The Blount County Commission on Tuesday passed onto the full commission a motion to appropriate $12,755,779 to pay for the new Prospect School on Burnett Station Road.
The commission also approved a motion to reimburse the county if they received a Qualified School Construction Bond from the state that would be at a lower rate than the traditional 20-year bond, although it would have to be paid back sooner.
Commissioner David Graham voiced concern that commission be assured the bond is a fixed rate and not a variable rate. “I want to be sure if we go the traditional route that we go with fixed rate,” he said.
Graham also asked that the commission be made more aware of how the financing for the school would work.
“This is simply to get all 21 commissioners closer to the finance process, which we have not been close to,” he said.
When he made a motion that anything other than a fixed rate bond be brought back to the commission for approval, it failed 7-11. “I think it’s a moot point if it’s a fixed rate,” Commission chair Steve Samples said.
“I want to be sure if we go the traditional route, that we go fixed rate,” Graham said.
Holden Lail voiced concern over how much it would cost to open the school. When told it would probably be about $1.5 million, he said, “We’re setting ourselves up to have to look at raising property taxes to pay for this, and I’m not sure residents are ready for this.”
The full commission will consider the motion at the November commission meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19.
Near the end of the meeting, Dave Bennett, assistant county mayor and finance director, asked the commission to consider hiring an outside auditor “to give an independent review of our current debt, including our swaps.”
In recent months Graham has questioned the county’s debt management policy and the use of “debt swaps,” where the county works with a third party firm to receive a lower interest, fixed rates on bonds.
While Bennett has defended debt swaps in the past on the basis that it saved the county money, some counties have gotten into trouble using swaps when they didn’t budget enough to cover the debt. Graham has raised questions about the county’s debt management. “What I can’t understand is continuing to support the policies we’ve been supporting. I just feel we don’t have the whole story. I’m asking for it, and I’m going to keep asking for it,” Graham said.
Graham asked that whomever did the audit be truly independent of the county. Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves echoed his sentiment. “I’m encouraged by the general idea. One question I will always ask is how you determine independence,” she said.
The commissioners unanimously voted to pass the motion on to full commission for discussion.
After the business portion of the meeting was finished, fireworks ignited in the workshop when County Mayor Jerry Cunningham raised his hand and said he had become angry while listening to Graham’s comments on county finances.
“He’s been continually invited to my office,” the Mayor said. “We’re open. We’ve opened up government. I’m angry, and I’m tired of your cheap shots. I’m not going to stand here and be a stage prop. That’s why I leave before ‘public comment of items not on the agenda.’ My department is open. I’m in the office at 7 a.m. I’ll talk to anyone. I don’t have to stand here and be insulted. It’s childish, Mr. Graham. It’s childish.”
With that, the county mayor left and his entire staff filed out with him. Graham countered, “I disagree with the mayor’s comments,” he said. “I wanted the county commission more involved in the process. It was not an attack.”
Also during comments for items not on the agenda, commissioner Peggy Lambert stirred discussion in the audience when she made a motion to move all public input for items on or off the agenda to agenda workshops.
“There’s no one who believes more strongly that citizens have a right to express their opinion,” Lambert said. “However, I move we have public input happen only at work sessions. Commissioners would have over a week to consider those comments. Our regularly scheduled meeting would be a business session only.”
There was a parliamentary question of whether a commissioner could make a motion during “public comment for items not on the agenda.” After a 5 minute recess, Lambert was the given the option of putting the motion on the December agenda or suspending the rules and going back to make the motion. She opted to pass the motion to the December agenda workshop.
Commissioner Monika Murrell said after the meeting she disagreed with the motion. “These people sitting out here, they are going to vote her in or out,” she said. “I support freedom of speech.”
Currently “public input for items on the agenda” is at the beginning of the meeting. “Public input for items not on the agenda” is at the end of the meeting. Earlier in the meeting, Reeves had made a motion to consolidate the public input for items both on and off the agenda and put them at the beginning of the meeting.
The motion failed 7-11 with David Ballard, Graham, Holden Lail, Joe McCulley, Murrell, Dr. Bob Proffitt and Reeves voting yes. “What’s frustrating is it seems like every chance we have to shut the public out of the process, we do so, and I don’t understand,” Reeves said.