and space for offices, studios,
classrooms and rehearsal halls. The current Fine Arts Center at the college will be renovated to be a 250-seat recital hall.

Circuit Court Clerk’s son resigns as TBI investigation begins
Dustin Hatcher, son of Blount County Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher, resigned his position as a magistrate with the office on Dec. 2 after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation initiated an investigation involving Dustin Hatcher a day earlier.

The nature of the allegations was not released by either Dustin Hatcher or his father, but the elder did release a statement regarding the investigation.

In the statement, Dustin Hatcher says, "Regardless of the outcome of these allegations, out of the respect I have for my father, my wife, my family and this office, I'm resigning my position."

The TBI investigation is in the preliminary stages and it could be months before a conclusion is reached. Both Tom and Dustin Hatcher say they have fully cooperated with the TBI.

"I love my son," Tom Hatcher said. "From the family standpoint, we will be there to support him. However, as an elected public servant of this community, I will fulfill the duties of my office and will continue to fully cooperate with the TBI
regarding this investigation."

Blount County School board agrees to use PBA on construction projects
The Blount County School Board on Nov. 30 asked attorney Rob Goddard to draw up a contract for the Public Building Authority to manage construction projects for a west Blount County middle school and elementary school they had been managing since March.

They also requested Goddard bring information regarding fee structure for the contract.

A good portion of the meeting dealt with the board’s relationship with the PBA, how they spend their money and what oversight the board has to ensure bond-issued money isn’t wasted.

Commissioner John Davis moved that a request for qualifications be issued to obtain a list of qualified project managers for building the schools. Davis contended that private contractors could manage the projects cheaper than the PBA. Davis and board chairman Mike Treadway differed regarding how requests for qualifications can be solicited. Davis held that firms can be considered based on fees, and Treadway said state law prohibited picking professional contractors solely on a fee basis.

After board member Chris Cantrell seconded Davis’ motion, and the board voted it down, board member Charles Finley moved that a contract be drawn up that the PBA be retained to manage the projects and negations begun to determine a fee. Goddard said he needed to know the fee or percentage they would be paid, so he was instructed to investigate that and report back during their regularly scheduled meeting on Dec. 7. Dr. Don McNeilly expressed confidence in the PBA and said their expertise had saved the board money throughout the years.

Davis said his concern with using the PBA stemmed from expenses he saw that had nothing to do with school construction, raising questions about unrelated construction expenses such as the purchase of a truck and restaurant and golf course country club expenditures.

Davis said one of his concerns is that the board doesn’t see expenses paid by the PBA with bond money until after it has been spent. "I believe in the light of day," Davis said. "Every authorized expenditure should be brought before this board. The system of checks and balances is off."

While Treadway said Blount County Finance Director and vice mayor Dave Bennett had previously told the board he would keep them updated, Treadway said final results are what matters regarding any contractor they hire. "If we hire the PBA, give them 1.8 percent (of cost for overhead), how they spend that money is up to them," he said. "If there are scope changes, they bring them back to the board."

PBA administrator Ron Ogle said they would work with the board to help them feel at ease if they were chosen to complete the new west side projects. ""We have lots of checks and balances," Ogle said. "We’ll give you the comfort level you’re comfortable with. If we’re going to manage the project for you, you need to have a comfort level that we can do that."

Ogle said it would be up to the board how often and how detailed expenditure reports are brought to the board.

Blount County schools director Alvin Hord said the issue regarding questions of PBA’s competence was brought on by the controversy about who would pay cost overruns at the recently completed Carpenters Elementary School. Eventually Merit Construction assumed the $200,000 cost overrun for repairing the curling of the floor at Carpenters Elementary School.

Even with the overrun, Hord said, "I’ve found the PBA has saved us money."

The director said whoever is picked, the board should let them do their job. "I say, trust them or don’t use them," Hord said.
The board meets at 7 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Blount County Schools office on Grandview Drive.

South Blount County holds community awareness meeting
The leadership of South Blount County Utility District will hold a community awareness meeting to discuss its role and plan to make sure the Blount County community is prepared for its growing future needs, according to a press release.

The meeting will be at 7 p.m. Dec. 7, in the auditorium of Lanier Elementary School.

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