Exit Interviews

Mayor, commissioners reflect on accomplishments, unfinished business and the future

When someone leaves a job, there is usually an “exit interview,” a conversation between the departing employee and the employer.

Sometimes it is as the employee is shouting obscenities at an airline passenger, grabbing a six pack and sliding down a plane chute. Most of the time, it is a simple question and answer session between a human resources manager and the departing employee. Either way, an exit interview happens.

On Sept. 1, eight commissioners who have sat “in the horseshoe” and the Mayor will no longer be serving the people of Blount County.

Two Republicans commissioners, Mike Walker and Steve Hargis, and Mayor Jerry Cunningham lost to primary opponents in May. The only three Democrats on the commission, Wendy Pitts Reeves, David Ballard and Bob Proffitt, lost their seats to Republican opponents in the August general election.

Others chose to retire. Commissioner Joe McCulley had four years on the panel before retiring and making what became an unsuccessful run for State House of Representatives. Commissioner David Graham served 12 years on commission before opting to retire. The senior member of the post, John Keeble, has been on the commission since 1990.

There were times in the last four years when leaders didn’t see “eye-to-eye” and controversy arose. But on the day of their final commission meeting, the gallery of the commission room at the Blount County Courthouse was packed and everyone wished each other the best, honoring each one’s commitment to public service and the people of Blount County.

In other words, no one grabbed the beer and slid down the chute.

Blount Today spoke with each departing commissioner and Mayor Cunningham to get their thoughts on what they are proud of, what they wished they could have accomplished and what advice they would give those who remain.

Here are their exit interviews:

JERRY CUNNINGHAM - Blount County Mayor

What are you most proud of that happened during your tenure?

“We opened government up and were the most transparent county government in the state, and I’m very proud of that.”

Cunningham said he was proud the county purchased the former CeramaSpeed building on McArthur Road and moved the Highway Department there, with plans in the works to move other county operations there. The mayor said he also was happy a new Blount County Animal Center was constructed on Currie Avenue. “I’m proud of how we took the ball and ran with it relative to animal control.”

Cunningham said he eliminated travel expenses in the executive branch, and his team worked to build up the rainy day fund from $800,000 to $11 million. “That was very handy this year when the commission didn’t want to raise taxes, and they used that money to bail us out of this year.”

The mayor said he was proud he took the Public Building Authority out of the building business. “We saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not allowing the PBA to do construction management,” he said.

What were you not able to accomplish that you would have liked to have done?

“I had hoped we would attract more industry and more jobs into Blount County, and I think our efforts and results have been anemic relating to job and industrial recruitment.”

What words of advice do you have for the next mayor?

“Listen, because you are on a learning curve when you first come in. He has indicated he is going to keep all the people who are here on board presently, and I think that’s very wise.

“I also think he and the commission need to be very cautious about putting money into any high tech speculative buildings in any industry parks. There is going to be a move to build a high tech spec building, and we already have a spec building in Partnership Park South that has sat empty since 2004. My advice would be to very cautious about those expenditures. I would recommend to the new mayor that the industrial recruiter spend 100 percent of his time on recruitment and not be deluded by any other responsibilities.”

What are your personal plans?

“I’ve had other opportunities open up, but I’m going to do a lot of farming and just take life easy with our four grandkids.”

DAVID BALLARD - District 1 Seat B

During your time on commission, what was the most important thing that was accomplished?

“I think we are in a good, sound fiscal place. We restored the fund balance to a healthy level. I’m very proud of our animal shelter and very proud of our partnerships in the community.”

What were you unable to get done that you really wanted to accomplish?

“I really felt there were a lot of issues I wanted to deal with such as the accountability of department budgets, and I was looking forward to working with the finance director, Steve Jennings, on the debt management problem.”

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with your fellow commissioners?

“First thing, buckle up. The first couple of months, there is a lot to learn. But always lay everything out and try to achieve what is best for your constituents.”

JOE MCCULLEY - District 3 Seat B

During your time on commission, what was the most important thing that was accomplished?

“The main thing is we changed the administrator for insurance for county employees. We saved $1.7 million a year for the county and saved probably $1.5 million a year for the employees in what they would spend in co-pays.”

What were you unable to get done that you really wanted to accomplish?

“I know we had to build the schools, but we let our debt get out of hand. The main thing is, I really wanted to restructure the debt. Everything we built was needed, but we needed to do it without variable rate debt.”

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with your fellow commissioners?

“Live within your means, watch the debt and hold the tax rate down. We had a 5 cent tax rate increase in four years, and I voted against that because I felt we needed to cut expenses.”

WENDY PITTS REEVES - District 4 Seat C

During your time on commission, what was the most important thing that was accomplished?

“One of the most important things we did was the animal shelter, which was good mix of private funds and public dollars combined to build the best shelter possible.”

What were you unable to get done that you really wanted to accomplish?

“I would have liked to have had a more open appointment process for nominating people to committees.”

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with your fellow commissioners?

“They should do their homework and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” Reeves said commissioners can be tempted to act like they know everything when they’re in commission meetings in front of the public. As an example, Reeves said when she asked Sheriff James Berrong during agenda workshop on Aug. 10 to provide a cost estimate by Aug. 19 of how much is spent on maintenance for aging Sheriff’s Office radio equipment in order to compare it with the cost of new equipment, she expected an answer and didn’t get one. “New commissioners should not be afraid to ask questions and require people to explain why they need money and how they’re going to cover costs.”

BOB PROFFITT - District 5 Seat B

During your time on commission, what was the most important thing that was accomplished?

“I would say getting funding for the new Prospect School and getting it well under way.”

What were you unable to get done that you really wanted to accomplish?

“I would’ve liked to have seen better traffic control on U.S. 129 - The Dragon. It is pretty far out and very difficult to monitor, but it is becoming known as a place where traffic laws do not apply. I also do not think we need to have School Resource Officers in every elementary school, and I think we only need them on a rotating basis in middle schools. I do think there should be full-time officers in the high schools.”

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with your fellow commissioners?

“Attend the budget committee meetings even if you’re not on that committee. It is so very difficult to know all that is happening unless you attend those meetings.”

Proffitt said commissioners must also work to deal with debt and also keep property taxes down. “Our moment of truth will come in a year or two when we have a balloon payment due, and there will be no choice but to raise taxes, maybe even more than they have ever been raised in the past.”

STEVE HARGIS - District 7 Seat A

During your time on commission, what was the most important thing that was accomplished?

“We built all these schools, paid on the debt. A lot of these things, the people asked us to do. I feel very happy about what we accomplished.”

What were you unable to get done that you really wanted to accomplish?

“I would have liked to have made a big dent in our debt when we moved county maintenance over to the new Blount County Service Center by selling other satellite buildings and putting that money into the general fund.”

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with your fellow commissioners?

“Don’t believe anything you hear from the audience in the gallery, except those living in your district. They put you here to represent them. Work for them and forget about everyone else.”

DAVID GRAHAM - District 7 Seat B

During your time on commission, what was the most important thing that was accomplished?

“Probably the most important thing that was accomplished was building schools. The schools on our end of the county were inferior to those on the other end of the county and were in need of repair or they needed to be replaced. We also built them with a Public Building Authority that was open and brought all the projects in under budget. They left money over for additional use in other areas. The elimination of the PBA is one of the things I think has hurt this county when it comes to brick and mortar construction projects.”

What were you unable to get done that you really wanted to accomplish?

“Fleet management for Blount County, not to include the Sheriff’s Office police pursuit vehicles, but to include any county-owned vehicle outside of police pursuit vehicles. That’s the sheriff’s responsibility. I wish we had had that opportunity.”

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with your fellow commissioners?

“Place your vote based on your constituents and your conscience and not on special interest groups.”

JOHN KEEBLE - District 8 Seat A

During your time on commission, what was the most important thing that was accomplished?

“Probably building the schools. And it was a good feeling I got seeing the senior citizens up here when we voted to build the Everett Seniors Center. They wanted someplace to spend their golden years, and we got that done. The renovation of Everett Gym was also important because of so many kids get to use it.”

What were you unable to get done that you really wanted to accomplish?

“I guess the fairgrounds. We needed a place where we could have a fair. The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center has picked that up now and started the Blue Ribbon Country Fair.”

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with your fellow commissioners?

“Answer your phone calls and treat everyone with respect, even if you don’t agree with them.”

MIKE WALKER - District 8 Seat B

During your time on commission, what was the most important thing that was accomplished?

“We were able to maintain services with minimal taxes. Projects come and go before the commission, but true management is being able to maintain a level of service that is equal for all residents.”

What were you unable to get done that you really wanted to accomplish?

“I would have liked to have gotten our variable rate debt transferred over to a fixed rate.”

What words of advice or encouragement would you like to leave with your fellow commissioners?

“My advice, especially to new commissioners, is to remember it takes 11 votes to accomplish anything.”

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