State audit released on Blount

Comptroller clears county and sheriff’s office; makes finding on schools

The state comptrollers report for Blount County government has been released, and County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said the report vindicates the office’s efforts to be open and accurate in their accounting.

“We want folks to know we’re pleased with it,” Mayor Cunningham said. “It came in exactly the way we anticipated with no findings against any of our operations in Blount County other than one school issue.”

Assistant County Mayor and Finance Director Dave Bennett said none of the findings from last year, including the number of vehicles in the sheriff’s department, showed any discrepancies.

In the case of the vehicles, a community group led by Jim Folts with Citizens for Better Government and Linda King with Citizens for Blount County’s Future had repeatedly questioned the number of vehicles at the sheriff’s office and cried foul when there was a discrepancy between the number the sheriff’s office listed and the number the accounting office had.

Cunningham said county auditors checked each vehicle and matched them to vehicle identification numbers on record. This involved accounting office personnel going in at 5:30 a.m. to meet deputies, the mayor said.

“Evidentially, some thought that wasn’t good enough and had written the governor and written other people, so the comptrollers office sent the auditor in here last week in the rain, and those auditors physically counted every vehicle,” the mayor said. “The sheriff had all his employees get up and come in and bring their individual vehicles for the county, and the final resolution is that all the vehicles are accounted for.”

The mayor said he asked an auditor how much time they were spending on these complaints. The mayor said the auditor indicated it was taking 10 percent of their time on these complaints.

The mayor said he wished there was some mechanism in place that would make individuals or groups who filed “frivolous or baseless” complaints have to pay for the county or state government personnel’s time spent investigating them.

“It has gotten to where it is just ludicrous,” the mayor said. “I think citizens have right to be informed and ask questions on a reasonable basis, but when bitterness, hatred and jealously together with paranoia and maybe political aspirations are the driving forces, then that is troublesome.”

Folts could not be reached for comment. King said the mayor takes anyone to task who questions any county office. “He criticizes us rather than answering our questions over and over again. As far as I’m concerned, we still have not had all the questions answered with regard to missing vehicles,” she said. “Instead of answering questions or addressing our concerns, we get demeaned.”

The mayor said his office has offered community groups and individuals the opportunity to look at the books and none has requested to do so. He pointed out the most recent audit by state comptroller’s officials released on Dec. 11 as an example. “I don’t know if it was too early in the morning or what, but they didn’t see fit to take advantage of that openness on the part of Blount County government,” he said.

King said she knew nothing about the comptroller’s office personnel coming in on Dec. 11. “I didn’t know someone was doing that,” she said.

Bennett said he is pleased with the fiscal responsibility shown by this administration. He said that when this administration, including new commissioners and other elected officials, took office in September of 2006, there was less than $800,000 in the undesignated fund.

“Now, one and three quarters budgets later, there is $7,960,000 in the fund balance.

That is the rainy day fund. This county put $4.4 million in fund balance in this fiscal year,” he said.

Bennett said that the $4.4 million this past fiscal year came from departments not spending all their appropriations, and the county having conservative revenue estimates.

“Now we have almost $8 million. We’re almost to the point we need to be. If there’s a disaster or flood, the county is not going to have to go to the bank to take care of the citizens. That’s fiscally responsible, and that’s important,” he said.

Bennett said he appreciated the work of the comptroller’s office and their independence from the Blount County accounting office. “They came through with a fine-tooth comb every month. I welcome any criticism they have and any findings they report. Last year some things needed to be corrected, and that independent voice has said we did that,” he said. “I’ve heard people say we’re missing cars, and the comptroller said all finding from last year have been corrected.”

Bennett said the folks in the accounting office work hard every day to keep operations moving smoothly. “They work hard and take their jobs seriously for the citizens of this community. They don’t get recognition, but this proves they’re doing a great bit of work and doing it honestly and openly and correctly,” he said.

Cunningham said he was extremely proud that someone from the comptroller’s office praised the openness of Blount County’s accounting department. “We were advised by the auditors that we are the most open of all the 95 counties in the state,” he said.

The mayor then spoke about what he termed “frivolous complaints” on the part of some community groups and other individuals regarding how business is run with county government. “It’s my estimation that it probably has cost Blount County taxpayers and the taxpayers of Tennessee in the hundreds of thousands of tax dollars from the state of Tennessee and Blount County,” he said.

King said none of her group’s complaints are frivolous. “We always have facts to back up our complaints. We don’t just pull something out of the air,” she said. King said there are many good county employees and sheriff’s office deputies. “We don’t complain about the whole county or sheriff’s department,” she said. “My problem with spending is every time Dave Bennett gets in front of commission, he talks about how everything is rosy in Blount County.”

King said economic news on the state, federal and even local level, in Maryville, is not good. “You see the federal government is having to bail out businesses, and state government is cutting back and talking about layoffs, and Maryville is talking about suspending a school project and yet, in Blount County, all seems to be all fine, and it’s OK to buy a new highway department building that needs major renovations and to build a jail pod and to buy land in Townsend and our debt is over $200 million,” she said.

Bennett said the accounting office welcomes any citizen, “even those critical of us,” to look at the books and see if something is wrong. “If they still feel something is wrong, take it to the next level. The mayor has said he would get them a meeting with the TBI or FBI,” Bennett said. “I’ve not had one visit to our office. I would invite any citizens, look at the website. If you have complaints come here. We have nothing to hide, and everything is wide open.”

King said she brings her questions to commission meetings each month. “Not once has anyone from the mayor’s office addressed any of my concerns,” she said.

The mayor said it’s a privilege to serve in Blount County government. “It’s been an honor to serve our county. It’s the most wonderful place in the world to live,” he said. “We’re bewildered by the hatred and venom and the irrational statements that flow from some citizen groups. Perhaps if they served in some capacity, they might appreciate government more because, evidentially, there’s no appreciation for it now.”

King said she lives in Blount County because she loves Blount County. “I want it to be the kind of county I can love, and I have seen too many things I believe are going in the wrong direction,” she said. “That’s why I try to bring my concerns to the commission and to the public.”

King said she is not speaking for herself but also for those in her group and other citizens concerned about government spending. “I represent a good portion of Blount County and if the mayor would talk to people one-on-one, he would find our voices are very much in unison.”

Bennett said the community groups, individual residents and the county need to be working together to solve problems. “We have serious problems in this country and those problems are affecting us in Blount County,” Bennett said. “We need to be working together as a united community rather than be divided. Some folks would rather us be divided.”

Berrong: Sheriff’s office pleased with report

Sheriff James Berrong said he was pleased with the results of the audit. “We’re very pleased as always that our employees are doing things right,” Berrong said. “We’re pleased with the audit report. With all the criticism and false statements that have been made, we’re pleased it came through clean, as we knew it would.”

The sheriff said nine state comptroller’s personnel came to the sheriff’s office on Dec. 11 to count vehicles. They worked in the rain much of the time they were present. “I’m sure they had other things to do,” he said.

Berrong said this is the third time the comptroller office has looked at the issue based on people calling them and making statements that there are missing cars. “This time they touched every vehicle. It was very expensive for the sheriff’s office,” Berrong said. “We spent a lot of time and money on it that we would rather have put toward getting another deputy in the schools or putting another officer in the neighborhood rather than spending the time and resources to look at this issue for the third time.”

Schools: Error rectified

The audit report stated there was one finding - that the schools had spent federal funds intended for special education on teachings assistants who were not helping special education students.

Troy Logan, fiscal administrator for Blount County Schools, said it was an error that was quickly corrected once they learned of it.

“We had paid with federal monies some teaching assistants who we thought were doing special education work, but they were not,” he said. “Once that was identified, we recalculated their specific salaries and benefits and paid those salaries with regular education general purpose school fund monies.”

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