BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Greene County Commission faced a full agenda on Monday after nearly two hours of emotional discussion and debate surrounding the alleged violation of the county government's Code of Ethics by Commissioner Tim White.
After lengthy discussion, the Commission, with White abstaining, voted 11-7 that he was not guilty of an ethics violation.
At that point, the Commission turned to a mountain of new business that contained yet more items that resulted in divided votes.
SCHOOL FUND TRANSFER
Major debate centered on a resolution sponsored by Commissioner Hilton Seay, chairman of the County Commission Education Committee, that allowed the Greene County School System to transfer $700,000 from the school system's General Purpose School Fund's unassigned balance (or savings) to the system's Capital Outlay building improvement line item.
Commissioner Anthony Sauceman opened discussion on the resolution by calling on Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk to explain why such a request was not made just a few months ago, during the county's budgeting process.
EXPLANATION BY KIRK
Kirk explained that the system had managed to budget only about $30,000 for capital outlay this year and that those funds have already been consumed by small projects such as graveling turnarounds and the purchase of a replacement delivery vehicle.
"What we've been doing for the past few years is taking savings at the end of the year and reallocating those into a line for capital improvements," she explained.
"That gives us just the summer to do these improvements. It also causes us to have to have a very short planning time, depending on how much money we have."
Kirk said that this year, she felt it "prudent" to move money from undesignated funds (savings) earlier in the year due to an extensive list of "tier one" projects that need to be completed at the system's many facilities.
She explained that she proposed the idea to the County Board of Education at the board's recent retreat.
The board then prioritized the needed projects until reaching approximately $700,000 in maintenance items that need to be addressed, she said. The items included security issues, roofing and HVAC replacements.
Commissioner Robert Bird expressed opposition to the request, beginning with asking why Dr. Kirk was now willing to move funds out of savings for these projects.
Several months ago, he said, she was against the idea of moving funds out of savings in order to lessen the school system's large deficit, which lead up to a significant portion of this year's property tax increase.
"I said we should not be budgeting money out of fund balance for ongoing expenses," she said, concerning her earlier statements.
She also noted that she is not "completely comfortable" with moving so much money from the fund balance, but added that she is "less comfortable" leaving all the projects not done.
"I'm very concerned with the condition of our facilities," she said, noting that there are "over 23 acres under roof" in the school system.
"Doing it this way takes away the public knowledge of these things because you've got that money all in that fund now and it doesn't have to come through the [Budget and Finance] Committee or the County Commission to approve these projects," Bird said.
"Otherwise, it would have [gone through one or both of those groups], and the public would have been aware of these expenditures and what they're being expended for, more so than they would just through the school board meetings."
Kirk said she would challenge that statement since the County Commission normally focuses on the system's building projects from the Capital Projects Fund rather than on the maintenance items from Capital Outlay.
In years past, prior to budget cuts, she said, the school system budgeted $500,000 annually for such repairs.
'MORE TIME NEEDED'
Commissioner Wade McAmis questioned what would happen if the commission did not approve the request.
Kirk replied that the system would likely fall back to spending what monies were available from savings at the end of the year, leaving only the summer to complete what would likely be only a portion of the needed projects.
"I think we will do it better if we have more time," she said.
The director also replied to an inquiry from Commissioner David Crum that, if the request to move the $700,000 was approved, the school system would maintain $1,946,161 in savings, and, in addition, generally has $400,000 to $800,000 in savings from budgeted expenses at the end of each budget year.
The commission voted 13-5 in favor of allowing the transfer of funds, with Commissioners McAmis, Rennie Hopson, Bird, Phil King and Anthony Sauceman voting against the transfer and Ted Hensley abstaining.
Those voting in favor were Commissioners Fred Malone, Tim White, John Carter, Robin Quillen, Lloyd "Hoot" Bowers, M.C. Rollins, Hilton Seay, Nathan Holt, John Waddle, Bill Moss, David Crum, Jan Kiker, and Jimmy Sams.
Margaret Greenway was absent due to family responsibilities.
Commissioner White praised Kirk for being proactive in her thinking, noting that the same could be said of Road Superintendent David Weems for his actions in bringing a county asphalt plant.
The commission voted 13-6 in another hotly-debated matter to send a resolution to the Tennessee General Assembly recommending amending state law to allow local governments with asphalt plants to sell asphalt to government entities within their respective counties.
The current law in Tennessee only allows asphalt from government-owned plants to be placed on the roadways of the county or municipality that owns the plant.
Many local officials have speculated that the restrictions in the current law are the result of lobbying by asphalt-producing companies in the private sector of the economy since the county may legally pave other government entities' roads or parking lots with the county Road Department's equipment but are prohibited from using county-made asphalt.
Commissioner Hensley read a prepared statement objecting to this resolution, calling it an attempted encroachment on private business. He said it would amount to government competition with free enterprise.
He noted the effectiveness of private enterprise and called for the county to lease the asphalt plant to a private company with the understanding that the county could then purchase asphalt at cost.
Commissioners John Carter and Lloyd "Hoot" Bowers also spoke against the resolution, saying that the Road Department should focus on the county roads for a few years before tending to other governmental bodies.
Commissioner Nathan Holt, however, noted that keeping production going at the plant during any slack time to produce asphalt for other governmental bodies could also drive down the cost for the county.
Commissioner Fred Malone called on Weems to speak, at which time the road superintendent said there is little slack time now in which he could produce asphalt for other governmental bodies.
However, he said, after the remainder of the county road bond is expended next year, the situation may change as far as slack time is concerned, without increased funding to keep the plant running.
During that time, he said, producing and selling asphalt for other governmental bodies could help with costs, as Holt had indicated.
He also clarified that he was not the source of the resolution asking the Tennessee General Assembly to change the current state law but that the resolution stemmed instead from local county departments and municipalities who have expressed their interest in purchasing asphalt from the county.
The Greene County Road Committee sponsored the resolution, he noted.
At commissioners' request, Weems also noted that the plant has produced some 40,000 tons of asphalt since June 1 and will continue to run through the remainder of November.
No asphalt bids were submitted in response to the county's bid request this year, he said.
However, Weems noted that the county received an email from one local business pricing c-mix asphalt at $69 per ton.
"Our cost of producing c-mix asphalt is $44 per ton, which is $25 a ton in savings," Weems said.
He therefore calculated that the county has saved $1 million this year in the cost of asphalt compared with the $969,000 cost to buy the asphalt plant and have it installed.
Weems also said that the County Highway Department has paved 38 miles of county road.
The matter then went to a vote, with 13 members voting yes and McAmis, Hopson, Hensley, Bowers, King and John Waddle voting against the resolution.
Those voting in favor were Commissioners Malone, White, Carter, Bird, Quillen, Rollins, Sauceman, Seay, Holt, Moss, Crum, Kiker and Sams.
In other business, the commission also approved the following resolutions:
* recording wetlands property owned by Greene County as a result of mitigation surrounding the placement of the Walmart Distribution Center into the Register of Deeds office at the state's request;
* allocating a $36,000 S3 School Climate Grant related to improving high school discipline, to the General Purpose Education Fund;
* budgeting $34,000 from the Solid Waste Fund Balance for the replacement of a truck in the Solid Waste Department;
* allocating revenues received from the sale of six properties deeded to the county as a result of delinquent taxes to the General Debt Service Fund, with commissioners Seay or King to serve as auctioneer at no cost;
* allocating $2,543 from the county government's Capital Projects Fund to the County General Fund to pay for the temporary repair of water damage along the back wall at the Greene County Courthouse;
* allocating $344 to the County Buildings budget in the Communications line item, from the sale of scrap metal and paper;
* contributing $1,000 to the T. Elmer Cox Historical and Genealogical Library to purchase acid-free folders;
* allocating $2,500, respectively, in contributions received from Victory Sports Inc. and Tusculum College for ambulance standby services, to the Greene County-Greeneville Emergency Medical Services budget, where it would be used for part-time personnel and related line items; and,
* allocating $1,799 in donations and other local revenue to the Sheriff's Department's budget into the Law Enforcement Equipment and Contributions line items.
Hensley was the sole 'no' vote or 'abstaining' vote for several of these items.
"I wasn't feeling too well," he said in explanation after the meeting adjourned. "I'm kind of wondering why I'm here, maybe."
He cited his frustration with the vote on the alleged conflict-of-interest as the issue at the heart of these votes.
He said that for the commission to say there was no violation was, in effect, to say that there was no ethical code.
"We laughed at our standards tonight," Hensley stated.
The meeting concluded on Monday with Mayor Broyles announcing a three-minute closed-session meeting of the Greene County Insurance Committee.
The committee did not meet or take any action beyond this brief closed session.
(Under the state Open Meetings law and court cases relating to it, a governmental body, such as the Insurance Committee, is allowed to meet in closed session to hear from its attorney about a pending legal matter, ask the attorney questions about it, etc.
(The governmental body is legally required to return to open session, however, to discuss the legal matter among themselves and/or to take any action about the matter.)