By Jonathan Pleasant
With budgets only getting tighter, county finances have increasingly taken the forefront when it comes to making tough decisions. That fact was quite evident from the lengthy discussion between Road Superintendent Tony Jennings and members of the County Commission last Thursday night as the board weighed out the benefits of pursuing federal grant funding that has been made available for multiple bank stabilization and roadway safety projects around the county.
Conducted through the USDAs Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Jennings has already completed many similar projects, both after recent flooding events and in the past. However, while the work brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars in much needed funding that largely goes toward work that would have had to be done anyway, Jennings was concerned about the substantial matching funds and additional costs that are an unavoidable part of the work.
Currently NRCS pays about 75 percent of the applicable costs of installing the rock, performing the work, and purchasing some materials leaving the county responsible for the remaining 25 percent. Further, some items such as crusher run gravel and culverts are not covered by the NRCS contract, making these outside costs that are in addition to the project as covered under the countys contract.
While readily acknowledging that NRCS funding has been a huge help in the past, Jennings did explain to the commission that he is not sure where the countys portion of the work would come from, leading him to question whether the commission would like for him to try to pursue a new round of contracts or not. Making things more pressing, Commissioner Jerry Gentry revealed that the county is actually working under a very tight deadline to let NRCS know whether or not they want to pursue the additional funding.
The general opinion of most of the commissioners seemed to support trying to conduct the work, especially considering a fear that not taking the opportunity could jeopardize future aid. Furthermore there is a small possibility that the NRCS may be willing to change the percentages to cover 90 percent of the cost, a gesture that would go a long way toward easing the potential burden on the countys budget.
Other questions were posed as to whether or not the county could simply bid out some parts of the work to help with costs. Deadline constraints would likely make this a difficult option, leading to more in depth questions of how the county could fund the work outright. Jennings agreed that his only real concern was in finding the money to cover the countys portion, noting that most of the projects would have to be done at some point in the future anyway.
In the past the highway department has actually been able to make money working with NRCS utilizing county materials such as riprap from the county quarry. However, the last set of projects proved more difficult, and along with cuts concerning exactly what services the federal money could be applied toward, Jennings ultimately ended up having to come to the commission to ask for a loan to cover outstanding accounts and get through the rest of the year.
A large portion of that $125,000 loan is still unused and although parts of it could go toward other costs, Jennings acknowledged that some of it could help get the department started on the NRCS work. Tackling each project one at a time, there was also discussion of potentially scaling back how many sites the county may actually pursue. Jennings was still doubtful about finding enough funding even with the loan monies. However, although no official action was taken, the consensus of the commission seemed to be that the funding is simply too important not to pursue.
Jennings was also present to review potential changes to the county road list at the suggestion of 911 Director Jerry Jordan who first brought up the issue last month. In an effort to correct inconsistencies between the county, 911, and postal addresses of some roads, Jordan submitted a list of numerous road name changes, most of which simply involved correcting the suffix such as road versus lane or street.
The commission opted to table the item until this month due to concerns that the suffixes may have impact on what category the road falls in and thereby could create problems with state aid funding. However, having looked into the issue, Jennings confirmed that road names are entirely up to the county and have no bearing on state considerations, which uses a numerical system for identification.
With that problem out of the way the only other issues involved three actual changes to road names consisting of a move from Buffalo Ridge Lane to Buffalo Run, D. Dotson Lane in Trade to Dotson Road, and Hardin Snyder Road to H. Snyder Lane. With these three corrections as well as the 32 suffix alternations, the county road list will accurately reflect the addresses now listed with the postal service and will correspond the list among all major entities using the information.
Because of the potential communication improvements and reduction in confusion that the corrections could bring, Commissioner Jonathan Pleasant made the motion to accept the road list changes, which was seconded by Commissioner Chris Pierce and approved unanimously. Because Jordan aligned the list with the postal service, few if any residents will have to face the difficulties of an address change associated with the approval.
The other big debate of the night involved a series of requests and recommendations from County Purchasing Agent, Dustin Shearin. The first two items were simple recommendations from the purchasing committee, the first of which dealt with repairs to a damaged door at the County Transfer Station. Bids were let out with options to either repair the damage and utilize the stations old door, or to replace the door outright if it was too badly damaged.
Expected costs of replacement came in at just over $23,000 while repairs were much lower at around $14,000. Insurance coverage will pay about $19,000, and depending on which option proves necessary the remaining funds are available. The other recommendation involved a new lease on one of the countys two postage meters consisting of a 63-month agreement with Advanced Mailing Systems to provide the equipment. With postage costs already exceeding $30,000 annually in the county, the slight discount provided through the meters use is more important than ever, leading the commission to approve both requests with full support.
Shearins other requests were more involved with clarifying certain elements of his role as purchasing agent. Having fully taken over the job just a few months ago, Shearin has been very diligently going through the countys purchasing process, reviewing the county purchasing manual, and being very proactive in trying to prevent potential problems before they can occur.
To that effect, Shearin noted that the purchasing manual has not been updated since 1992, leading him set the documents revision as one of his immediate goals. The revised document, when completed would then go before the purchasing committee and ultimately the county commission for review and hopefully eventual approval.
However, in the meantime, Shearin did bring up one major item of concern, involving purchases made by county department heads without first receiving a purchase order (PO). While this has not yet happened and Shearin hopes it doesnt any time soon, there is a concern that if a purchase was made without a PO funds might not be available to make the payment depending on the circumstances. Noting that the manual currently indicates that county cannot be held liable for such issues, Shearin asked the Commission exactly what procedure he should follow if such an instance did someday come up.
While this did lead to some discussion, a motion was eventually made by Commissioner Bill Adams to have County Attorney Bill Cocketts office look into the problem a little farther. Likely the commission would have to handle each potential case as it comes along, but because of the legal nature subject, the commission agreed unanimously that it merits further investigation.
Shearins final request was for the county to adopt a new Tennessee Code Annotated amendment to the 1957 Purchasing Law that would allow the County Purchasing Agent to declare surplus property as long as said county property has a value of less than $1,000. This would basically allow Shearin authority to dispose of obsolete or unusable county property, such as outdated computer monitors, without actually having to go through the complete approval process. The items can be disposed of in several ways, including auctioning online, giving away as a donation in a first come first serve manner, or simply thrown out when there is no practical use at all.
Shearin would have to maintain a list of all items disposed of in this way and the total value cannot exceed $1,000. Also, Shearin indicated that anything about to be declared surplus would be cleared through the county mayor first. With this in mind, Commissioner Mike Taylor made the motion to adopt the amendment, which was approved with full support.
Other business included several minor appointments, including a change on the 911 board after Joe Woodard resigned due to a potential conflict of interest. Because of this, investigator Jeremy Brown was nominated for the position, receiving unanimous approval from the board. The county also approved the creation of a new three member Audit Committee to help review and make recommendations on any potential findings. Commissioners Huey Long and Gina Meade will both serve two-year terms on the committee, along with Charles Dunn who will serve four years.
The meeting closed with several updates from County Mayor Larry Potter, the most important of which involved a request for support to pursue potentially gaining control from the TVA of the county spec building in the Industrial Park. Potter hopes that with the Governors current Drive to 55 initiative funding might eventually become a reality that could see a new technical education facility in the building. Exact details of the project remain to be seen but the Commission did give their full support in trying to get something positive in the building, which has been vacant since its construction in the mid 1990s. With no further business Commissioner Jimmy Lowe made the motion to adjourn.
By Jonathan Pleasant