Other problems in the Sunday Daily Times budget article
The Sunday Daily Times article attacks the
Citizens for Better Government comparison of Blount County spending with
the three counties closest to us in population (Washington, Sullivan and
Sumner). The article starts out by attacking the very idea of using
average per capita spending, to develop benchmarks for County spending. If
this is true, why does the author use per capita spending in all his
charts that accompany the article.
Matt Murray claims that looking at average
spending of other counties implies that the counties “he has chosen are
efficient”. This comment makes no sense. We chose the three counties
closest to Blount in population. They probably have the same
inefficiencies of any County government. Yet, we found that Blount County
spends $9.8 million more than the average of these counties. Even Mr.
Murray should find that disturbing.
Next, Murray contradicts himself saying our
comparison can be a “healthy exercise” in scrutinizing county spending.
Murray adds: “I would hate to think those results
would be used directly to guide our local budget.” Clearly Murray never
attended our presentations. That was never the purpose of our
study. The study showed major overspending Blount County government. It
identified the areas where the overspending was taking place. The study
suggested that the Sheriff Berrong be asked to explain why he is spending
$5.3 millon more than the AVERAGE of the three comparison counties; and,
that Mayor Mitchell explain why his departments are costing $3.2 million
more; and have Circuit Court Clerk Hatcher explain why his departments are
spending $800,000 more. Unfortunately, none of these questions were asked
by the members of the Budget Committee in the process of formulating the
budget and the proposed tax increase.
The article says: “It is very challenging to
compare” county budgets. Yes, it is hard to do a good comparison. That is
why several members of Citizens for Better Government spent more than
three months studying the audit reports for our county and the comparison
counties. Only that kind of effort can produce a true apples and apples
comparison. The errors and omissions in the DT comparison speak to their
lack of similar effort in preparing their story.
The article says that Jim Folts “alleges” that
the county overspends on industrial and economic development. I don’t
allege anything. The information from the audit reports shows that Blount
County spends $824,591 more on Industrial and Economic Development than
the AVERAGE of the three comparison counties. While Mr. Murray, who is a
member of the Economic Development Board, may not like it, someone needs
to ask why we have so many costly industrial parks that are empty, or
nearly empty. By the way, the Daily Times neglected to mention that Mr.
Murray was not a disinterested observer in this debate.
The article says: “In his study, Folts pointed
out that Blount County had the highest property tax rate among the four
counties in fiscal year 2009.” I guess the DT never bothered to review the
slides.Actually, the CFBG study
says nothing about tax rates, because they fluctuate with property
reassessments, and are an unreliable basis for comparison.
The article calls Jim Folts “something of a
gadfly”, because he dared to question the spending and debt decisions of
the local political machine. It fails to mention that CFBG has been proven
right on many issues. We were the first to raise serious concerns about
the huge quarter billion dollar debt the county was taking on, in 2007. We
did an extensive debt analysis, showing the County had far too much debt,
and our officials were endangering the financial stability of the whole
County by dealing in risky variable rate bonds and interest rate swaps. We
presented this analysis to many groups in 2008 and 2009. Today, nearly
every person who has looked at the County debt structure, has confirmed
the problems we brought to light back in 2007. If that is what a “gadfly”
does, we are proud to be one.
The article implies that Jim Folts rigged the
jail data by using the actual inmate count at all four jails for the month
of July 2009. This is nonsense. Our study used FY 2009 audit reports.
FY-2009 ended in June. The only inmate data available was for the month of
July 2008 or July 2009. We chose the closest month to the fiscal year we
The article goes on to say that we should have
used inmate capacity in our study rather than the actual number of inmates
present in the jail. This does not pass the simple common sense test. We
used actual inmate counts because they are usually higher than capacity
and better represent what costs should be.You don’t feed and guard theoretical capacity, you have to
feed and guard the real people who are present in the jail.
The article admits Blount has the most expensive
jail of any Tennessee county. Then it justifies the cost by subtracting
the state and federal revenue from the costs. The author does not do the
same for the other comparison counties. If he had, he would have confirmed
that, no matter how you look at things, Blount runs a very expensive jail.
The article goes on to say that jails benefit
from economies of scale and implies that because the comparison counties
had larger jails, this somehow justified Blount county spending 63% more
than the AVERAGE of the other counties. There may be some merit to this
argument. A comparison with jails of similar size shows Blount spends
nearly 50% more on its jail than the other counties.
The DT has achart showing interest cost on long term debt.Of course, Blount is the top spender.
But the DT shows Washington County as a close second. The DT forgot to
include an additional $1.3 million of debt service charges in their
calculation. These are charges related to Blount County’s $105 million of
variable rate debt which must be added to the interest charges for a true
apples and apples comparison.Washington
does not have any variable rate bonds. When this change is made, Blount
County’s debt charges far exceed those of Washington, Sullivan and