Officials Say Districts Must Officially Join Or Split; Shared Account Discussed
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Chuckey and Cross Anchor Utility Districts must either combine into one district or split ways entirely, according to both districts' presidents.
The Chuckey Utility District Board met Wednesday, hearing numerous complaints from the remaining employees concerning alleged unequal treatment and intimidation under the former management.
Both districts share the same office, and often the line is blurred or seemingly non-existent as to which district an employee serves -- many do the work of both districts.
LEAVE WITHOUT PAY
The districts placed four employees on leave without pay earlier this year following early results of an annual audit by local Certified Public Accountant Mickey Ellis, who said he found "questionable practices by the management."
Employees placed on leave include: former manager Shirley Collins; her husband, Willie; their daughter, Kandie Jennings, who became acting general manager after Shirley Collins retired; and Jennings' husband, Bill.
Ellis' investigation remains ongoing, as is an investigation by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury.
The Chuckey board on Wednesday also voted unanimously to not pay the four employees for their remaining vacation this year.
Meanwhile, recent board meetings and reviews by The Greeneville Sun of the districts' financial records have indicated the former management enjoyed large bonuses and cell phone allowances, and threw a nearly $8,000 retirement party for Collins at district expense.
On Wednesday, board members again emphasized that they never knew what was going on, expressing their disappointment that employees never came to them to complain.
Employees, in turn, alleged that they were banned from the board meetings and threatened with the loss of their job should they lodge a complaint with a board member.
Although employees have been attending the board meetings since the audit investigation began, there has been little input from employees or involvement by them in the discussion.
That all changed Wednesday, when Chuckey's board again confirmed that employees will not have a Christmas dinner this year and, unlike Cross Anchor's employees, will also not get a day off as compensation for the loss of the dinner.
Moreover, the board contemplated not offering Christmas bonuses.
Employees present for Wednesday's meeting said they were not involved in any wrongdoing and want to know why these changes were being made.
"We've got a policy manual that states the days that are off," Commissioner Harry Kyker said. "I don't want to set a precedent in the middle of this right now."
Morale in the office is on a rapid decline, employees responded.
"I feel like I'm being punished for something I did not do," temporary Office Manager Beth Fletcher said. "It's like a smack in the face, is what it is."
Chuckey employee Bill Boy agreed, saying Kandie Jennings and Shirley Collins each received thousands in bonuses in recent years.
"We aren't getting anything?" Boy questioned. "We're the ones here working. We've worked hard. We're still here keeping this place going."
Other employees reported that they are having to work beyond 40 hours, and even on the weekend, to cover the workload of those employees placed on leave in addition to their own.
Both Carter and Kyker told employees that no one should work without logging their time for pay.
STUCK IN LIMBO
Kyker again emphasized that the board needs to avoid changes and keep directly to their policies and procedures until the audits are resolved.
"We're talking months, if not a year," bookkeeper Stephanie Wallin said of the audit's completion. "So we're just supposed to sit here in limbo before we know anything?"
The board concluded the discussion by voting to give employees a $300 Christmas bonus, but denying the request for a day off.
However, the employee complaints kept coming throughout the meeting as other issues arose, such as how employees work for both districts but those on Chuckey's payroll get better benefits.
The board spent considerable time questioning whether a joint account for performing major projects -- known as a force account -- really saves the districts any money over bidding the projects out to contractors.
Kathy Walden, of W&W Engineering, said the boards still must pay employees for downtime when projects are not underway.
Walden provided a cost comparison for a 2012 project to a bid estimate that indicated that Chuckey's costs were probably slightly above what the cost would have been if a contractor hd performed the work.
However, Walden said that her analysis may not include all materials, insurance, etc., paid out by the district since the bookkeeping did not make clear how the costs are split between the paying district's account and the force account.
Kyker, who requested the analysis in November, asked if there has ever been a formal audit of the force account.
Wallin said that there has not been an audit because the account is not a separate entity. There is not even a contract between the districts to formally establish the account, she said.
The board agreed to pay for a formal audit of this account.
"I don't think it would help you a lot," Wallin said of the audit. "There's not a whole lot of stuff that goes through there except for labor."
As the discussion lengthened into various understandings of how well the force account works, many quickly realized the complexity of the issue.
"We can't make heads or tails of half of this stuff," Temporary Operations Manager Tyson Lamb said.
COMBINE OR SPLIT
Cross Anchor President Lloyd Dawson reminded the board he has called for the two districts to combine into one so that such issues are formally resolved.
Carter, however, questioned the legality and practicality of combining the two, in light of loans and the number of customers.
"We've got to either combine it or split it," Carter said. "[There are] too many accounts, and too many people had their fingers in the accounts."
The board agreed to move forward with contacting their attorney and lenders concerning either combining or splitting the districts.
Finally, Lamb announced that the district must resubmit information to the state concerning two items: tank inspections and water loss.
One tank inspection is now a year overdue, he said.
As for the water loss, the district pays for 29 million gallons per month and sells only 15 million.
Even with estimated fire department usage, the district likely has a water loss through leaks of 47 percent, Lamb said.
Walden reported that a good system would have water loss at about 20 percent, although the state will in coming years require no more than 15 percent.
The board agreed to research the purchase of water loss detection equipment to begin improving this extensive loss.
Both Chuckey's and Cross Anchor's boards will meet again on Jan. 8 to review employee policies.