Commission opens door to 12.8 percent budget cut

Blount County Budget Committee members are asking department heads to cut 12.8 percent from their budgets as part of the first round of budget hearings.

Commissioner Steve Samples made the motion during the Jan. 20 budget committee meeting held before the commission’s regularly scheduled January meeting.

“Our goal in this is to come up with a balanced budget without raising taxes because Blount County folks can not endure a tax increase right now,” Samples said. “Blount County government is no different than any other government. We’ve got to balance the budget with what we’ve got.”

Samples said he made the motion to instruct the finance director to communicate to department heads that the Budget Committee intends to hold property taxes at $2.04 per $100 of assessed value and for those department heads to return a proposed budget that reflects a 12.8 percent reduction in their requested budget.

During the regularly scheduled commission meeting that followed, commissioners spent more than 45 minutes discussing whether to approve moving the Homeland Security office budget to the sheriff’s office because Homeland Security director Bart Stinnett wants to maintain his Police Officers Standards and Training Commission certification he earned during his 10 years with the Pigeon Forge Police Department.

Following the commission meeting, Stinnett told Blount Today that having the POST certification allows someone more access to sensitive law enforcement information and gives an individual or their office more credibility. In addition, those who are POST certified get paid for their in-service training, but Stinnett said he never intended to request that payment

Two conflicting letters from POST were presented at the commission meeting, and commissioner Ron French said the matter needed to be clarified before commissioners voted. “I’m confused. I have two letters from the same office. One states there’s no reason to transfer the salary, and the other says it is needed to maintain POST certification,” French said.

Lt. Rick Baker handles POST matters for the Blount County Sheriff’s Office and said that, according to POST regulations, a person has to be employed by or be supervised by the chief law enforcement officer of the county. “He has to answer to the certified law enforcement person, who is, in this case, the high sheriff of the county,” Baker said.

Mayor Ed Mitchell countered that state law says the Homeland Security director must fall under the supervision of the mayor. “If he comes out from under the mayor’s office and goes to the sheriff’s office, he will lose his status as emergency management director,” Mitchell said.

At this point, commissioner Ron French moved to have this measure forwarded to the county attorney for consideration.

Commissioner Tab Burkhalter questioned Baker. “If we pass this and he is no longer under the supervision of the county mayor, then wouldn’t we be in violation and would no longer have a Homeland Security officer?” he said. “When does his POST certification expire?”

Initially Baker said the certification was expiring “As we speak,” before looking back at Stinnett and correcting it with, “May.”

Burkhalter then asked Stinnett, “The way I read this, you would have to change supervisors, so you would have to resign. Do you want to resign as Homeland Security director ?”

“No,” Stinnett answered. “I want to stay as Homeland Security director.”

Commissioner Farmer then moved to have the issue explored by the county attorney. “I’m not going to back Mr. Stinnett into a corner,” Farmer said. “Let’s get a legal opinion and decide.”

On Wednesday, Jan. 26, Stinnett told Blount Today he had changed his mind on pursuing the re-certification and transferring his supervision.

“I’ve withdrawn everything. I’m not going to pursue it. Obviously it raised some passionate feelings, and it’s not worth it to me to do that,” he said. “I don’t want to create any discord.”

Stinnett has been emergency management director four years on March 15. He and assistant director Kathy Shields have brought in $3.2 in federal and state grants that have been distributed to emergency responder agencies and support agencies such as the Blount County Chapter of the American Red Cross.”

Whether to applaud or not to applaud was a sore subject between some members of the audience and Commission Chair Kenneth Melton during the Jan. 20 meeting.

Commission chair Kenneth Melton requested the audience not applaud during the meeting. “I’m asking you to hold the applause. This courthouse is full, and I’ve asked you many times not to applaud, so tonight, if you applaud, I have an officer who will escort you out,” Melton said.

Melton also kept every speaker to three minutes, gaveling when they ran out of time. In the past, a commissioner could “yield” time to someone who was speaking once his or her three minutes had expired. One speaker, Samuel Duck of Maryville, was reading Old Testament scripture from his laptop computer at the podium when his time ran out. He refused to stop, and deputies escorted him from the room.

Following the meeting, Melton said the move to control applause came since the November meeting because he said the audience was being disruptive with their applause.

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