At the end of the Nov. 15 Blount County Commission meeting, a speaker addressing “Items not on the Agenda” had everyone’s full attention.
Ron McTighe stood to speak in favor of a property tax freeze for Blount County senior citizens. His eloquent portrayal of the senior citizens in Blount County and their contributions to society had commissioners yielding the floor to give him more time to finish his comments and spawned a motion to put the issue on next month’s agenda.
McTighe said the individuals who would benefit from the freeze survived the Great Depression and worked through programs that rebuilt infrastructure.
“In the 1930s, they built bridges and parks,” he said. In the days after Pearl Harbor was bombed and World War II began, McTighe said he remembered seeing men, both young and old, walking to the Blount County Courthouse to enlist in the military. Not long after, women in turn went to work and built warships, airplanes and tanks, he said. “These are the senior citizens who you’re denying a property tax freeze,” he said.
Commissioner Mark Hasty made a motion that the tax freeze be put on the agenda for discussion in the next commission meeting. If the commission doesn’t pass a county ordinance before Dec. 31, then seniors won’t be able to use the tax freeze in 2008 if there is a property tax increase, he said.
“I am going to ask that it be put on the agenda next month,” Hasty said. “I’ve heard it could be a hardship on us, but only about 2,000 people are affected, and that’s 2,000 who deserve a break.”
In other action, commissioners passed a resolution supporting an institute that would train employees in the boating and marine industry in Vonore. Commissioner Ron French questioned why the commission should have to support it financially.
“I’ve got a problem with Blount County subsidizing an industry,” he said. “I believe it’s (the company’s) responsibility to train these people.”
County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said he had met with the mayors of Loudon and Monroe counties regarding the institute. The resolution wasn’t a request for money but rather was meant to help the institute organizers in obtaining grants. “This resolution is saying that you support the concept,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said the institute would help create a better-trained employee. This would improve pay and hopefully slow employee turnover in the industry, he said.
“Although the companies aren’t located in Blount County, they employee a lot of people from Blount County,” the mayor said.
Commissioner David Graham was in favor of the motion. “We should support it for the jobs, and the people who live in Blount County who work in that area,” he said.
Commissioner Steve Samples compared the request for the resolution to what the commission did for Denso. “We gave $1 million in tax credits to train people to work at Denso,” Samples said. “I don’t see this as being any different.”
French said that with as much money as the industry makes, he didn’t understand why they couldn’t afford to pay for the institute themselves. The motion to support the resolution passed on a voice vote.
Several members of the commission questioned the need for $20,000 for data entry equipment for Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher’s office. The money for the equipment was from litigation taxes and, by law, could only be spent by the office for such expenses, Assistant County Mayor and Finance Director Dave Bennett said.
Bennett said the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office gets reserve funds from litigation taxes that only that office can spend. A similar situation exists regarding the Great Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. A portion of hotel/motel taxes are reserved strictly for the bureau, he said.
“I think this is for upgrading scanning equipment. They have revenue every year reserved to spend on data-processing needs. They have reserve funds from litigation taxes,” Bennett said of the request.
Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves asked why this expense couldn’t have been included in the original budget.
Graham said this is the third year the circuit court clerk’s office has used these reserve funds in the middle of the budget year. “I’m not clear why we do this every year four months after the budget has passed,” he said.
With 15 ayes, four no and one abstaining, the motion was approved.
The commission also questioned Dr. Brian Bell, county schools supervisor of Technology, regarding school capacity.
When the Union Grove elementary and middle schools on the west side of the county come on-line this fall, three of the county’s six schools labeled as “intolerable” by the state because of overcrowding will fall off the intolerable list, said Bell. Friendsville Elementary School, William Blount Middle School and William Blount High School will all come off the list, he said.
Bell said projections show Union Grove Elementary School will have 340 to 350 kids with a capacity of 470. “We don’t know what the first kindergarten class will be like,” he said.
The new middle school will have a capacity of 830 and will initially have 765 students. When asked if the school, which would be at more than 80 percent capacity when it opens, would it be considered intolerable on opening day, Bell said the school board had changed how they gauged capacity for a school. If there are enough rooms for the students, then the school is considered tolerable.
Graham asked Bell if the school board planned to ask the commission during the next budget cycle for funds to build a new Porter Elementary School. “That’s correct,” Bell said. “Right now, the best case is 2010 before we open a school there.”
Commissioner Monika Murrell asked if the school board had considered rezoning to alleviate overcrowding at Porter and take advantage of empty classrooms at Eagleton Middle School.
“We’ve considered looking at that but they would have to drive by Porter to get to Eagleton, and we don’t want that,” Bell said.
Conflicts of interest?
With a vote on who would administer the county’s health insurance on the agenda, the issue of conflict of interest among the commissioners, which first became a hot topic in August, was again discussed.
When the motion to approve Cariten as the administrator of the county’s health insurance hit the floor, Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves read a statement explaining that she, as a counselor, she was a provider for Cariten and therefore would not vote on the measure.
In her statement, Pitts Reeves said that a memo from Mayor Cunningham stated that “a number of commissioners” had asked him to get an opinion on a possible conflict of interest regarding Pitts Reeves and Dr. Bob Proffitt, both Democrats. The mayor sought an opinion from County Technical Assistance Service, who indicated that there was a conflict.
A month before, Pitts Reeves had raised a question about commissioner Mike Lewis, a Republican, having a possible conflict of interest in serving on the purchasing committee since he was an officer at the bank where $37 million in county money is held. Pitts Reeves said she was trying to resolve the issue before commissioners voted to put Lewis on that committee.
Lewis went to the state attorney general and got an opinion, transferred his bank shares to his wife’s name and serves on the purchasing committee.
The next month, commissioner Scott Helton raised the question about Pitts Reeves and Proffitt.
“I have not known, and still do not know, who the phrase ‘a number of you’ refers to,” Pitts Reeves said at the November meeting, referring to Cunningham’s letter indicating he asked for a CTAS opinion at the request of several commissioners.”Other than a brief statement read aloud by commissioner Helton in August, no one from the commission, nor the mayor’s office nor from the accounting office has spoken with me directly on this matter,” Pitts Reeves said. “Mayor Cunningham did not inform me of your requests nor have I receive a copy of any letters any of your or he may have submitted in regards to my serving on this commission.”
Pitts Reeves quoted the mayor’s memo as saying he sent the letter to commissioners rather than provide the information to them in a public forum.
“For the record, I submit that a public forum is exactly where these discussions should be held, as long as they are handled with professionalism and respect, are intended to safeguard the people’s interest and are not intended to demean or oppress any individual,” she said. “I respectfully request that in the future should any of my esteemed colleagues have specific concerns about anyone’s service on a committee or participation in a vote that they voice those concerns within the context of the appropriate meeting before that vote takes place.”
The mayor’s memo contained a letter stating that CTAS advised the two commissioners had a conflict that could only be cured through their resignation. The county mayor said he would ask to the state attorney general for an opinion.
After the meeting, Cunningham said Pitts Reeves never followed up on the issue Helton raised concerning the possible conflict.
“She’s never asked an opinion from the county attorney, never asked for an opinion from CTAS or from the state attorney general on the situation Scott Helton raised relative to her,” Cunningham said. “She prides herself as a woman who asks questions. All she had to do was come by. I’m not hard to find.”
The mayor said about 20 residents called asking him to look into the situation, including several from the Democratic party. “I got calls from some of the old-line conservative Democrats,” he said.
When asked how many commissioners asked about Pitts Reeves, Cunningham said nine or 10 did. “That wasn’t all at one time, but over two to three weeks,” he said.
Commissioner Tonya Burchfield said she asked the mayor to check out the situation, and she was glad he was doing so. Commissioner Melton didn’t recall specifically asking about Pitts Reeves but said he did remember asking about the conflict of interest and Lewis’ situation.
“The only thing I talked to (the mayor) about was if we got an opinion back from Lewis about conflict of interest,” said Melton. “As far as Pitts I don’t remember asking about her at all,” Melton said.
Commissioner Samples said he told Cunningham privately that if there was a question, CTAS needed to be asked. “I talked directly to commissioner Reeves and Mayor Cunningham and suggested that if there are questions, we needed to refer them to CTAS,” he said. “My position publicly and privately is that any questions regarding conflict of interest should be referred to CTAS or the state attorney general regardless of who the commissioner is.”
Commissioner Farmer said he did ask the mayor to look into the matter. “I said I would be interested in knowing,” he said. Farmer said matters such as conflict of interest ought to be handled in committee. “It’s better to request an opinion and see what CTAS responds before bringing it up at a full commission in front of cameras,” Farmer said.
Helton said that while looking into possible conflicts involving commissioner Lewis and while reading the statue that commissioner Pitts Reeves brought up, he discovered there was possibly a conflict involving commissioners who hold a contract indirectly or directly with the county. “Once discovering that, I read a statement aloud in the August meeting as to the possible conflict (with Pitts Reeves and Proffitt), and then I approached the mayor about asking the county attorney’s opinion on the matter. In turn, after getting the county attorney’s opinion, I requested it be forwarded to the attorney general’s office for clarification,” Helton said.
Keeble said he didn’t inquire about the situation. “I haven’t asked about any of them,” Keeble said. “I’ve done it before, but it has been in public. If I have a problem with a commissioner, I’ll discuss it with the commissioner.”
Cunningham said many on commission were impressed with how Lewis asked for legal opinions on his situation and Pitts Reeves didn’t. “Everyone thought Mike Lewis was such a class act after being completely surprised by Ms. Reeves. He asked the attorney general’s opinion, and (the callers) thought commissioner Pitts Reeves would follow suit, and all they heard was a silence. So they said, ‘Would you get an opinion?’
“I got an opinion and have caught heck ever since,” Cunningham said. “It’s a classic case of shoot the messenger if you don’t like what the message is.”
Cunningham said he has done all he has been asked to do in the issue regarding Pitts Reeves and Proffitt. “I have done what some folks don’t understand is the function of my office. I have been a conduit or messenger, if you will. The next move as far as I’m concerned would be up to the citizens or commissioners,” he said. “It’s not my job to advocate one way or the other.”