Jennings, new finance director, approved by county commission

Blount County commissioners approved the hiring of retired Alcoa, Inc., executive Steve Jennings as the new county finance director at their regular commission meeting on Thursday, Feb. 18. Commissioner Mike Lewis made a motion to hire Jennings. The motion passed with 19-0 with Commissioner Joe McCulley abstaining. Commissioner Monika Murrell was not present.

Finances were a major part of several discussions and comments made during the commission meeting.

Samples said that, at County Mayor Jerry Cunningham’s request, he recently began researching financial advisors to do an independent audit of the county’s books.

“The question of bond issues and the multitude of directions you can go boggles your mind. The more I researched, the more I realized I didn’t understand the intricacies of bonds,” Samples said.

Samples said after doing research on the Internet, he spoke with city officials from Mt. Juliet who went through a similar process when looking to do an independent audit. Samples said he then did phone interviews with firms that responded to the county’s request for proposals to do the job.

“I spent the entire day on the phone,” he said. “Our purpose was to cast as wide a net as possible.”

The commission chair said six companies respond and two of them eliminated themselves almost immediately. “I intend to call a special meeting on March 2 for presentations from four firms left,” he said. “It is our intention to present a firm that can present an accurate and independent picture of where we are and make suggestions for our debt management policy.”

During comments for items on the agenda, Linda King of Citizens for Blount County’s Future, said she was glad to see commissioners were finally asking to get a clearer understanding of the county’s debt. “Blount County is over $250 million in debt. It’s hard to imagine our hometown a quarter billion dollars in debt,” she said.

John Davis, chair of Blount County Soil Conservation District, made a short presentation on the soil conservation district and introduced the members of its governing board and staff. “Blount County Soil Conservation District provides leadership, technical assistance and administrative programs to help people conserve and sustain the natural environment, including soil and air quality, while meeting economic needs of property owners,” Davis said. “We are not the dirt police and not the EPA. We’re simply here to help solve environmental problems, and we appreciate your support.”

Commissioner Ron French reported on the progress of the new Prospect School being built in Seymour, saying that grading has been going on even in the bad weather. “Progress is going great,” French said. “I believe we’re on schedule.”

After the commission meeting, commissioners praised the new finance director. Earlier this week, Cunningham scheduled individual meetings between Jennings and each commissioner to let them get acquainted with his choice for filling the position left vacant when Dave Bennett left county government to become CEO of Cherokee Millwright.

Samples said he was impressed with Jennings, a Maryville High School and University of Tennessee graduate. “I think he’s an excellent choice. This county is fortunate to have someone of his caliber,” the commission chair said.

Commissioner Peggy Lambert said she met Jennings Wednesday. “He spoke finances in a way I could comprehend and understand, and I think he’s going to be a tremendous asset. We are fortunate to have him,” she said.

Commissioner David Ballard said he was very impressed. “He’s knowledgeable and, hopefully, he will find the job interesting enough to keep him occupied,” Ballard said. “I was impressed with his financial knowledge and background, and I’m looking forward to working with him.”

Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves said she is pleased with the mayor’s choice. “He seems confident without being arrogant, which is an admirable quality. I asked if he was willing to tell us the truth, whether it was good or bad, and he said absolutely,” she said. “If people will give you the good and bad, I’ll trust him. I think he will be a straight shooter.”

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