Children’s Home: Charter, land on discussion table

The future of the Blount County Children’s Home’s charter and the concept of a children’s campus on the children’s home site will be discussed in three meetings in March. The children’s home has a special called board meeting on Monday, March 10, while the issue will be discussed in a county commission workshop on Tuesday, March 11, and is expected to be on the agenda for the Thursday, March 20, full commission meeting.

At issue is a proposal by Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham to build a children’s campus adjacent to the Blount County Children’s Home site, adding Helen Ross McNabb, New Hope Children’s Advocacy Center and possibly the Boys & Girls Club to property adjacent to the children’s home building.

The controversy arose earlier this year when County Mayor Jerry Cunningham made overtures to the board about building a community campus adjacent to the home property where agencies such as New Hope Children’s Advocacy Center, Helen Ross McNabb and the Boys and Girls Club of Blount County could build facilities. The county owns the property on McCammon Ave. adjacent to the children’s home but wanted property from the home for a parking lot that could be shared by all the agencies.

The children’s home refused the offer and proposed a land swap, which the county refused. Also during this time, problems were discovered with the children’s home charter.

On Friday, Children’s Home board chair Terry Elmore released details of a proposed settlement offered by the county mayor that would reduce the number of people on the board, return the property to county ownership and then have a smaller amount leased back to the home. The proposal would also limit the home to serving only Blount County children.

“The children’s home wanted a three-to-one swap,” Cunningham said, regarding the property. “They would not cooperate on a joint advisory board to make sure there wasn’t competition for clients. They absolutely shut the door on that hard.”

Elmore said the children’s home offered land in the front of their property to make room for two facilities but the county turned down their offer. “They were wanting to come up and take half the property we’ve got,” he said.

Elmore said the children’s home board was never really interested in doing the land swap because they have long-range plans for the children’s home. “We were looking for more of a fit for our mission versus other agencies’ missions,” he said. “Figuring out their mission is like shoveling smoke. You can’t get a straight answer.”

In early February, the county mayor sent a letter to commissioners that highlighted his concerns that the children’s home’s charter wasn’t valid since he said it wasn’t voted on by the entire commission when the board tried to amend it in 2005. The children’s home board amended its charter in 2005 to increase the membership from nine to 15 members.

The state took the children out of facilities such as the children’s home in 2003 following a lawsuit brought against the state. This meant the 28 to 35 children housed at the home were placed elsewhere.

Emily Hyden, a children’s home board member, expressed concerns regarding the controversy between the home’s board and the county in a letter to Blount Today. While Hyden said her concerns were her own, she felt they needed to be heard.

Hyden said the board of the children’s home has tried to compromise with the mayor when the county approached the children’s home regarding switching property in order for the county to develop an adult and children’s social services campus adjacent to the children’s home.

“It’s wrong to say we haven’t tried to compromise. We provided the mayor with a proposal he asked for, but he refused and never provided a counter proposal,” she said.

The mayor disagreed. “A three-to-one swap is not a compromise,” he said.

Regarding the problems with the charter, Hyden said that in 2005, the board of the children’s home created a new charter increasing the membership from nine to 15 members. While it was discussed by commissioners, it was never passed. Recently when board member and county commissioner Gary Farmer brought this to the attention of the board, the children’s home took steps to hire an attorney to write a resolution for commissioners to approve their charter. While the children’s home board admitted the previous commission didn’t vote on the resolution for the new charter, “this does not constitute a deliberate attempt to do business illegally, as inferred by the mayor,” Hyden said.

Hyden said the new charter would be different from the old charter in that in the old one, the mayor appointed members. “That limited the children’s home in its scope of choosing people who had experience, passion and desire to serve,” she said. “The new charter simply says the board can provide nominees, and the mayor still has approval rights in the event that he has good cause to refuse any of the nominees.”

Cunningham said he didn’t like the new charter. “I don’t think much of it. It is way, way too broad. What it does is allow them to go out and handle dysfunctional situations in other counties. Other counties need to handle their own situations, not Blount County,” he said.

Hyden said the bulk of their revenues come from services they provide through programs like Operation Success, which is funded through the Department of Children’s Services, and Gardner Place, a fee-based service adjusted by the income of the clients.

“The majority of our clients are children in the state foster care system from Blount and surrounding counties. The remainder are primarily Blount County families using the services for court-ordered supervised visitations through Gardner Place, the supervised visitation program,” she said.

Hyden said the home in 2007-08 had a budget of $250,000, served at least 300 families and at least 40 percent of those families are in Blount County. She said if the home had its choice, they would request more Blount County families to serve with Operation Success, the program funded by the Department of Children’s Services. “You don’t normally get choices. The Department of Children’s Services sends children,” she said.

Cunningham said the agency could save money by cutting back on their staff if they served just Blount County.

Elmore said the bottom line is board members felt the children’s home had made great strides over the two years, had stopped deficits and was running in the black fiscally and had long range plans to utilize all the existing property and none of that has been considered by the county.

Hyden said the mayor had no interest in the Blount County Children’s Home charter until the the board would not turn its right to determine the use of the property over to him. “If his real concern was of any impropriety of the board’s actions, it would have been appropriate for him to meet with the board, express his concerns, develop a plan of action to resolve any problems, and then supervise the progress of that plan,” she said.

Cunningham disagreed with Hyden and said he tried to meet with the board. “It was like walking into an ice box, and, when I found all these irregularities, as mayor it was my duty to call them to the attention of the commission,” he said.

One proposal being discussed would include the county approving a revised children’s home charter, but taking back their nine acres and leasing the children’s home four acres. “It would limit our ability to provide services already being planned to start this year,” Hyden said.

Hyden said the children’s home has in works planned partnerships with Family Promise and the Maryville Housing Authority. Family Promise is a program set to begin this summer to help homeless families secure housing and employment to become self-sufficient. “Our part would be to provide a day center. It’s a national grant program,” she said.

Hyden said the disagreements with the mayor got out of hand when the children’s home was faced with a “public letter” addressing issues she said were unrelated to the proposed campus. The letter was sent to members of the county commission and children’s home board members and reached the press.

“The only way it’s going to be resolved is if those who are in a position to resolve it, the commission and the mayor, would be willing to make a decision based on fact and fairness without special interests affecting their decisions,” she said.

Hyden said that as a board member she had no problem with the campus concept. “Our concerns had nothing to do with the concept but how to implement the concept, and our role and the different agencies’ ability to keep their autonomy,” she said.

Hyden said she is concerned the board is being misrepresented and being used as a pawn and is concerned with not being able to provide services to the community. “These services would have to be provided out of Knox County if we’re shut down,” she said.

Elmore said the mayor’s proposal will shut down the children’s home.

“In that proposal, they’re going to require us to only serve Blount County residents,” Elmore explained. “Under Operation Success, we have to serve the East Tennessee region. You’re basically shutting down all of our programs. (Operation Success) is our flagship program,” he said. “We’re able to use that to offset expenses for Gardner Place.”

Elmore also wondered if those same restrictions would apply to the other agencies at the campus.

Cunningham said he wasn’t singling the home out. “Absolutely I’m not picking on them,” Cunningham said. “I’m reporting the things they’re doing to the commission, which is the proper authority over them. They’re jealous of any other agency coming down there, and they don’t want any oversight by the commission.”

Elmore said the commissioner should pass the amended charter so the children’s home can get back to serving clients. “If that passes, control goes back to the board where it should be. The decision-making should be with the board,” he said. “It’s almost like the county wants to get into the children’s services business instead of depending on board members. It boils down to what the county commission votes. They’re going to either pass it or not. Nothing is going to move forward until we get our resolution passed.”

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