Children’s Home at center of controversy on campus proposal

© 2008 Blount Today

What started out as a disagreement over plans for a community social service complex beside the Blount County Children’s Home could be taking another turn.

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham sent a letter to Blount County commissioners that said the Blount County Children’s Home board is not legal, the deed from their property was not properly transferred and the county may not have to give them further access to the $450,000 endowment that they use to operate.

Children’s Home board chair Terry Elmore said that while their attorney has already drawn up a resolution to fix the deed and endowment issues, he’s concerned that might not be enough if commissioners choose to take back property given to the home a few years ago based on their fulfilling their mission as a children’s home.

Elmore said the future of the Children’s Home will be in the hands of the county commission.

“If the county commission does not approve this resolution, we could be closed down,” he said.

The controversy regarding the Children’s Home came up earlier this year when the board balked at overtures by the county, Helen Ross McNabb and New Hope Children’s Advocacy Center to trade for some of their property in order to build facilities for a community social services campus adjacent to the children’s home.

While the children’s home lost its residential program several years ago when state law mandated putting more children in foster homes, the children’s home had in the past two years eliminated its deficits and began serving clients in different communities throughout the region.

The idea partnering with New Hope, Helen Ross McNabb and the county, who had deeded them their nine acres, didn’t appeal to the children’s home management, in part for concerns about losing their property to other entities and from concerns the other agencies weren’t good fits with their programming.

In response to those discussions, Cunningham said he decided to start checking through the records on file regarding the children’s home. Excerpts from the Feb. 5 letter Mayor Cunningham wrote to Elmore with copies to the commission follow:

Dear Mr. Elmore,

After our last meeting in our office relative to the adult and children’s community campus, which will be created here in Blount County, I did some reflection relative to the attitude of some of your board members. I am still surprised. Be that as it may, I, along with the County Commission, will now move on with Helen Ross McNabb and the Children’s Advocacy Center, together with the Boys and Girls’ Club, without your cooperation. However, after considering the situation, I did ask my assistant to bring the office Children’s Home file in for me to review. What I found was rather disconcerting.

First of all, I was already aware of why there was a charter change in 1982. That was done so that the Blount County government would control the Blount County Children’s Home in order to receive the interest off of the Dr. Ellis endowment in compliance with Dr. Ellis’ will. I was extremely surprised, however, to find that the Children’s Home board evidently attempted on its own to amend the charter in 2006. Of course, that is not legal in as much as the language in the charter of 1982 states that the only way amendment can be effectuated is by the Blount County Commission. The Commission was never consulted.

Additionally, I found that the board attempted to increase its number from nine to 15 members. This, too, would have had to be through resolution by the Blount County Commission. This was not done, and there is no resolution to that effect in the Commission office...

I am advised by our attorney that the amendment to the charter which was attempted by the Blount County Children’s Home is not legal.... Of interest is the fact that even the amended charter indicates that any new board members are to be submitted by the Blount County executive or mayor for approval. That was never sent to either Beverley Woodruff, nor has it been tendered to me for consideration.

Any and all matters conducted by the board since the amended charter could be null and void. This, of course, places the board very much on the horns of a dilemma, and I certainly do not like to see you in that situation. At this point, it appears that you need to take measures to bring the board into legal standing. This is a very distressing situation which dictates immediate action.

Also, I did a bit of research relative to the property transfer. Evidently, my predecessor Beverley Woodruff signed a warranty deed attempting to convey property to the Children’s Home. However, this was done without any resolution by the Blount County Commission as is legally required in order to transfer property. To make a long story short, our attorney indicates that Blount County, by virtue of this failure, is still owner of that property. I am very concerned about the liabilities to the county based on the condition of the Children’s Home and based on the fact that evidently, on some limited basis, some services are being offered to the public. The charter of 1982 is very explicit in its purpose clause as to what the mission and purpose of the Children’s Home is...

I am also advised that the Children’s Home Board is contemplating a sublease to an entity out of Sevier County for the Children’s Home property or a portion thereof. Based on all of the above, it is the position of Blount County that this would be an illegal act which the board do not have legal standing to attempt.

Lastly, until such time as your organization becomes legal, we are advised by counsel that Blount County should no longer pay any interest from the endowment. I feel this is a matter that possibly can be remedied, but you are going to have to address the situation.


Jerry Cunningham.

Elmore said the board wasn’t surprised the mayor sent the letter. “We were aware of the problem with the charter, and we already had taken measures to correct that,” he said. “We have a resolution going before county commission this month to correct the problem. As far as the legal ends of that, we have an attorney who will be addressing the endowment and the deed.”

Elmore said had the children’s home board agreed with the mayor’s plans to give up part of their land for Helen Ross McNabb and New Hope to build, the mayor wouldn’t have brought these concerns forward.

Elmore said all along they’ve been concerned about how any agencies building on a proposed campus would coordinate their programming. “Our view is the only thing they want is the property, and they have basically gone to the county mayor, and they are using this to get the property so Helen Ross McNabb and New Hope can build up there and not take into account programmatic compatibility,” he said.

Elmore said it was never the board’s intention to pull away from any type of county commission oversight. “We wanted to work independently. It’s not a matter of oversight. Oversight deals with the trust fund, primarily financially. They’re responsible for maintaining that,” he said.

When asked what the next move was regarding the situation, Cunningham said it was up to the children’s home. “The ball’s in their court to correct the problem,’ he said.

Cunningham said it appeared they didn’t want to operate under authority of the county government. “I think they didn’t want to be under the Blount County government. They have to be, to qualify for the endowment funds. I think there is $450,000 or $475,000 in that endowment now, and they’ve been getting the interest off it,” he said.

The mayor said there are at least two problems. “It’s kind of a convoluted mess,” he said. “There are two deed failures. One is that there was never a resolution authorizing Mayor Woodruff to sign the deed, and there is a reversion clause in the deed that if property was not used as children home. It hasn’t been used as children home, so even if the deed is legal, the property reverts to county,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham said when he first approached the children’s home about the campus concept, they seemed warm to the idea, but, at the next meeting, they had changed their minds.

“I just did not understand it,” he said. “When a door is slammed in my face, I start wondering why. Certainly the children’s home had nothing to lose by this. It would have enabled what I see as a deteriorating facility. That’s when we started talking with some other board members, and they didn’t agree with decisions being made,” he said. “Certainly the children’s home has served Blount County well in the past but seems now to have gone out on a tangent of its own without any input from the Blount County Commission.”

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