County audit under investigation

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   When the Carter County Commission adjourned Monday afternoon after hours of discussion and decision-making, no one appeared to notice that there was still a motion on the floor to have the district attorney's office investigate a discrepancy pointed out in the county audit.
   Commissioners were asked earlier in the meeting to approve the transfer of $1,200 from one line item to another in the property assessor's budget. When the agenda item arose, Commissioner Tom "Yogi" Bowers made a motion to "refer it to the district attorney's office and let him issue an opinion on it before we go one way or another."
   Bowers said after the meeting that the issue arose because an employee who retired from the assessor's office last year "took the last three months of his employment off as sick leave. ... At that time, the actual people who went out and did the appraising of property got a $400 allowance for using their vehicle on the job. He was off three months and still got his $400-a-month car allowance. That's $1,200 for three months that he wasn't working and didn't use his vehicle," Bowers said.
   County Finance Director Jason Cody found the discrepancy. According to Bowers, at a budget committee meeting held just before Monday's commission meeting, Cody told commissioners there were four ways to correct the problem.
   "No. 1: Get the employee to pay it back," Bowers said. "Evidently they've already talked to the employee; he refused and threatened a lawsuit if they attempted to collect it from him. The next suggestion was to file it on their insurance. Well, it doesn't even meet the deductible, so that's out.
   "The next is to file a complaint against the bonding company for that office. That's going to make insurance go up, so they don't want to do that. The fourth, and what the well-meaning people on the commission voted to do, was to take $1,200 out of another line item of the property assessor's budget and put it over there to make things balance," Bowers said.
   The motion passed 17-5, with Jack Buckles, Amos Stevens Jr., Al Meehan, Jim Whaley, and Bowers voting against it. Commissioner Chuck Culler was absent and Jeff Treadway was not present for the vote.
   Bowers said some commissioners want the district attorney to review the case, possibly have the TBI look into it, and have the state perform an audit. "We're not accusing anybody of doing anything wrong, but there's an appearance of wrongdoing," he said.
   During his campaign for commissioner, Bowers said he promised that for every tax dollar spent, he'd demand a dollar's worth of service. "Well, we aren't getting any service for this $1,200. And is it just $1,200? It wouldn't matter to me if it was $1,200, $12,000, or just $12. The people of the county are paying for it."
   Before the vote, Commissioner Al Meehan also raised objections and Commissioner Doug Buckles asked, "Do we still have the option that the district attorney will get this information?" Finance Director Cody said all elected officials received the audit, as well as the district attorney.
   "Was it pointed out to him, possibly?" Buckles asked.
   "It's his responsibility to review it," Cody responded.
   Bowers said everybody on the commission wants to do the right thing. "To some, their view of the right thing is to make everything above-board and let the public know that they can trust government. ... Others think the right thing to do is keep the status quo -- 'don't worry about the mule, just load the wagon.'
   Following the vote, commissioners considered several other items, including a raise for a General Sessions Court employee and refinancing the note on Hampton Elementary School. When County Executive Dale Fair asked whether there was anything else, Commissioner Meehan took the floor, saying he feared the manner in which the $1,200 discrepancy was handled might add to public mistrust of local government or elected officials.
   "I would like to propose that in order to remove the cloud over this particular elected office, and to assist the newly elected tax assessor [Gerald Holly] ... that the appropriate county officer refer this matter to the district attorney's office for review and closure, and to request the state controller's office conduct a special investigative audit to all areas of the assessor's office," Meehan said. The motion received a second from Commissioner John D. Snyder.
   County Attorney George Dugger opposed the idea, saying commissioners didn't know the "full story. You need to refer it back to subcommittee and I'll be glad to explain it to your committee. You don't understand what happened."
   Cody said a special investigation from the controller's office probably would involve a fee.
   "When a man leaves office, don't we have a right to ask for him to be audited?" one commissioner asked.
   "Mr. Holly knows all about this, and I don't think he has a problem with it. In my opinion, you're making a mountain out of a molehill," Dugger said.
   The room erupted in discussion and was quieted by Fair. Meehan then asked: "Can we amend the motion to say 'request another audit and give this man [Holly] a clean slate to the office'?" Fair said that would have to go committee for approval.
   At that point, one commissioner made a move to adjourn, which was followed by laughter, a proposal by Snyder to send a letter to the state opposing temporary closure of Carter County's driver's license testing center, and a request by Commissioner Jo Ann Blankenship to send a letter of thanks to Carter County Election Commission members, who recently were replaced by the state.
   After discussion of several other items, the motion was made to adjourn. "All in favor, say 'Aye,' " Fair said.
   There was a unanimous 'Aye' from the floor, and the meeting was adjourned, leaving Meehan's motion in limbo.
   "We are trying to figure out what happened to it," Meehan said Thursday. "It was a legal motion at a legal meeting, and suddenly the meeting was adjourned."
   Meehan said he may press for an audit "just to clear the office for the new guy's sake. I don't see a problem with that, and Holly said he'd welcome it." Meehan also may take the motion in a modified form to committee, but not before checking into some matters, he said.
   A member of the Rules Committee, Meehan said he believes the commission failed to follow parliamentary procedure. "You either vote on it or table it; or they could vote to refer it to committee. None of those were done. They just ignored it, which is a violation of parliamentary procedure -- the rules I understood we were operating by," he said.