Circuit Court Clerk reimburses county for tuition

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

Blount County Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher has reimbursed $3,910 the county paid to cover the cost of a bachelor’s and master’s degree program at a non-accredited on-line Mississippi college.

On Thursday night, Nov. 16, Blount County commissioners accepted a letter from Hatcher in which he took responsibility for not fully investigating Columbus University before paying them for classes to complete a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

Hatcher said in his letter to County Mayor Jerry Cunningham he had hired Maryville attorney Craig Garrett with his own funds and was pursuing the college for reimbursement. Press reports from earlier this week showed that the college was unaccredited, often sat empty and had its mail delivered to a massage parlor across the street from the school in Picayune, Miss.

Cunningham told the commission that Hatcher met him in his office prior to the commission meeting and gave him the letter and check for $3,910. The mayor gave the check to finance director Dave Bennett to be deposited Friday.

Lively discussion on a motion made by commissioners Bob Proffitt and Monica Murrell to ask Tennessee Department of Transportation to complete a fiscal impact study for the Pellissippi Parkway Extension. Murrell said that the state would cover the entire cost of the study and that the study wouldn’t slow down or stop the extension project.

"It is not a delaying tactic," Murrell said. "The purpose is to find out what fiscal impact of the parkway is on the public (infrastructure), such as the highways, schools and sheriff’s office. We have to ask TDOT. They won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart. The tools are out there, it’s not going to cost anything, and it’s not a delay."

After departments heads and representatives from the Blount County Schools, Blount County Sheriff’s office and the Blount County Highway Department spoke, commissioners debated the need for the resolution.

Commissioner Steve Hargis questioned if the resolution was meant to stop the Pellissippi extension.

"This procedure is meant to stop Pellissippi," Hargis said. "That’s what it is. Nobody has a crystal ball."

According to Hargis, the research and development park at Pellissippi Parkway and Old Knoxville Highway was approved with the assumption that the extension would be completed.

Commissioner Scott Helton said the sooner the extension was completed, the better. "I feel the sooner we get the project completed, the less problem we’ll have with traffic affecting back roads," he said.

Kenneth Melton said regarding growth issues and roads that the county was leaving federal money "on the table" because it couldn’t give the highway department enough to qualify for matching federal grants. If the county could generate $1 million just for the highway department, the county would qualify for $4 million, he said.

"That’s $4 million that could go towards roads to improve them tremendously," he said. "We’re going to have to do something to get money for roads."

Nina Gregg with the group Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension addressed the commission and said that according to Brian Daniels with the Industrial Development Board, the research and development park was planned with or without the completion of the extension. When Commissioner Keeble asked her if she had any idea how many millions of dollars had been wasted because of her group’s efforts, Gregg said that the state tax dollars were used to fight what the state was supposed to be doing in the first place, such as the environmental impact studies.

Mark Hasty said the county would grow, regardless of whether or not they had information about the fiscal impact of the extension. After Murrell pleaded with the commissioners a final time, they voted 13 to eight against requesting the fiscal impact study for the extension.

Also at the meeting:

  • Linda King with Citizens for Blount County’s Future questioned the priorities of county spending. She said that in a financial management committee meeting, while the members declined to give $15,000 to help Mobile Meals on Wheels, the sheriff’s office had spent $17,000 on a hostage phone. "We need to have policies that we not allow frivolous spending," she said. "It’s our money, even after it is given to department heads."

King questioned the need to give money to the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center when they also charge admission and called for an audit of all county employees getting tuition reimbursement. She praised Hatcher for reimbursing the funds spent from his department on the Columbus University classes.

  • Forest Harrison took the commission to task for their resolution in the October meeting supporting the state referendum affirming that marriage is intended to be between a man and a woman. "Your resolution is wrong because you can not always tell if a person is a man or a woman," he said.
  • Jim Folts also questioned the need for the hostage phone purchased by the sheriff’s office and told commissioners he learned the phone was only $5,000, but that the additional expense included "all the bells and whistles". Folts said that when the expenditure was questioned, Bennett said it was too late, the item had already been bought. Folts said that purchases should be reviewed before they’re made. "One thing is for sure, if we do not set standards, anything goes," he said.

Blount Today contacted the sheriff’s office afterward the meeting for more information about the new hostage phone. According to public information officer Marion O’Briant, the $17,000 for the phone came out of the sheriff’s office own budget. The purchase was necessary to replace a phone had been purchased in the mid-1990s and was outdated. "There are other advances that have outdated the phone," O’Briant said. "It won’t interface with any cell phone service."

  • The commissioners spent several minutes debating what to do about animal control when their current six-month contract extension with the City of Maryville expires at the end of this calendar year.

Several commissioners differed on how to approach the matter. Since 70 percent of the animals the city of Maryville picks up are in the county, they wanted in excess of $200,000 annually from the county to continue the service. The county has only budgeted $135,000, and the county mayor has approached the city about creating a working relationship similar to what the City of Alcoa does. Alcoa police animal control get strays and brings them to the Maryville animal shelter.

According to Cunningham, if this happens, then the county would be charged about $38 a day per animal and each animal would have three days from the time it came in before it was put down.

Animal advocates groups have approached the county about setting up a no-kill shelter and adoption service in conjunction with a spay/neutering program. County officials have questioned the cost of such a program.

Commission Kenneth Melton said what needed to happen was a decision. "What we need to come up with is money," he said. "I don’t see we need a committee."

Commissioner Gary Farmer said the commissioners were going to have to make a decision. He made a motion to have the item referred to the financial management committee to determine the costs.

Commissioner John Keeble said that the city of Maryville wanted more to take care of an animal per day than the state pays to take care of a prisoner for one day.

The commission appointed a five member committee to study the situation and return with recommendations at the December commission meeting.

Tom Hatcher letter

November 16, 2006

Dear Mayor Cunningham:
Pursuant to my recent discussions with you, I enclose my personal check made payable to Blount County, Tennessee, in the amount of Three Thousand Nine Hundred Ten Dollars ($3,910.00) to reimburse the County for the invoice paid by Blount County on January 14, 2005, to Columbus University. As I indicated to you, I certainly did not realize the problems existed with Columbus University which have recently come to light. It is obvious to me that serious misrepresentations were made to me by Columbus at the time I enrolled in their program. I realize I made an error in judgment in failing to more thoroughly investigate this school before I enrolled.

I have hired local attorney, Craig Garrett, to investigate and pursue Columbus College in an effort to recoup the monies paid to them and to also further expose their unfair and deceptive business practices. I have retained Mr. Garrett with my personal funds and in an effort to limit the burden to the County, I have decided to immediately reimburse the County for the monies extended and pursue this matter personally.

As we discussed, I will be happy to work with you, the County Commission and other office holders to develop a policy that will allow County employees to pursue continuing training and education that hopefully, will prevent any other employee of the County from having a bad experience similar to mine.

It is my intention to contact the Attorney General for the State of Tennessee and make them aware of the practices of Columbus University and hopefully prevent other citizens in Tennessee from being victimized.

Thank you for your willingness to meet with me and discuss this matter. I certainly hope you agree with my approach, which is to reimburse the County and allow me to pursue this matter personally. I know we could have asked the County Attorney to investigate Columbus University and pursue the matter, but inasmuch as I created the circumstances, I certainly feel it is my responsibility to pursue Columbus University and I do not want Blount County burdened with this endeavor.

If you need any further information, feel free to contact me.

With kindest regards, I am
Very Truly Yours,
Thomas E. Hatcher

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