Noisy numbers

Shouting, signs, statistics and stickers punctuate "Tale of Two Counties" presentation

Photo with no caption
By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

The Blount County Public Library was anything but quiet Monday night, even though the library was closed for President’s
Day. The meeting room at the library was filled with statistics, stickers and shouting matches.

Jim Folts of Watershaw Drive, Friendsville, and Linda King of Laws Chapel Road, Maryville, spearheaded a program entitled "A Tale of Two Counties."

The build-up to the meeting saw volunteers from those groups stuffing fliers in people’s mailboxes throughout Blount County in the days before the meeting. The program was designed to compare the budget of Blount County with the budget of Washington County and ask why the Washington county budget was $10 million less than that of Blount.

Folts and King, both frequent critics of spending practices of county government, had founded citizens’ groups several months ago. Those groups sponsored the event.

Folts represented Citizens for Better Government and King was present on behalf of Citizens for Blount County’s Future.

A sign of how contentious the meeting was going to be was evident in the hand-made signs someone taped to the library’s exterior entrance before the meeting started. Three hand-made posters poked fun at Folts and King and called them a "Fluke and a Kook."

King’s husband, Joe King, Sr., wasn’t laughing. "It seems to me they’re scared of something. They’re putting slanderous signs up against citizens trying to do the right thing," he said.

Before the meeting started, off-duty Blount County Sheriff’s deputies handed out their own budget figures they had compiled comparing the sheriff’s offices of both counties.

They also handed out stickers supporting Sheriff James Berrong and about half the crowd wore the stickers. A woman seated near the front asked, "Is there a sticker supporting the deputies rather than the sheriff? There is a difference."

More than 120 people filled the room at the library and many stood on the back wall as Folts’ neighbor Peggy Walters spoke for 10 minutes about Folts. She mentioned his volunteer service as an airplane pilot who occasionally ferried sick children to various destinations. The gist of her comments was summed up in her statement about respect. "The people who move here become our volunteers, our church members and taxpayers. They deserve courtesy as taxpayers, whether they’re kooks, flukes or Jim Berrong fans," Walters said.

Afterward, Folts took to the podium and narrated a Power Point presentation comparing the two counties, which became three counties when he also added comparisons on parts of the Blount County budget to Sullivan County. Folts said the numbers he had came from state audits and county budget figures. "What’s the purpose of this presentation? Where are we spending money and are we getting good value. This presentation is not about county employees. Most county employees are competent people trying to do a good job," he said.

Folts said that any figures shown needed to show inflation and growth of population.

He showed a graph that compared the highway spending and school spending. Highway spending was well below population growth and inflation. School spending for Blount County’s system was making headway, but was still behind inflation and population figures.

The "red line" came when he showed the growth in spending in the General Fund of Blount County. Folts said general fund is essentially everything but schools and roads. It includes courts, sheriff’s office, registrar of deeds, mayor’s office, commission, county clerk, county trustee, health and welfare spending, civil defense and homeland security.

"The county general fund has grown twice the rate of inflation plus population growth. Are those the priorities we want for this county, that’s the question," he said.

Folts said that in 2002, the county general fund had $7.5 million in savings, and that that amount had been depleted to $200,000 by the end of 2006. The county was $118 million in debt in 2002 and was $190 million in debt by 2006.

Folts then related how Blount County was similar to Blairstown, N.J., where he lived. In 10 years, taxes had tripled, and savings were depleted. "Sound familiar?" he asked, referring to Blount County. "People wanted to move out, but they couldn’t sell their houses. They had dropped 30 percent in value and construction had stopped," he said.

Folts said his group decided to do a comparative analysis between Washington County and Blount County. He said they had a similar number in population, similar number of arrests and similar area served by county government. In 2005, Washington County had a $26 million budget while Blount County had a $36 million budget, he said.

He said what stirred him to action was seeing how the county’s general fund had increased and outpaced inflation and inflation plus growth figures for schools and roads.

He compared the 2005-06 budgets for the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office in Washington County and Blount County.

Both counties have six judges, but there’s a 20 percent difference in cases handled. He said the circuit court clerk brings in $900,000 in fines, but spent $1.4 million to collect those fines. He said the Washington County Circuit Court Clerk had a $1,618,332 budget while Blount County’s was $3,033,032.

When contacted following the meeting, Hatcher disagreed with the numbers. He said he had spoken with Washington County circuit court clerk and learned they only have two full-time judges and five part-time judges who serve elsewhere.

In Blount County, there are six full-time judges, a full-time juvenile referee and a part-time chancellor. Hatcher also contended that the figure Folts gave included County Clerk Roy Crawford’s budget and Clerk and Master Brenda Flower’s budget.

Hatcher said much of the expense in his budget was because those who use the system expect a higher level of service. Also, there are more cases in Blount County. "You figure we have 62 percent more cases, there’s going to be more expenses," Hatcher said.

While Folts has been a vocal critic of Hatcher, he didn’t spend much time discussing his department. He spent a good bit of time talking about the differences in budgets for the sheriff’s offices of both counties.

Folts said Blount County Sheriff’s office spends nearly $4 million more on law enforcement functions outside of jail expenses than Washington County. "They’re patrolling slightly fewer miles of roads in Blount County, we make the same number of arrests, and yet, Washington County uses 125 vehicles and we use 263 and there is a $4 million difference in spending."

Regarding vehicles in the sheriff’s office, Folts said an audit showed the department had 263 vehicles. While the office said 27 of those had been sold, Folts said Berrong bought an additional 24 cruisers in January at a cost of $500,000.

"These cruisers cost about $30,000 a piece. If you buy too many vehicles, you don’t have money for raises," he said.

Folts criticized Berrong for spending drug funds on a driving track for deputies to train. "Yeah, it was paid out of drug money, but we could have spent that money for communications upgrades," he said.

Folts then used figures from the Sullivan County budget versus those of Blount County. Folts said the Sullivan County population was almost identical in number to Blount County, not including the cities. He pointed out the differences in budgets for the sheriff’s offices.

"Sullivan County makes 14 percent more arrests, but spends $2.5 million less," he said.

Folts said all three sheriff’s offices are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, with Sullivan, Washington and Blount counties being three of just a few counties in Tennessee with CALEA accreditation.


Folts ended his presentation by telling listeners that the public needs to be involved in the county’s budget process. They also need to demand accurate budget figures, he said. "If we don’t, we’re no better than Enron," he said.

Folts then told the crowd there would be a five-minute break. after which he would answer questions written down on forms they passed out. When Jim Hinkle of Louisville shouted out a question, Folts said that all questions had to be submitted in writing.

"I think you’re doing an injustice by not allowing a citizen to make a comment without writing it down," Hinkle said.
"We’re using the League of Women’s Voters format," Folts said before he walked from the podium.

Joe Starbuck was seated in front of Hinkle and called him down. "Be quiet, he paid for the room," Starbuck said.

At this point, several individuals on both sides began to argue. Karren Cockran of Blount County spoke as others argued. "You can’t argue, there’s no argument, it’s just straight facts," she said.

Mary Nitkowski of Maryville questioned Hinkle on his opposition to Folts. "Don’t you want your tax dollars spent properly?" she said.

"I’ve never been one to question my officials. I support the people I elect," Hinkle said to which Nitkowski said, "Well, that’s the problem."

Nitkowski said she lived in Michigan and Wisconsin, and her taxes in one community went up two and a half times. "It started at $3,500 and in five years time it went up to $9,000," she said. "We had shenanigans going on, and no one had the courage to question officials."

Nitkowski said she didn’t understand why some in the public refused to question their local authorities. "I don’t understand why there’s all this dissension. I’m an outsider, and I get treated like an outsider," she said. "It’s difficult to move into Blount."

Dick Scott sat next to Hinkle and voiced his frustration. "I’d like to know why anybody wasn’t allowed to speak like that young lady," he said of Walters. When an unidentified man ordered Scott to sit down, Scott said, "Get out of my face."

The questions written down by members of the audience were about whether Folts’ group questioned the quality of service of the sheriff’s office and what makes up the county general fund. When he read a question about whether Berrong had paid deputies to attend the meeting, those deputies all responded with a loud, "No!"

Another question Folts read was, "Why is the sheriff’s office attacking you?" Folts answer was, "Every group’s actions speak for themselves."

Another question asked if money could be saved by not allowing deputies to drive their vehicles home. "I will say other sheriff’s offices do let deputies drive home cruisers as well," Folts said. "It seems pretty standard procedure."

Much of the criticism at the meeting was from individuals who said it seemed Folts shut off debate by allowing only questions that were written and submitted. Folts said he was only trying to have an orderly meeting.

Peggy Lambert of Maryville criticized the meeting’s format. "It was a dog and pony show. The lady who spoke first had an opportunity to tell us what a saint Folts was," she said. "Why wasn’t anyone allowed to get up and make a rebuttal?"

Several Blount County commissioners attended the meeting, but none spoke about the program. David Ballard, David Graham, Kenneth Melton, Wendy Pitts Reeves, Steve Samples and Mike Walker were among the commissioners present.

Following the meeting, as people milled around in groups talking, Assistant Chief Deputy Jeff French addressed Folts’ figures.

French had prepared several pages of figures of his own and deputies passed them out before the meeting. They did not speak to them from the podium at the meeting, but stayed after the meeting to talk to any who asked questions.

He said the sheriff’s office sells service and that Folts said nothing about the quality of service in Blount County compared to either Sullivan or Washington counties.

"Washington County has four school resource officers, and we have 23, plus a lieutenant and a sergeant," he said.

French said if Folts had used the 2003 numbers and compared the $16 million Blount sheriff’s budget with the $10 million Washington sheriff’s budget, then divided by the population in each, it came out similar in the amount spent per person. "If you look at cost per person, we’re right on target," French said.

French said Folts didn’t take into account that juvenile detention expenses are included in the Blount County sheriff’s budget, but not in the Washington County budget. Regarding talk of vehicles, French said Folts has refused to let the sheriff explain the budget.

"The bottom line is, he doesn’t want to verify (his figures) because he’s refusing to sit down and work with us," French said.

When asked if he was going to run for office, Folts said he doubted he would ever run for office again. He ran for county commission as a write-in candidate in the 2006 county commission race. "The next election I’ll be 66 or 67," he said. "I doubt it."

Folts disagreed with Berrong’s figures from the sheriff’s office handouts and said that while Folt’s figures for Washington County included the vehicle budget, the $16.2 million Blount Sheriff’s budget didn’t include $800,000 spent on vehicles.

French countered that while Blount’s vehicle budget was separate from the regular sheriff’s budget, Washington County sheriff’s office budget also kept their vehicle budget separate.

As Folts left the library, he said his most important point was that schools and roads spending weren’t keeping up with general fund spending. "Is that what we as citizens want? We’re spending like crazy in general fund, and it’s stealing from the schools and roads," he said.

Folts defended his use of written questions. "This was a special meeting. The purpose was to present information. When you’re making a fairly complicated presentation and if you have someone interrupting, it’s going to be difficult for people to understand."

When asked if someone had written a question such as "Would you allow Jeff French to address the figures?" Folts said, "No, the rules were clear. We would answer all written questions, and we went back and asked if there were others."

Linda King said she was encouraged by the turnout. She criticized the anonymous individuals who put signs up mocking her and Folts. "I think it’s juvenile. It’s mud-slinging," she said.

To access the Citizens for Better Government Website and the "Tale of Two Counties" presentation, go to
www.blounttn.net.

© 2007 blounttoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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