Thursday, April 2, 2020
To My Constituents,
By now most of you have heard that our local hospital, Decatur County General, will be closing its doors at the end of business on April 14th. This could not come at a worse time for the people of our county, yet we have no choice at this point.
I’m sure that many of you have kept up with the continuing saga of the facility and know the underlying situation, but for those that have not here is a comprehensive look at this situation: (forgive me for the length, but it is necessary to fully understand the situation).
The hospital has been in a financial downfall for more than a two decades, however it was not widely known until it became a critical issue. Since that time several valid attempts were made to correct the problems and bring the facility into a profitable status. In fact, it is my understanding that the hospital was within $600,000 of being able to break even when politics took over and made bad decisions that only worsened the financial stability year after year.
Several factors led to the crisis. The three most important were: 1) the lack of practicing doctors, 2) the failing insurance system, and 3) the rigid mandates and policies dictated from federal and state government.
The business model of the traditional community hospital has become obsolete. Doctors no longer come back to their hometowns to practice. The necessary malpractice insurance is so expensive (thanks to an out-of-control legal system), that doctors must generate significant amounts of income to simply stay in business.
Insurance reimbursements have become so complicated that it is often impossible to predict revenues. Small hospitals submit claims and hold their breath until they see what costs will actually be paid. Larger hospitals operate on such massive volumes that each individual claim does not have the same impact. The many issues with insurance reimbursements have created a system that is ripe for corruption; every level seems to have opportunity for exploitation. Loopholes and clouded reimbursement policy have led to an influx of scams that have left small hospitals destitute. Decatur County General has seen this firsthand.
Our small community hospital is expected to adhere to every regulation that is expected from larger facilities such as Vanderbilt or Baptist hospitals. (For example: we must have a certain number of employees on hand at any given time, whether we have 10 patients or none; we are required to maintain certain technologies locally rather than be able to transfer those cases to larger facilities.) Because there has been no major effort in government to differentiate these regulations, the cost of operations is unproportionate to revenues for small hospitals. Meeting regulations may cost us 50-70% of our revenues, while it only costs a large facility 10-20%.
The common denominator in all three of these factors is money. We do not have enough money to operate our hospital. A MINIMUM cost for operations at Decatur County General is just over $300,000 per month. PER MONTH.
The revenue from the additional wheel tax generated approximately $600,000 per year. When the wheel tax was instituted, the $600,000 could address shortfalls. However, that was only 1 part of a comprehensive plan that never saw fruition. Rather than continue with a plan to become part of a larger system, the Commission at that time chose a cheaper – but unproven - alternative.
It is difficult to fully understand the mechanisms of economic planning. This commissioner certainly does not as it is not my area of expertise. However, success is gained by understanding that you cannot know everything, and you must seek guidance from those who know the particular pieces with which you are dealing. This is where we as a County have failed. We have refused to listen to expert advice and made decisions based on our limited understandings.
The most critical point of our failures is that we continue with this same mindset. We look for the easiest, cheapest way out; never realizing that its cheap price is due to its inability to be successful. We have gone down this road 4 times and it has only increased our debt from $600,000 to $6 Million.
This is unacceptable and must be addressed.
The collapse of our hospital can only be attributed to one group of people – us, the citizens of this county. We were not paying attention and allowed bad decisions to be made without any uprising from the public. We have failed to demand accountability from those in leadership positions; and we have failed to recognize our responsibilities of civic duty – our service to our community.
We have not stood up and been a participant in our city and county governance; leaving these positions to be filled with folks who have not had significant business and financial experience. However, you must applaud those people who have tried to make a difference and volunteered to run for offices; it is indeed a thankless job. We cannot simply point fingers at those who have made mistakes, when we have not been willing to stand in their shoes.
A perfect example of this scenario is the story of the talents in the Bible: God expected more from those to whom more was given. That story is applicable to us in our modern age as well. Those who have skills must – for the sake of the financial future of their own community – MUST stand up and lead at some point in their lives. We are each a part of the community and do not live in isolation. No matter how far out in the county you may reside, you rely on services provided by the collective of the people – the county (or city, or town) to which you belong.
Our county is at a critical point. Not only is our hospital unable to continue, our county operations, in general, will be right behind if we do not act now.
The hospital closure is not the end of healthcare in our county. While the public hospital is incapable of continuing operations, its closure allows for private companies to open facilities. Decatur County General’s continued operations has been an obstruction for any other private group to act. This may seem irrational, but it is based in financial analysis and government regulation.
While there is movement on the state level to rethink the hospital and emergency healthcare regulations, Tennessee has not yet changed its laws. A hospital can only open in an area based on population and distance to the next emergency facility. (This is another reason why our census is so important.) If we were any closer to Lexington, Camden or Savannah, we could not legally operate a hospital. (I believe the limit is 30 miles, so our proximity to Lexington is already a sticky issue. We have been lucky that DCGH was chartered prior to these regulations).
Additionally, a corporation looks at its potential profitability in any area before it decides to invest in opening in that area. With DCGH open, the potential profitability was too small for any larger hospital group to even consider investing in our county. The closure will now open this opportunity.
It is also important to note that large reputable hospital companies do not want to invest in or purchase our old, outdated facility. The cost of refurbishing the current facility is not worth the investment when building a newer facility would be better use of their funds. Plus, these large companies (especially those that are publicly traded) must maintain a specific identity – a brand. When a patient enters one of their facilities, it must look and function to enhance their brand (thus their stock value).
We may be without a hospital for a time while other opportunities are being sought, but this closure is not the end of healthcare for our area. We likely will need to invest more in our EMT services to pick up the burden of additional emergency transports.
The timing of this disaster at the same time as the worst medical pandemic in more than 100 years is simply unimaginable; but we have no option but to deal with it. I encourage you to call your Commissioners and the Mayor to relay your opinion.
What Decatur County needs now is attention from our public. We need you take an interest in your governance and demand answers. With the damning report from the investigators of the Comptroller’s office, (click here) we need to make changes. Please read the report from the Comptroller. Only with your input, can we – as your elected officials – know what you want and expect for the future of Decatur County.
April Watkins Barrett
To My Constituents,
As I anticipated, the Commission did vote to close Decatur County General Hospital. Due to the legal red-tape involved with closing a publicly owned facility, it will be a while before it is completely closed to patients. At the moment, the emergency room is still open.
The Ambulance Service is NOT part of the hospital and is open as usual. If you have an emergency, please dial 911.
While this is a sad event, we should look at it as the end of an era. Now we must look to new opportunities and fresh starts in finding hospital care for our people.
This matters to me and I know it matters to you and your families. We need a hospital or an extended emergency facility, and I will work to see that we have one.
I look forward to working with others to begin rebuilding our county and, as the President says, Make It Great Again!
As always, I will keep you updated on happenings.
The Commission has met twice in extended (recessed) meetings since our initial monthly meeting held on Monday, January 27th. FYI - For an additional meeting resulting from a recessed meeting, the Commissioners get no additional pay, as it is considered only a lengthening of the regular meeting. The focus of these extensions was to update the commission on the hospital situation. Several problems had been brought to our attention, including the possibility of Progressive not being able to make payroll.
The revelations that came out of the meetings were shocking from a business perspective. The Commission has not been briefed on any financial issues surrounding the hospital since summer 2019, even after multiple requests from Commissioners.
It now appears that the Mayor has been aware of various problems and has discussed such with Progressive, our attorneys and the Hospital Board. Mayor Creasy has known the depth of the financial problems and has chosen not to share that information with the Commission as a whole.
Last January, Progressive Medical signed a management agreement with Decatur County as a precursor to the purchase agreement for the hospital. To date no purchase agreement has been signed. Dr. Gezim Agolli, who heads Progressive, was present at the meeting on January 30th, but would not commit to signing the purchase agreement.
Dr. Agoli told the Commission that he could not make payroll unless funds were released from BCBS payments which he claimed were due. At this meeting, the Commission voted to fund payroll if Progressive did not meet their financial responsibility on Monday, Jan. 3rd.
As Progressive did not meet this deadline, the county was obligated to fund the payroll for hospital employees as the facility is still a county asset and the county is ultimately responsible for its operation and financing.
Attorney Tracy Powell has sent a letter to Progressive stating that they have breached their agreement and listed 6 specific items of breach. Legally, Progressive has 30 days in which to fix these problems. After 30 days, if the breach has not been “cured” (or fixed), the County can consider the agreement broken and choose to withdraw the agreement.
We learned that the hospital has been under an audit by BCBS and they claim to have identified $1.6 Million in fraudulent billing submissions. BCBS has told CEO Melinda Kirkwood that it is looking to recoup $1.6 Million in payments for billings that they deem to have been fraudulent.
The payments due from BCBS submissions – those expected receivables which Dr. Agoli had referred to - totaled $1.2 Million. Payment for these submissions have been temporarily halted until some resolution is agreed upon with BSBS.
The Commission has repeatedly asked Mayor Creasy for financial reports for the hospital but to date no information has been forthcoming.
We were initially told that the hospital’s had cash-on-hand of $14,000, however this was prior to pending bills due, as well as payroll. Thus, cash-on-hand was considered to be null.
On Monday, Feb. 3, we were told payroll due amounted to $110,000. Later in the discussion we discovered that this figure did NOT account for payments due other payroll entities, such as Federal Tax Withholdings or Retirement Contributions.
When questioned about these additional payroll items, the Commission was told that NO Federal Tax Withholdings, FICA, or Retirement Contributions had been paid since May of 2019.
As Commissioner, I am outraged at the lack of fiscal responsibility of those we have entrusted with the operation of our county-owned hospital. Progressive, as the contracted manager, should have made these payments or should have let the Commission know that there were serious financial problems.
The hospital’s charter dictates that its operational authority is through the Hospital Board of Trustees. They are responsible in overseeing daily operations and are to report to the County Commission as to the financial status or legal issues of the facility.
As mayor of Decatur County, Mike Creasy is a de-facto member of every board and committee, including the Hospital’s Board of Trustees and the County Commission’s Hospital Committee. Additionally, Mayor Creasy is named in the management contract with Progressive as the official legal representative of the county and Hospital Board of Trustees. As such, it is his responsibility to interface with Progressive on the county’s behalf and report back to the Board and the County Commission of all aspects with the hospital until the purchase agreement is complete.
Mayor Creasy has not done this. He has not reported any problems to the Commission, even though he has known the financial issues on a weekly basis, according to testimony of hospital’s CEO, CFO, and Dr. Agoli.
In our meeting of November 2019, Mayor Creasy presented the Commission with a bill of $97,000 from the IRS which, he stated, was due in fines and penalties for late payments in earlier years. The Commission had no option but to authorize payment for these IRS fines/penalties.
We now understand that these penalties occurred during the time when Mayor Creasy was functioning as hospital CEO.
Knowing that this is a costly mistake for the County, Mayor Creasy failed to implement a system that guaranteed this would not happen again. He also failed to follow up with Progressive to ensure these federal payments were being done properly to avoid fines and penalties again.
The CEO and CFO inform the Commission that outstanding IRS payments now stand at approximately $650,000 before penalties and fines.
Due to the apparent incompetence of the management of the hospital’s finances, Commissioner Kevin Cagle proposed that the Commission hire a forensic accountant to investigate the entire financial structure of the hospital. The Commission unanimously agreed and appointed members of the Commission’s hospital committee to engage a professional forensic accountant.
We will reconvene for our regular monthly meeting on Monday, February 24th. I hope that we will have more information on the financial status as well as Progressive’s role going forward.
The Tennessee General Assembly has passed several new laws that are now in effect as of January 1, 2020. The bulk of the laws expand existing statutes with additional language that enhances the scope of the rights and protections of citizens. Knoxville’s NBC affiliate WBIR provides a review of these new laws below:
Starting Jan. 1, 18 new laws will take effect in Tennessee. Legislators passed laws to address opioid abuse, protect elderly people from abuse and much more.
Here’s a closer look at the laws that may impact you and your family the most:
Tennessee gun owners will have a second option when applying for handgun permits. A "concealed only" gun permit is now available. It allows permit holders to carry a weapon if it is concealed. This new permit is in addition to what was previously the only handgun permit in Tennessee, which lets people either open-carry or concealed-carry. That permit is now called, "an enhanced gun permit." The enhanced gun permit costs $100, an 8-hour hands on class and some other background check requirements. The concealed only permit costs $35 less and only requires a 90-minute training course with no hands-on component.
A new law to stop opioid abuse begins in 2020. Now, any prescription for an opioid must be issued as an electronic prescription from the doctor. The deadline for pharmacists to update software to comply with the new law is Jan. 1, 2021.
People now have the "Right to Shop" around when it comes to health care. This new law requires health insurance companies to show the prices of services before treatment, so patients know what their out-of-pocket costs are upfront. Companies must now list prices for services ranging from x-rays and MRI's to physical therapy.
Prosecutors are now able to do more to protect the elderly in Tennessee. Starting today, prosecutors will soon be able to charge someone with felony murder if a person dies as the result of aggravated neglect of an elderly person. Lawmakers say it is a small but significant change that could bring more abusers to justice.
STATE EMPLOYEES CAN NOW GET EXPANDED TREATMENT
A new law allows state employees' proton therapy to be covered by state insurance. Proton therapy is a form of cancer treatment that claims to be more accurate and efficient, with less risk. It is used for cancers of the brain, lung, breast and neck.
As enacted, reduces the age required for a person to receive an initial school bus endorsement from 25 to 23 if the person is an honorably discharged veteran of the United States armed forces, a member of the national guard or reserves, or a licensed teacher employed by an LEA. - Amends TCA Title 49 and Title 55.
As enacted, changes the date from Oct. 1 of each year to April 15 of each year, by which assessors in counties, other than counties with a metropolitan form of government, must file that year's property maps with the register of deeds. - Amends TCA Section 67-5-806.
As enacted, beginning January 1, 2020, requires electrical inspectors employed by a municipality, a county, or Tennessee to be certified by the state fire marshal; establishes a recertification process for such electrical inspectors every three years; requires certain electrical inspectors under contract with the commissioner of commerce and insurance to be certified on and after January 1, 2020. - Amends TCA Title 68.
As enacted, establishes continuing education requirements for residential contractors. - Amends TCA Title 4, Chapter 5 and Title 62, Chapter 6.
As enacted, extends continued health coverage to the surviving spouses and children of park rangers who are killed in the line of duty to the same extent as survivors of other first responders who are killed in the line of duty. - Amends TCA Title 7; Title 8; Title 11 and Title 58.
As enacted, enacts the "Proton Therapy Access Act." - Amends TCA Title 8; Title 56 and Title 71.
As enacted, revises provisions governing identifying the person who makes service of process. - Amends TCA Section 16-15-901.
As enacted, requires travel promoters to use trust accounts to avoid commingling their funds with customer funds that are held for disbursement for payment of travel services. - Amends TCA Title 47 and Title 62.
As enacted, revises provisions governing the determination of whether an employer-employee relationship exists in certain employment arrangements. - Amends TCA Title 50.
As enacted, enacts the "Healthcare Billing Clarity Act." - Amends TCA Title 33; Title 47, Chapter 18; Title 56; Title 63; Title 68 and Title 71.
As enacted, makes police officers and firefighters who are members of the state retirement system eligible for service retirement upon completion of 25 years of creditable service. - Amends TCA Title 8, Chapter 34; Title 8, Chapter 35; Title 8, Chapter 36 and Title 8, Chapter 37.
As enacted, enacts the "Tennessee Right to Shop Act." - Amends TCA Title 8; Title 33; Title 56; Title 63 and Title 68.
As enacted, expands the definition of agricultural land for purposes of greenbelt property tax program to include two non-contiguous tracts of land within the same county totaling at least 15 acres and split only by a road, body of water, or public or private easement. - Amends TCA Title 67, Chapter 5, Part 10.
As enacted, enacts the "Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act of 2019." - Amends TCA Title 39; Title 40 and Title 71.
As enacted, changes the requirements for the operation of horse-drawn vehicles on state highways. - Amends TCA Title 55, Chapter 9, Part 4.
As enacted, creates a concealed handgun carry permit, which allows a person to carry a concealed handgun; redesignates the existing handgun carry permit as an enhanced handgun carry permit. - Amends TCA Title 10; Title 33; Title 38 and Title 39.
As enacted, allows certain persons who receive certified occupational training as a prisoner or a student in a high school technical training class to receive an equivalent credit toward an occupational license relating to the training received. - Amends TCA Title 4, Chapter 6, Part 1; Title 37; Title 38; Title 41; Title 49; Title 62 and Title 63.
As enacted, creates a program managed by the commissioner of commerce and insurance to annually award grants to volunteer fire departments for the purchase of firefighting equipment or to meet local match requirements for federal grants for the purchase of firefighting equipment and training. - Amends TCA Title 68, Chapter 102.
This past Monday, November 11, 2019 meeting of the Commission was actually the regular monthly meeting that was supposed to be held in October. Due to the storm and subsequent disaster recovery, the meeting was postponed. (Note: The regular November meeting of the Commission is scheduled for Monday, 25th which would be back to the normal schedule.)
The main focus of discussion for the meeting was the county’s troubled landfill. To understand the depth of the landfill problem, I urge you to read the articles from The Newsleader, which provide a good overview. In brief, toxic byproduct has escaped the confines of the landfill and has contaminated, not only the landfill property, but some properties surrounding the landfill. Additionally, toxic gasses, which are produced from the mixture of different types of toxic waste, are dangerous and need to be contained.
The Mayor and legal counsel briefed the Commission on the legal negotiations which have been ongoing for the past several weeks. An agreement was reached by all parties and was presented to the Commission for approval and ratification. The major points of this agreement include:
3. DAMAGES. Waste Industries will pay damages to Decatur County as follows:
4. INDEMNITY. Waste Industries agree to fully indemnify the County for (a) all closure and post-closure activities at the Landfill, and (b) any and all citizen suits, regulatory claims and third-party claims, etc.
5. DECATUR COUNTY will continue to have inspection rights consistent with the Landfill Agreement.
After analyzing the agreement, I believe that this is a sound resolution to this problem and voted to approve its acceptance.
FUNDS RECEIVED FROM SUIT.
The next importance task regarding this issue is determining the proper allocation of the damages (both punitive and compensatory) that we will be receiving. This Commissioner believes that we should fully investigate the most prudent options in investing and utilizing these funds, including placing $3,000,000 in our reserve fund. This will replenish the fund and allow us some relief for emergencies.
The remaining $4,000,000 should be used for:
The other important issue discussed in the meeting was that of budget amendments and transfers. While budget transfers of various line items are common, amendments to the budget for known operating costs should not be.
During our budget discussions every department head presented their budgetary needs to the Commission and explained in depth the needs outlined in their requests. Most, if not all, departments stated that, due to years of working on such tight budgets, their requests were as lean as possible. In reviewing the requests, this Commissioner found it to be true in that there were little to no extravagant or extraneous costs proposed.
In the Commission’s impractical attempt at keeping our taxes at an unrealistic rate, they refused to address many of the departments mandatory needs and refused those budget requests. This Commissioner raised the fact that we would face having to find funding later for these costs that are mandated by the State or are fixed pricing with suppliers. However, my warnings fell on deaf ears. Now in our first meeting since the passage of the new budget, we are facing the exact situation of which I foresaw.
Additional Funds Requested Are:
With the exception of the $2,200 request from EMS and $200 from Juvenile Court, all of these expenses were known at the time of the budget consideration and were ignored.
Additionally, one must note that, by only requesting a minimum amount and using funds from other line items, those departments are now stripped of any excess funds and cannot address future unseen expenditures, and perhaps have maxed out their funds for other necessary supplies. We can also note that many of the employees have paid for expenses out of their own pockets in order to keep from requesting additional funds under our tight finances – including this Commissioner. While efficiency and thrift are of the utmost concern, it is imprudent and unfair to force our departments to work within such tight restrictions.
In other business, your Commissioner briefed the assembly on her trip to the State’s conference for Commissioners, Mayors and Highway Commissioners in Knoxville. These week-long meetings were filled with information that is very beneficial to each section of a county’s government. (Note: All expenses for this conference were paid for by Commissioner Barrett)
This included being updated on new legislation and how it will affect the county’s budget. Two examples of such laws are:
There were many other programs that assist counties with funds, grants and perks for citizens, in which Decatur County could greatly benefit. These included:
Finally, the State focused on explaining the importance of participation in the upcoming 2020 Census. Due to the under-reporting of the last census, Tennessee only received 70% of the federal funds that it could have gained. Census results dictate federal funding for things such as:
While Decatur is a small county, it is important that we work to obtain all of the possible federal funding available to us. I will be letting you know more about the Census and how you can participate, or even work for the government for this project.
If you are interested in a job with the Census, please go online at https://2020census.gov/en/jobs.html.
Our next meeting of the Commission will be the regular November meeting, on Monday, November 25th at 7:00 pm in the Courthouse at Decaturville.
As we go into this holiday season, it is important that we pay attention and care for our friends, family and neighbors. If you know of a family or person who needs some assistance, please let me know. I will be posting a list of charitable organizations that can help throughout the season.
Happy Holidays, I wish you all health and happiness!
Gov. Bill Lee has presented his budget which includes several key issues affecting rural counties in Tennessee. Read about his plans and how your family can benefit .
Keep in touch with Sen. Gresham about Tennessee's issues and read updates from her newsletter, Capitol Wrap.
Know all of the important issues affecting your state, your county, and your family through Rep. Haston's constituent communications.
Keep in the know of issues in the US Senate through Sen. Alexander's website.
Read the latest updates from Senator Blackburn to know what's happening in Washington, D.C.
TN's 7th Congressional District is represented by Dr. Green who issues an email newsletter about issues from the House of Representatives in D.C.
To My Constituents,
I hope that most of you now have power and water after the horrendous storm that came through Decatur County. My husband and I are still without both and may be for some time. It is sobering to realize just how dependent we are on our modern services and our emergency personnel.
Our county has been hit hard twice this year with massive devastation from floods and this most recent storm. Decatur County EMA Director Andrew Sparks tells me that LES estimates the damage from this latest storm to be much worse than even the ice storm of 1994. He reports there are currently approximately 1500-1800 customers still without power, and the timeline for restoration could be up to 10 days more.
Many of our neighbors have been displaced due to lack of utilities and extensive damage to homes. At present, there are approximately 400 homes with some damage, and 50 of those are totally destroyed. If you need assistance with shelter, please go to the Red Cross shelter at the Decatur County Fairgrounds. They are providing showers and laundry facilities for public use.
Other important info from EMA is as follows:
If there is any “good” to be found in this situation, it is the goodness of our friends and neighbors who come together in time of crisis. Our county has always been generous with their time and money to help those in need, and this disaster has again shown us that we, in Decatur County, truly have the “Volunteer” spirit.
This situation also allows us to see first-hand how important it is for a county to have ample reserve funds for emergencies. In all our budget discussions, replenishing our reserves was not on the top of the list of priorities. Sadly, it has taken a tragedy to make us all keenly aware of being properly prepared.
The costs of clean up, additional necessary equipment, and overtime pay for emergency personnel, law enforcement, clean-up crews will have to be generated from somewhere. Since the commission did not approve an ample tax rate to cover our standing expenses, any additional and unforeseen expenses only add to our debt load. This means that other services (those not deemed to be critical components) may need to be temporarily suspended until we can recover financially.
I ask each of you to be patient with the tedious recovery of our utilities, roads, and services. Our EMA folks have done a fantastic job of getting essential partners into our county to assist with the many aspects of emergency help.
I want to especially thank EMA Director Andrew Sparks, Asst. Director/Co. Fire Chief David Whitaker, and Mayor Mike Creasy for coordinating the recovery plan.
Also, I thank the workers, employees, and volunteers who continue to work all day and through the nights to get us back in order.
Remember to check with the Decatur County Emergency Management Agency’s Facebook page and TNL Today on Facebook for updates.
If you have read The Newsleader this week, you will have seen the Core Civic ad on the last page. Their ad solicits new employees and announces a new hourly rate of $16.75 plus a host of benefits. This is another example of what is happening with our Sheriff’s Departments financial issues. This prison in Clifton is offering significantly better pay and a host of benefits that are not available to the staff at our own Sheriff’s Department.
As you may have heard or read, the Sheriff has initiated a “salary suit” on behalf of the men and women of his department. This legal action has resulted due to the Commission’s unwillingness to entertain ANY of the budget options that were negotiated between the Sheriff and the Mayor.
The Department is having difficulties in attracting and retaining experienced officers due to the low pay and lack of benefits offered by the county. Every county that surrounds Decatur has better hourly rates that are at least $5 per hour more than our current pay.
The ad in the newspaper indicates a similar problem in staffing for the prison as they have announced a new higher starting wage.
The Commission is aware of the pay issues that face our Sheriff’s Department yet have refused to address the problem. During budget talks, our legal counsel informed us of other area cases where Sheriffs have also sued local governments for proper funding and have prevailed in court. Even though the Commission was advised to be aware of a potential legal outcome, this was not considered and the budget that passed did not include funding that addressed the department’s needs.
During our last monthly meeting on September 23rd, the Commission had the option to vote on settling this suit rather than continuing forward with expensive litigation. We were told that moving forward with a suit would be a costly endeavor – one that you, the taxpayers, would be funding.
Additionally, we were reminded again that this type of legal action would most likely end in favor of the Sheriff’s suit based on the outcome of other area suits of the same nature. The Sheriff’s office is one of 6 constitutional offices of a county, and as such, is demanded proper funding by Tennessee state law. Because of the importance of this department, Tennessee specifically addresses “proper funding” in its legal statute to avoid situations like we have in Decatur County where the Commission refuses to act to properly fund the department out of political malice.
As a Commissioner, I am stunned at the actions of my colleagues in this matter. They have chosen a petty, vindictive approach due to personal agendas rather than do their jobs on behalf of the citizens they represent. Commissioner Cathy Phillips and I were the only two votes in favor of talking about a settlement to avoid incurring more legal debt. The balance of the Commission voted against settlement and, in turn, have voted for you to spend more tax dollars in legal fees for a suit that they realize has little chance of prevailing.
I am not against differences of opinion, that is a normal course of discussion. But, there has been no attempt at discussing a solution. There has been no willingness to come to some terms that would be agreeable by both parties. The Mayor has meet with the Sheriff on several occasions and brought options for the Commission to consider. All have been met with arrogant disdain toward accommodating any option.
The result of the Commission’s action has led to more of your tax dollars being spent to hire additional legal counsel due to conflict of interest with our county attorney – Jason Pearcy.
The ironic point in this inane debate is the reasoning that some of the Commissioners gave for voting against raising pay for the Sheriff Department employees has been “to keep the costs low for the people.”
It is astounding to this Commissioner that they fail to recognize that: 1) their actions COST the taxpayers money; and 2) they refuse to deal with REALISTIC expenses that our county incurs with its normal operations.
It is this type of behavior that has led our county to the financial crisis that we now see. As citizens, we must demand better stewardship of our money, and better analysis and planning by those we elect.
SEPTEMBER 2, 2019 - The Commission met on Saturday, August 31st for a final consideration on the FY2019-2020 budget and tax rate. After consultation with State officials , our county was informed that the legal deadline for submitting our budget was July 15th. Because the Commission had not yet passed a budget, the State allowed for one final opportunity to pass a budget, however, the options had to be one of the 3 eligible drafts (#6,7,or 8) as these had been passed by the Budget Committee and forwarded to the full Commission for consideration.
On the first round of voting, the Commission failed to adopt any of the three eligible budgets. The Mayor and legal counsel instructed the Commission that if no budget was passed on Saturday, that the budget would default to the proposed budget #6 that was the budget approved by the Budget Committee on July 15th.
After a short break, the Commission returned and finally passed a budget (#8).
You can watch the recorded meeting on FaceBook on TNL Today's page. Due to illness, this Commissioner was not able to attend the Saturday meeting.
Tonight's meeting of the County Commission was a regular monthly meeting - however we had been expecting to discuss our budget for the FY 2019-2020. A budget which had been drafted by the Mayor and approved by the Budget Committee for presentation to the full Commission was put before our body. There were several issues that concerned this Commissioner about the proposed budget:
Passing inaccurate budgets that do not truly and adequately address our operating costs has led to the depletion of our reserve funds and the debt situation we find our county in to date.
A vote was taken on the budget which failed 0-17. Continued budget meetings will be convened next week on Monday evening.
To My Constituents:
Many of you have asked me what the outcome of the vote on the budget and tax levy at the meeting was this past Thursday night. To be frank, I do not know – and apparently, no one does yet. The Mayor has informed the Commissioners that he is awaiting word from the state on the legalities of the vote vs. the statute under which our County operates.
During Thursday’s meeting, an 8th version of a budget was presented to the full Commission for consideration and vote. Below I will detail this proposal, but first it is important to establish some facts:
TOTAL OPERATING COSTS
1. The cost of operating our County is far beyond our ability to fund. The estimated total operational cost is just over $27.3 Million.
2. It takes significant funds from Federal and State governments to supplement our operating expenses. Together, they provide about 2/3rdof our budgetary needs or about $19 Million.
3. The County’s portion of costs is the difference between these two figures, which runs just under $10 Million.
4. Our school system incurs the greatest amount of expense at around $14 Million, most of which is funded from the State (around $10 Million) with the remainder coming from County funding ($3-4 Million).
5. Second highest cost is that of the Highway Department which runs about $3 Million. The Highway Department is funded almost entirely with State revenue from gas taxes and only receives a small contribution (Less than $100,000) from Decatur County via the Mineral Severance Tax.
6. The remainder of the budget consists of the various departments and programs which in total require approximately $9-10 Million. (*See #3)
It is important to understand the significance of the State and Federal subsidies to fully appreciate the true operational costs. It also helps to put our share into perspective when compared to the whole. It is obvious that our locally funded budget portion is not exorbitant as it only represents one-third of our true costs.
When we talk about our “budget,” we are actually only referring to the local portion – the one-third.
BUDGET PROPOSAL – Local Contribution Only
The Budget Version #8 reflected a total budgetary obligation of $8,464,599.00
To pay for this amount, the property tax rate would need to be levied at $2.25 per every $100 value of property.
During our brief discussion period at the meeting, I raised my concern about the actual costs that we had incurred over the past fiscal year. According to the documentation I received from the Mayor’s office, our County was forced to overspend our FY2018-2019 budget by $2 Million; $1 Million attributed to hospital operations, and another $1 Million in general overages shared among the various departments. Most of these costs were due to hikes in fixed rates/expenses or unexpected repair/replacements over which the departments had no control. [Examples would be increased costs such as in software subscriptions that are used by each department that interact with the State, broken HVAC units, burned out generators, etc.]
I explained to my colleagues that we had permitted these expenditures at each meeting when we were asked to approve amendments to their various budget lines. We were told that we were merely moving money from one fund to another – for some items that was the case. What we did not realize was that we were supplementing these additional costs from our reserves – which now stand at $0. We have none.
My point was that we were not dealing with realistic figures in the proposed budgets, and that we needed to adjust our estimates to include these additional costs.
Further, I was astonished that, even without the knowledge of the tally of the amendments, our AUDITED budget figure from FY2018 showed $1 Million more than this new proposed figure for this year. Why would we consider an amount LOWER than what we already knew to be real costs?
Apparently, this did not concern my colleagues enough to entertain more discussion; nor did the fact that we had completely expended our reserves and have no money available for any type of emergency.
I believe that our problems lie in two simple facts: 1- We don’t fully understand our budgetary requirements; 2 - We don’t want to discuss real facts with the people.
All further discussion was abruptly cut at our Commission meeting when the Mayor called for an adjournment motion immediately after the vote.
Results of the vote to adopt the version #8 Budget were 8 - yes, 7 - no; however, this did not reach the requirement of 2/3rd votes for adoption. Technically, the vote did not pass the budget. However, there is a proviso in Tennessee law [T.C.A. § 5-12-210 (2018)] that allows a budget to move forward if a County Commission cannot agree on a budget, by authorizing the last budget submitted by the Mayor or Budget Committee.
By adjourning the meeting, the Commission does not have enough time to provide legal notice to reconvene before the State’s budgetary deadline of August 31st.
Whether or not Decatur County’s situation meets with the requirements of this statute is not yet clear. I will provide further information to you as I receive such.
In Tennessee, our fiscal year is coming to an end and every county is preparing for its next budget year. Our county and our neighbors are currently preparing budgets for 2019-2020. I have just read some comments on Facebook from our neighbors in Wayne County where the county government has proposed a raise in property taxes. In looking through the comments, it is obvious that they suffer from the same dilemma that we do in Decatur County - a citizenry who doesn’t pay attention to the details of what the Commissions do until it becomes a crisis. Before our county is faced with a similar situation, I want to point out several important facts that we all must address.
Every household sees increases in their fixed expenses (rent, utilities, etc.) as well as variable costs (food, gasoline, clothing, etc.). County departments are no different. The costs of supplies, operational costs (such as computer programs and services), fees, travel, etc. always increase. We should not be surprised that our county budgets must be increased to meet these expenses.
Each department must adhere to the regulations dictated from their higher counterparts. New compliance dictates from Federal and State agencies cause small governments financial distress as the cost to comply is often unable to be met without major tax changes. For instance, all government buildings must be ADA compliant in Tennessee counties no later than December 31, 2019. That will mean extensive alterations, additions, construction, etc. for many communities. Small areas are expected to meet the same criteria as larger cities.
When one analyses the tax burden of a landowner in a small rural area vs. those of larger metropoles, it is easy to see that often the rural taxes are relatively greater per economic levels than their city neighbors. (In smaller communities, poorer people end up paying a greater percentage of their income in taxes.) Having more people means the county can collect more tax revenue; thus, more people lead to less need for higher rates. Likewise, higher valuations of properties generate a greater total tax revenue. Small counties must have higher per capita property tax rates than a large metropolitan area simply due to the people-to-tax ratio factor. This is a losing proposition for rural areas where industry is scarce, and wages are low. The best financial solution for a small county is to change its demographic dynamic with more industry and higher wages.
The old dream of keeping rural life in a perpetual “Mayberry” setting is no longer an option. While small communities can retain their quaintness and family atmospheres, they must also adapt to an ever-changing world of technology. For example, we can still have brick-and-mortar boutique shops, but they can only operate profitably if they also have online storefront options with high speed internet connections. Similarly, large factories are being replaced with smaller more technologically advanced shops which require more skilled labor. Rather than look at progress as a devil to be feared, rural communities must view technologies and modernization as opportunities to enhance their ways of life.
This philosophy stands true for our communities. To reside in an area with a certain standard of living (i.e. paved roads, good schools, utility systems, police and fire, etc.), we must pay for those services. While every citizen will not benefit from every service offered (such as schools), we all benefit from the value that the service brings to the community (educated populace = better workforce = more industry = more jobs = better wages). One cannot expect to live in a socialized environment with no cost to themselves.
For a small rural county to be successful, we must ALL be part of the growth process. We can’t sit back and expect progress to fall at our door. The first step in creating a better county is to come to grips with our realities: expenses, needs, revenues, competition. When we understand WHAT we need, we can see WHY we must adapt, and HOW that can be achieved. It is then that we will be able to negotiate sensibly and logically with each other, without prejudice, jealousy or other emotional reactions to cloud our reasoning. No one likes taxes, but we must pay for the services that we require in a modern society.