Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Morristown Bankruptcy Looms Large

City officials have been trying hard to duck and cover from massive waste and abuse in taxing and spending and there seems to be no end in sight - taxpayers will likely be slammed again with ever higher taxes during a crushing recession and double-digit unemployment. Worse, elected officials flee from accountability - they've been lumping all blame on a parade of city administrators who serve a few years, set all fiscal policy, and when it becomes impossible to ignore the problems, they boot the administrator and seek a new one. Yet, there are zero changes in how city policies are created and implemented, once again protecting those elected to city council from blame.

Starting in 2007, the city raised property taxes by 40 cents, then cut them after voters were told if they okayed a sales tax increase, the property tax increase would be less. Backed into a corner, voters gave the city the okay to raise sales taxes to the highest limit possible. But the increase took place at the moment the economy fell hard.

Sewer and water rates are also on a multi-year phase of ever-rising increases as the city tries to repair and replace a system that has been overwhelmed for at least a decade or more. The city is currently facing massive fines from the Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation, whose recent survey of the sewer system noted over 50 sewage overflows over the course of a single year and flow meters which were not working for that entire time. City officials said they had never heard of any problems at all until October of this year.

City employees got more bad news last night - there's an expected $900,000 shortfall already in the budget for '09-'10 which the city recently approved, so layoffs and cuts must take place. Bankruptcy is the word on most people's minds, but few are willing to say it.

Reports finally are hitting the Knoxville media - WBIR, WVLT and WATE news are on the story. As for local news reports ... there are too few until after problems reach the levels where hard decisions and votes are before elected officials and city residents. With council meetings held at 4 p.m. and not broadcast on local government channels, very few residents know what's been taking place -- or perhaps they simply assume all is well and seldom attend meetings.

Attorney, blogger and former County Commissioner Linda Noe has been trying to follow the financial mismanagement, such as a recent discovery of an illegal transfer of $2.5 million in city funds, for quite a while now -- she says of the most recent cuts:

To make up a projected budget shortfall of approximately $900,000, the cuts by various departments included a reducton in hours for many city employees, vacant positions left unfilled or changed to part-time, and the elimination of the positions of two newly-hired firefighters who had just recently been sent for training.

Voting "no" on the cuts were Gene Brooks and Claude Jinks. All others (Bob Garrett, Mayor Sami Barile, Claude Jinks, Doc Rooney, and Frank McGuffin) voted yes.

After the cutting was done, Interim Administrator Wampler asked that the council consider at a future date a number of ways of raising more money for the city. Among the proposals put on the table were raising the hotel-motel tax (which will have to be approved locally, sent to Nashville as part of a private act, and then passed again locally with a 2/3 majority), garbage pick-up charges, and eliminating recycling pick-up and having people deliver their recyclables to convenience centers instead."

She also notes the ongoing federal lawsuit against the city and Koch Foods in Greeneville, but again, local news coverage is virtually non-existent.

The city is also wrestling with a debt of over $70 million, yet eagerly announce a new airport terminal as the "Front Door to the City".

Indeed, job creation and city attract-ability are vital to the financial success of all concerned -- but it sure looks to me like the house and the roof are about to collapse too.

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