Closing the courthouse

Decision to stop community meetings after 5 seen as cost-saving to some, political to others

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

A recent decision to close the Blount County Courthouse to non-governmental meetings after hours in order to save
thousands of dollars has at two community groups wondering if the move was pragmatic or political.

County maintenance director Damon Fortney made the decision effective April 1. The move could save the county at least $3,000 annually in utilities, if not more in the long run, he said. Additional savings could come in maintenance cost, said County Mayor Jerry Cunningham.

Cunningham said the decision also boosts security at the courthouse in light of a burglary at the Emergency Management office last fall when a radio and credit cards were stolen.

Cunningham said many county offices have very sensitive information.

"When these groups meet, almost anybody could come in," Cunningham said. "We have bid information in some offices, purchasing information in other offices. We have money locked up in some offices. It would be easy for some professional thief to come in and access an office."

Fortney said department heads were charged in 2006 with living within their budget and creating ways to cut costs. Two years ago, Fortney’s department ran out of money for several months, other to pay utilities. Requiring community groups to meet during business hours is a decision to save on utility and custodial costs, he said.

"The goal is take that big pot of money you’ve got and make it last," he said. "This was one of the cost-saving measures we decided to take -- shutting those meeting rooms down at 4:30 and 5 p.m. You save $200 and $300 a month."

Fortney said $200 or $300 probably doesn’t sound like much money, but multiplied over 12 months the savings can be substantial. "We’re doing everything we possibly can to save taxpayers’ money. That’s the bottom line. I can’t keep going
back and asking for money," he said. "I’ve told everyone who has called we sorely regret turning people away. We have a good working (relationship) with everyone."

Fortney said his staff is asking groups that met after hours to consider switching their meeting times to morning and afternoon. "We will be happy to accommodate them between 7 in the morning and 5 o’clock at night. Several night meetings have decided to have lunch instead of evening meetings, and we’re glad to accommodate them."

Linda King, president of Citizens for Blount County’s Future, said she had mixed feelings about the change Fortney made.

"When I talked to him, (Fortney) said it was for budget purposes, that every room they can close and turn the lights off in saves money. I have trouble arguing with that. I’m the first one to tell departments to cut expenses," she said. "What bothers me is I’ve been to budget hearings, and I’m not seeing them cut waste in credit card usage and cell phones and cars. This is the first thing I’ve seen cut, and it involves taxpayers."

King questioned what the true motive of the change was. "I kind of think it could be politically motivated," King said. "I asked if it was his decision or the mayor’s, and he said, ‘I came up with it, but I have a boss, and he agrees with me.’ and I’m not surprised."

King said when she spoke with Fortney, he told her he was taking custodians off night shift and moving them to days. She said there would then be an excessive number of personnel on day shift.

King said if they went to the public library, her group would have to pay.

"We don’t take fees to belong to our group, that’s the whole thing. The taxpayers, that’s our court house. We paid for custodians. It should be available for usage," King said. "He said it was available for day meetings, but that doesn’t make it
available for people who work. He is allowing me to have my meetings in April."

Fortney said he was accused of being arbitrary by someone upset about him closing the courthouse after hours to non-
governmental groups. Fortney said the first group he put out of the courthouse was his own.

"I was teaching a public session in energy conservation. Rather than use a very convenient meeting room next to my office, I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I held my meetings at the library," he said.

Nancy Heintz, president of the League of Women Voters, disagreed with Fortney’s decision. "To me the county building belongs to the county and county organizations should be allowed to use it," she said.

Heintz said Fortney apparently made the decision suddenly and announced it on very short notice.

"I’m disappointed of course," she said. "It was a convenient middle-area meeting place. It’s very inconvenient not to have a centrally-located spot. We’ll figure out a way to handle it."

Heintz said the group’s budget is very, very limited. Pellissippi State Community College has offered them a room to meet for the time being.

One long term solution could be partnering with Maryville College. "We’d like to start a Junior League of Women Voters on campus to educate voters. If that happens, there’s a possibility we would partner with the college, in which case we would meet there," she said.

Heintz said that the league registered 150 incoming freshmen last fall. "That worked out real well," she said.

Fortney said groups that had already mailed out notices of their meetings at the courthouse would be grandfathered in through the month of April. Just in utilities, the county will save about $3,000 annually by making the move, he said.

Cunningham said the move was as much about cutting costs as improving security. The county is charged with saving money, and this move could save as much as $10,000 in maintenance costs, he said.

The mayor said that when Fortney approached him about the decision, "group after group after group" had made requests to use the courthouse after hours, and it got to the point where there was overload.

"We’ve got a security problem. His people are not security folks. The other offices could be exposed and compromised," Cunningham said. "It’s too big a risk."

Fortney said a thief was caught about six months ago breaking into the emergency management office and stealing a radio and credit cards. Because newly installed security cameras captured the person’s image, they were later apprehended, Fortney said.

"It was open because there was a meeting," Cunningham said.

Fortney said janitorial personnel can’t do security because they don’t know who is supposed to be at a meeting and who isn’t. In addition, the courthouse has to be secure because of the juvenile detention population, he said.

Cunningham said it’s unfortunately a situation where the county has to make effective cuts. "Plus there have been complaints from other citizens who don’t want their tax dollars being used to support groups. The Democrats complain about the Republicans and the Republicans complain about the Democrats. It’s a never-ending complaint department," Cunningham said. "The solution he has come up with is very fair and equitable, and it’s going to be a cost savings. It’s interesting that the couple of groups complaining the loudest are on the groups on our back about saving money."

Cunningham said he’s asking groups who use the courthouse to help the government conserve and save. The issue is about saving every penny of taxpayers’ dollars, Fortney said.

"Most groups have been very accommodating and understand and are working with us on the schedules," Fortney said. "We want to accommodate them as best as we can during normal hours. Normally during days, these rooms are
empty."

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