Group asks DA to investigate County Commission

Published 9:19 am Monday, December 8, 2014

A community action group filed a formal request with the District Attorney’s Office Friday asking for a criminal investigation into actions taken by the County Commission in setting the county budget for fiscal years 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Carter County Citizens in Action President Scott Snell filed request along with a packet of information at the Carter County office of District Attorney General Tony Clark. The DA’s office confirmed a packet had been filed but could not confirm the contents as the envelope was sealed and Clark had not yet received it. The Elizabethton Star received a copy of the packet from members of Citizens in Action.
In the packet, Snell addressed a letter to Clark detailing what he called violations of state law by the commission in setting the current fiscal year budget as well as the previous fiscal year’s budget.
On July 15, 2013, the commission held a public hearing on the budget, and on that same day voted during a regular commission meeting to approve the budget after significantly altering allocations to the debt service fund, Snell said. County Mayor Leon Humphrey then vetoed the 2013-14 budget, citing concerns that the county had violated state law when it altered the budget after the public hearing, but the commission voted to override the veto, Snell said.
“The question as to whether the commission actions violated said statute was addressed by (State) Attorney General Robert Cooper on Jan. 15, 2014, in Opinion No. 14-09. Therein he opined the commission had in fact violated statute,” Snell said in his letter to Clark.
The opinion rendered by Cooper in 14-09 responds to the question, “Does a county commission operating under the County Financial Management System of 1981, codified (in state law) violate (state law) if the county commission votes to reduce debt service portion of the budget proposed by its budget committee after the budget committee holds a public hearing on its budget proposal and submits that proposal to the county commission?” The opinion issued by Cooper on the question contains only one word in reply: “Yes.”
During the 2014-15 budget process, Snell said members of the commission once again altered allocations to the debt service fund after the public hearing was held.
At the time of the public hearing on the budget in July, members of the budget committee voted to allocate an additional 12 cents on the tax rate to the debt service fund in order to balance a pre-existing deficit in that fund. At the July commission meeting, Commissioner Buford Peters made a motion to strike the proposed 12 cents for debt service and move 10 cents from the General Fund tax rate over to the debt service tax rate.
During the July meeting, Commissioner Nancy Brown challenged the legality of decreasing the amount of funding for debt service from the amount proposed by the Budget Committee. She questioned the action after fellow Commissioner Buford Peters made a motion to remove the proposed additional 12 cents in funding for the debt service.
“What we are doing is illegal after the public hearing,” Brown said, referring to Opinion 14-09 by Cooper.
After Brown questioned the vote’s legality based upon the opinion, then-Chairman Tom “Yogi” Bowers said he did not think the action of the county was illegal, and the finding by the attorney general was “just an opinion.”
Humphrey also spoke up and challenged the legality of changing proposed funding for debt service.
“You do not alter debt service once the budget has been presented to a public hearing. It is illegal,” Humphrey said, adding the legal issue was behind his veto of the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget passed by the commission. “It’s not just an opinion; it is the state attorney general’s opinion,” Humphrey said.
When asked his legal opinion on the issue Keith Bowers, who served as County Attorney at the time, recommended the commission not alter the debt service funding after the public hearing on the budget.
Despite the objections, the motion passed on a split vote of 13-9. Lawrence Hodge, Peters, Willie Campbell, Joel Street, Richard Winters, Harry Sisk, Bowers, Steve Lowrance, JoAnn Blankenship, Steve Chambers, Sonja Culler, Bill Armstrong and Pat Hicks voted in favor of Peters’ motion. Those casting dissenting votes were Brown, Ronnie Trivett, Charles Von Cannon, L.C. Tester, Charlie Bayless, Bobbie Gouge-Dietz, John Lewis, Russell Kyte and Scott Sams.
After the budget was passed by the commission, it was subsequently vetoed by Humphrey, who cited the questions on legality as the one of the reasons behind his veto. The mayor’s veto was overridden at a special called meeting of the Commission and the budget was set.
In October, Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Justin Wilson wrote a letter to Humphrey and the commission and said both the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget and the previous year’s budget have raised concern with his office.
“Based on our review of the Carter County Commission’s adoption of the county’s budget over the last two years, we have reason for concern,” Wilson said in the letter.
In a reference to alterations made to the county’s budget following a public hearing, Wilson says language in state law, as well as an opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General, sets the requirements for a county legislative body altering a proposed budget and debt service requirements.
“The County Commission has not followed those best practices in their adoption of the two most recent budgets,” Wilson said. “Therefore, going forward, we strongly recommend that the County Commission comply with the budget adoption guidelines applicable to the counties operating under the County Financial Management System of 1981.”
In his letter to Clark, Snell said it is the duty of the District Attorney under state law to investigate reports of illegal conduct by any elected official once the DA receives a notice in writing regarding the alleged illegal conduct.
“This correspondence shall serve as written notice and formal request that you investigate the actions taken by the County Commission during these budget processes and initiate the appropriate legal action against those County Commissioners which violated the statutes referenced herein,” Snell said in the letter.
Snell provided copies of minutes of the meetings, links to view video recording of the meetings in question and copies of newspaper articles regarding the meetings and budget process in the packet he delivered to the DA’s office.
“The information contained in these materials make it extremely clear certain commissioners did in fact knowingly and willfully violate the statutes,” Snell said.

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