Citizens for Better Government

 

Blount County Tennessee

 

A $17,000 Phone, or Food for the Elderly?

 

At the November Financial Management Committee, we saw another example of an inadequate County policy, and its heart wrenching impact on some of our most needy citizens.

 

It seems that the Sheriff’s Department proposed to purchase a phone, on a sole source basis, for $17,350. The price tag captured the attention of everyone present. What kind of phone costs $17,350? A rescue phone, we were told. One commissioner remembered that we had purchased a rescue phone, a few years ago, for less than $10,000. Yes, we were told, but that one is broken. Another commissioner observed that the old phone was rarely used, and asked how it could be broken. No one present knew the answer. The Mayor asked whether anyone had looked at getting the old phone repaired. No one knew the answer to that either.

 

One of the Commissioners started to introduce a resolution to ask for more information about this $17350 phone. But, the Budget Director told everyone that it was too late. He said the purchase had already been made. He explained that the County purchasing policy does not require any prior Committee or Commission approval of sole source purchases. The Committee discussion ended on a general note of frustration.

 

Subsequent investigation tells us that a rescue phone is an ordinary corded phone, attached to a 1000 foot reel of cable, with a box on the other end, into which several headsets can be plugged. It is intended for hostage negotiations. According to the sales brochure, the phone can be put inside an optional steel case and thrown through a window. The brochure also told us that this phone is priced at only $5000!

 

How then did we get to $17,350? Well, in addition to the phone, the County bought nearly every option, including the $600 steel “throw case. One would think that these options would have been left over from the old “broken phone”, but I guess the Sheriff wanted everything new.

 

In addition, the County bought a second rescue phone at a price of $10,000. This one is the latest, hi-tech model with five small TV cameras buried in the phone, a TV monitor and another 1000 feet of cable!

That is how you get to $17,350 for a couple of phones.

 

All this would just be another example of inadequate County policies leading to questionable spending, except for what came later on the Committee agenda.

 

Representatives of the Mobile Meals program came to the Committee seeking $15,725 to feed an additional 25 of our needy senior citizens for a year. The Committee had to reluctantly turn down their request because the County fund balance is so low.

 

The Commission represents the will of the people. Do the people think it is the will of the people that the Sheriff buy a $17350 phone, while we are unable to provide meals for our needy seniors?

 

What can the Commission do to prevent this from happening in the future? Perhaps, they should consider revising the purchasing policy to require a review of a sole source purchase before the order is placed.

 

The need for policies in the County seems to be controversial. It should not be. Policies set standards of expected behavior. Yes, the office holders are not required to follow these standards. But if they don’t, the people will judge them accordingly.

 

One thing is for sure, if the Commission does not set standards, anything goes. The purchase of a bogus diploma with $3910 of County money should make that clear to everyone.

 

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