Tuesday, March 31, 2015

So what's the deal with ex-Trustee Lowe's 'pension'; lips are sealed

When former Knox County Trustee Mike Lowe pleaded guilty to felony theft last month a big question on everyone’s mind was whether he would keep his pension

Well, first there’s no guarantee he has a pension, but he did have a county retirement account. At one time.

County officials prior to the early 1990s had pensions. The county then set up an “asset accumulation” retirement plan, which acts like a 401(k), and invited employees to join it. Most did. Hey, the 90s where booming and there was a ton of coin to be made.

From what I understand, Lowe was enrolled in the asset accumulation plan – or at least he got under it – before he left the county.

From what I’ve gathered, he also withdrew that money, but I’m not positive.

So, will he lose his pension for pleading guilty? No. He more than likely didn’t have one. Will he lose his retirement? No, he more than likely withdrew it (and probably took a massive hit from the IRS.)

Will we ever know?

Probably not.

I submitted a request to the pension board, which in turn was handed over to the board’s attorneys.

They told me to go play in traffic. Albeit, politely.

They said the pension board is unable to provide me with access to Lowe’s file or respond to my questions. The attorneys then cited Tennessee Code Annotated Section 10-7-504(f)(1) and said the information is confidential.

That TCA code notes the following as confidential:

Bank account and individual health savings account, retirement account, and pension account information, provided that nothing shall limit access to financial records of a governmental employer that show the amounts and sources of contributions to such accounts or the amount of pension or retirement benefits provided to the employee or former employee by the governmental employer.

Whatever. The board still could have said whether he keeps it or not. Answering that question is not confidential.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Brooks hopes to give voters an option during next year's local elections

Cameron Brooks
Knox County Commission posts are typically decided in the GOP primary, but one local leader expects that to change next year.

Cameron Brooks, who was elected Saturday to a two-year term as the Knox County Democratic Party’s chairman, said he’ll begin working to find challengers to take on Republican incumbents in the general election.

In addition, he said his party will focus on regaining the state House District 13 seat, which the Democrats lost last year to Republicans.

“I think we got clobbered in the last race,” he said. “You can sulk and you can point fingers and have a lot of internal dissention and waste time, or you can move forward.”

Knox County holds next year’s local primaries in May and the general election in August. Seven of the 11 seats on the County Commission are up.

Brooks, who works as a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Wallace & Wallace Realtors, said he’ll help continue to build the party, first at the precinct level and then at the district level, focusing, in part, on younger voters.

“We want to show voters that Democrats are about good government, responsible government and improving people’s lives, and if you can be persistent with that, then we’ll be able to turn things around,” he said.

The GOP has a stranglehold on politics at the county level, and often Democrats decline to challenge for an open office.

For example, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, the county’s highest elected leader, failed to garner any opposition last year. Nor did Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones. In addition, the Democrats failed to field a candidate in the District Attorney General’s contest – and Democrats held that seat for decades.

Democrats have a little more control in the city – Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero is a Democrat – although the elections are non-partisan.

"We’re going to be really aggressive about recruiting candidates for the County Commission offices coming up in August 2016,” he said. “There’s quite a few seats that are going to be available. We really need to get quality Democrats to run and give voters an option.”

Knox County holds next year's local primaries in March and the general election in August. Seven of the County Commission's 11 seats are up.

Brooks, a former Knox County election commissioner who served as his party’s vice chairman before taking over, succeeds Linda Haney.

On Saturday, the party during its biennial reorganization meeting also appointed Jackie Clay, a program manager with the city of Knoxville, to serve as vice chair.

Shannon Webb was elected to the party’s treasurer post and Emily Gregg was re-appointed to her seat as secretary.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Mubarak's state trial moved to Oct

The state felony theft trial for former Knox County Trustee's Office "ghost" employee Ray Murbarak, who also faces unrelated federal fraud charges, has been delayed until the fall.

Murbarak, who worked for the county from 2004-08, was initially scheduled for trial April 6.

However, earlier this month, Mubrarak, his wife and a business associate were arrested by Internal Revenue Service and FBI agents on charges of bank fraud.

They pleaded not guilty to those crimes and were given a May 5 court date.

On Friday morning, Murbarak's attorney Tom Dillard and state prosecutors asked Knox County Criminal Court Judge Steve Sword to delay the state trial.

"I'm not sure either side is ready, and he has other matters he needs to address," prosecutor John Gill said.

Sword set a trial date for Oct. 13. All sides will meet again July 9 for an update.

Dillard, after the brief hearing, agreed that his defense team needed more time and that they were "still working" on the case. He declined to elaborate further.

Mubarak faces a number of state felony theft charges alleging he benefited as a "ghost employee" for former trustee Mike Lowe, receiving pay for work he did not do.

Lowe cut a deal with the state earlier this month and received a year in jail and has to pay back $200,000.

Last year, a jury convicted co-defendant Delbert Morgan of theft. Morgan, who also was paid to do little if any work, received an eight-year term, all but 30 days of which are to be served on probation.

Mubarak and Morgan worked in the Knox County Trustee's Office from 2004 to March 2008.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Trustee Shouse to undergo surgery for cancer; Could return in week or so

Ed Shouse
Knox County Trustee Ed Shouse will undergo surgery Monday to have his prostate removed and should be back to work the following week.

Shouse, a former Knox County commissioner, said the prostate was in the early stages of cancer.

He said his physician tells him there's an estimated 93 percent recovery rate, and he feels confident.

"I hope to be back within a week and I have a great staff that will be able to take care of the office while I'm out," he told 10News.

Shouse said he put off the surgery until after tax season ended.

The Trustee's Office is open Monday-Thursday next week and closed next Friday for Good Friday.

Shouse was elected last year to the office.

In an email to his employees, Shouse said: "The cancer is small and has been caught early so my prognosis is very good. I just need to get it out so that I can move on with life. I would appreciate your thoughts and, of course, your prayers for a quick recovery. Additionally, I thank you for all that you do for the Trustee’s office and the citizens of Knox County."

Knox County Clerk's recent U-Turn revives gasoline allowance debate

In a November 2013 interview, Knox County Clerk Foster Arnett Jr. spoke proudly about his move to do away with his office's monthly gas allowance program. Eliminating it saved the county more than $50,000 since he initially took office years prior.

At the time, Arnett told 10News the allowances were nothing more than "free money" for some officials who took the blanket payment but did not actually drive anywhere. Arnett and his employees started using the same template as the federal government's reimbursement system – currently 57.5 cents per mile – to cover gas.

Things have since changed. Specifically, the changes include Arnett's health, his driving habits, and his desire for a monthly up-front allowance payment for gas.

Records show late last week, Arnett received approval from the county Mayor's Office to reinstate his gas allowance. That will amount to some $700 per month and $8,400 a year. That's the equivalent of driving 1,200 miles a month under the federal reimbursement template.

Arnett said he is now routinely hitting the road as he operates out of five satellite offices scattered across the county. That's because he says the main clerk's office in the Old Courthouse building in Downtown Knoxville is infected with black mold that threatens his health and survival.

The full story RIGHT HERE.

These travel allowances have always been controversial. The long-standing argument is that if government is going to pay for your gas, then why not fill out the slip? The answer? Convenience.

Foster Arnett

I don't necessarily fault Foster for taking the check because it is a pain to fill out those forms, but I'm also not convinced that he'll travel 1,200 miles a month, either. I do, however, believe that if he re-locates back to the Old Courthouse, he will cut the payment again and go back to the reimbursement system. It's safe to say the guy doesn't want to be sick and actually wants to work out of the downtown building.

In the meantime, the city has 21 employees, mostly department heads, get more than $5,800 annually to cover gas. You can see the full list RIGHT SMACK HERE. From what I understand, the policy was put in place under former Mayor Victor Ashe, who wanted to give pay raises to some of his buds but not necessarily have them on the books. (If you ask to see someone's salary, the gas allowance doesn't show up.)

When Bill Haslam took over, he passed it along to all the department heads, much like the private sector. From what I understand, it's now essentially considered a recruiting tool, although I suspect all the people who have the jobs they have would have taken those jobs without the bonus.

There are 18 county officials who have allowances although 11 of them are county commissioners. You can find that list RIGHT SMACK HERE.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mayor Rogero begins re-election bid

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero kicked off her re-election campaign Tuesday night at The Standard downtown and discussed her plans if re-elected.

Which is pretty much a given.

I don't expect her to get a serious challenger. In fact, I don't think she even needs to campaign. But, well, never say never.

Rogero, who took office in December 2011 and is the city's first female mayor, said she has a number of items she wants to continue, including wrapping up the Cumberland Avenue project and making Knoxville more sustainable.

"I laid out a plan when I ran for office and we followed it," said Mayor Rogero. "We've made good progress toward that. We still have more to go."

The primary, which is non-partisan, is set for Sept. 29 with a November general election.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Burchett to veto resolution honoring women's groups, abortion clinic

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett plans to issue a rare veto on a Knox County Commission-approved resolution, something he's done only one other time since taking office in September 2010.

The resolution, which the board passed unanimously Monday night, honors local women's groups in recognition of National Women's History Month.

It has no regulatory teeth but rather expresses the will and support of the commission by its approval.

Burchett acknowledges his veto is symbolic only.

Full Story RIGHT HERE.

Resolution RIGHT HERE.

Law to regulate door-to-door sales

Knox County Commission
The Knox County Commission on Monday approved a new law that lets the county clerk deny a door-to-door soliciting permit to someone who has an outstanding warrant issued against them or has been convicted in the past decade of a "crime of moral turpitude."

The move, which was spearheaded by Knox County Clerk Foster Arnett Jr., comes as a thrice convicted drug dealer who was also convicted of murder sought a license. Arnett declined to give him one, but the county's law department said he couldn't refuse.

Arnett then appealed to the commission to pass legislation.

"I think part of government's responsibility is to protect its citizens and I'm not giving someone with that background a license to go door to door," Arnett said. "I don't think it's right. I'm not saying anything bad about this guy, but he's been convicted of serious crimes."

Commissioner Mike Brown agreed.

"It's hard to draw a line in the middle when you're talking about crime," he said. "We have the responsibility of protecting those citizens just as much as (the sheriff and police chief) do."

Commission passed the measure in a 10-1 vote, with member Sam McKenzie dissenting.

The ordinance, which must be approved again next month on a second reading before it becomes official, also gives the clerk permission to revoke a license if it is discovered that there is an outstanding warrant against a license holder or a license holder has been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude within the past 10 years.

State law defines moral turpitude as an offense that contains "elements of fraud, theft, intent to cause great bodily harm, and sometimes lewdness, recklessness or malice."

McKenzie said he was concerned that 10 years was too long a time for some of the crimes.

"We're talking about perjury being equated with murder and that's not the same," he added.
The door-to-door permit costs $55 per month.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Haynes seeks state GOP chair seat

State Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, announced his intentions today to seek the chairman post for the state Republican Party.

In a letter to SEC members, Haynes wrote:

As you know, Chris Devaney has announced his decision to step down as Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. Under the leadership of Chairman Devaney and the State Executive Committee, our party has reached historic levels of success. Our state is better off because of that dedicated service.

It is now time to look to the future. We must examine who our party will trust to have a clear vision and a set of goals to keep us successful. I want you to be the first to know of my intentions to seek the position of Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. Certainly this decision does not come lightly. This is a tremendous responsibility and I would be honored to serve a party that stands on solid principles and protects the values of Tennesseans.

Having served in the state legislature since 2008, I have seen first-hand the significance of having conservative leadership leading our party and our state. Together Republicans have cut taxes, increased efficiencies in state government, and spurred economic development for our citizens while holding true to our conservative beliefs. I have been fortunate to hold many leadership roles in the General Assembly during this time that include serving as the assistant caucus chair and holding the gavel as chairman of the state government committee. In addition I have been a proud member of the Republican Caucus Campaign Committee where conservatives have reached historic levels in the state legislature. My persistence, hard work, and loyalty to the Republican Party have resulted in significant improvements to our state.

I appreciate the history of our party and the efforts of those who have paved the way to where we dominate local, state and federal offices. However, I believe there is more work to do for our future. My four goals are simple and are as follows:
  1. Elect a Republican president in 2016 and send boots on the ground to other states that might need extra help to do the same
  2. Strengthen our numbers in the state legislature and the United States Congress
  3. Build on our Red to the Roots program
  4. Prepare a comprehensive plan to attract younger voters, women, and minorities to our cause.
I intend to travel our state seeking your advice and counsel, but most importantly work to earn your trust and support. I’m sure others will be interested in serving as chairman, but I can assure you no one will outwork me. In my first race for the state legislature I knocked on thousands of doors, followed my campaign plan, and did a lot of listening. I plan on doing the same thing as a candidate for state chairman. My passion for our party runs deep and I know that together we can continue to build on our successes of the past, and capitalize on opportunities for the future. I will do my part and I know you will do yours just as you have in the past.

Therefore, I respectfully ask for your vote and your support. I look forward to seeing you along the trail in the days ahead.


Ryan Haynes

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ex-Judge Baumgartner's attorney appealing case to U.S. Supreme Ct

Richard Baumgartner
Lawyers for disgraced former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner are hoping to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, arguing federal prosecutors went too far in trying to apply an arcane area of the law.

Instead, they contend, the matter should have remained as a state-prosecuted case.

Don Bosch and Ann Short have submitted their bid, called a petition for certiorari, to the court.

They're waiting to hear if the U.S. solicitor general, which oversees U.S. litigation before the court, responds. An April 3 deadline has been set for the response.

It typically takes four justices to agree to hear a case, and the court takes only a fraction of the petitions submitted to it.

There's no timetable on how soon the court might move - if at all. The court's docket is scheduled through the rest of the term, which ends in June., so if justices wanted to hear the case, it likely wouldn't be until at least fall 2015.

"We think this is an important issue that federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have been addressing," Bosch told WBIR 10News. "We hope they will also review Mr. Baumgartner's legal position."

Bosch declined to comment further because the case is on appeal.

Read the rest of the story RIGHT HERE.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sheriff fires back at media critics

Sheriff Jones
Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones last night fired back at the local paper's March 17 editorial entitled “Public officials should be clear on sunshine law.”

In the unsigned opinion piece, the writer(s) suggest that Jones and Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch violated the sunshine laws when they discussed in emails an E-911 radio contract.

The editorial stated: “They cannot work out a backroom deal on a proposed communications system contract, as happened in this case.”

Well, the sheriff, who’s never been one to mince words, responded on his department’s official website.

Here ya go:
It’s Sunshine Week and the News Sentinel wants its readers to know that it’s time for “a clearing of the skies.” The editorial in Tuesday’s paper isn’t talking about the weather, but the Sunshine Law. A law that the newspaper trotted out when it failed to cover sixteen months’ worth of E-911 meetings concerning a contract for a new digital emergency communications system. The paper had obviously deemed the meetings not worthy of coverage until it was alerted by lobbyists and politicians who had a stake in the radio system.

The editors at the paper believe a “backroom deal” was brokered between Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch and me. I hardly call it a backroom deal when the Police Chief and Sheriff of the third largest law enforcement agencies in the state cannot talk about the safety and security of their officers and citizens.

I am fully aware of the Sunshine Law and that’s why I contend there was no violation between Chief Rausch and me. The newspaper, however, is clearly hiding behind the Sunshine Law to distract from its failure to report on an issue that affects the entire community. I believe the law does need to be revisited when a major media outlet manipulates it to cover up its own inadequacies.

City secures developer; work on Cumberland Ave Strip set for June

Work on the long-delayed project to overhaul the Cumberland Avenue Strip near the University of Tennessee is expected to finally start in early June now that the city has a contractor that it can afford to pay.

After failing to find a developer during the previous two bidding attempts, Knoxville officials on Tuesday received proposals from two construction teams just minutes before the 11 a.m. deadline.

The city now plans to move ahead with the company that came in at the lowest cost.

"First and foremost we are very excited to see this project come forward. It has been a long time coming," said Anne Wallace, a project manager in the city's Office of Redevelopment. "Merchants and folks who own business in the area have literally been envisioning changes to Cumberland for more than thirty years."

As it stands, Southern Constructors is the "apparent" winner, city officials said, submitting a proposed bid of roughly $16.87 million – about $400,000 lower than the proposal made by Blaylock & Sons.

The city's engineering department will still have to review the documents to ensure that everything is in order. Officials will then iron out a contract, which they expect to bring before the City County and the Tennessee Department of Transportation by the end of the month for approval.

If everything works out, construction crews should be turning dirt on the project's first phase by early June and wrapping it up by the end of the year.

The second and final phase will start soon after should finish up by August 2017.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Hammond, Brantley to take consulting gigs with Merle 96.7 FM in April

Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond and Knox County Commissioner Ed Brantley – both long-time radio executives – have each signed six-month agreements to do consulting work with Merle 96.7 FM (WMYL).

Both will start April 1.

Hammond, a Country Radio Hall of Fame inductee who stepped away from his job at WCYQ when he ran for office last year, will help the station with programming and music.

Brantley, who spent almost three decades at WIVK before leaving in 2010, will help with programming, sales and community relations.

“Merle FM is a high-quality operation from the ground up,” Brantley said in a statement. “Merle sounds great, and it keeps strong relationships within the community among both listeners and advertisers. I am excited to begin working with the staff using the knowledge, experience, and relationships formed over the years and help move Merle FM to the next level.”

Brantley and Hammond each took office last September. The commission post is technically a part-time job. The criminal court clerk seat, however, is a full-time gig.

Hammond told WBIR 10News that his role with the station will not interfere with his elected duties and that he will consult only during the evenings and weekends when he is not at the City County Building.

He said the new role also wouldn’t require him to travel outside of Knox County.

"(The criminal court clerk job) is my focus each day, and I am proud of what our team has accomplished,” Hammond said in a statement. “Working with Merle on the weekends will be another extension of my public service as I work with artists and musicians to give them the chance to have their music heard on the radio.”

Hammond also will host a show on Sunday called “From Nashville to Knoxville.”

Commish to interview six magistrate candidates today to replace Brown

The Knox County Commission today will interview the six candidates to replace judicial commissioner Mark Brown, who announced his resignation earlier this month. (Note: judicial commissioners also are called magistrates.)

The county has five magistrates, often called judicial commissioners, who work 36 hours per week on a rotating schedule. The magistrates are charged with reviewing applications for warrants and summonses and conduct the initial court appearances of prisoners via closed-circuit television.

Here's a brief snapshot of the candidates based on their cover letters and resumes, which you can find RIGHT SMACK HERE):

  • Alexander Brown: A 20-year Knoxville residents and attorney since 2002, he has tried cases in state and federal courts and handled appeals as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s served as a substitute magistrate. He earned his law degree from UT.
  • Michael Cabage: An attorney since 2000 and a graduate of UT, he runs his own law practice, focusing on criminal defense, personal injury, workers’ comp, collections, family law and veterans’ benefits.
  • Dustin Dunham: Served as the primary substitute judicial magistrate since late December 2010, working more than 3,075 hours as a magistrate (this equals one year and six months on the job, Dunham notes). He worked as a personnel administrator for the United States Marine Corps from 1997-2001, earned his law degree from the University of Memphis in 2010 and has since then worked as a solo practitioner.
  • Sharon Frankenberg: Earned law degree from UT in 1998 and works as a lawyer and community speaker. Also published two federal appellate cases.
  • Rhonda Lee: earned law degree in 2012 from the Nashville School of Law and runs a solo practice, as well as teaches law courses at Pellissippi State Community College. Also, spent a year working as a supervisor in the Anderson County District Attorney General’s Office, and a year in the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office in the child abuse division.
  • Patrick Looper: An attorney since 2000, he’s also served as a police consultant since 1992 and worked for 11 years as a police academy instructor and a decade as a state trooper for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Despite bad weather, state's February tax collections see big increase

There was some concern that the snow would affect tax collections for February, but the state is saying that is not the case.

According to a release, tax collections actually exceeded the budgeted estimates for February with overall revenues for the month coming in at $787.2 million, which is $25.8 million more than the state budgeted.                        

“Sales tax collections in February marked the seventh consecutive month this fiscal year in which collections exceeded budgeted expectations,” Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin said.  “As a result of a one-time event, Franchise and Excise tax collections were also above expectations.  

“The renewed strength in our sales and corporate tax collections is an indication of an improving economy in Tennessee.  However, more than half of our annual corporate collections materialize April through June, so we’ll continue conservative spending and monitoring revenue activity.”  

The general fund was over collected by $13.1 million and the four other funds were over collected by $12.7 million.

Sales tax collections were $17.9 million more than the estimate for February.  The February growth rate was positive 7.6 percent. The year-to-date growth rate for seven months is positive 6.86 percent.

Franchise and excise taxes combined were $7.3 million above the budgeted estimate of $42.8 million. For seven months revenues are over collected by $165.2 million. The year-to-date growth rate for seven months is positive 29.41 percent.

Gasoline and motor fuel collections for February increased by 8.71 percent, and were $3.8 million above the budgeted estimate of $66.3 million. For seven months revenues are over collected by $14.5 million.

Tobacco tax collections were $3.3 million under the budgeted estimate of $21.5 million. For seven months revenues are under collected in the amount of $5.9 million.

Inheritance and estate taxes were under collected by $1.9 million for the month. Year-to-date collections for seven months are $12.0 million more than the budgeted estimate.

Privilege tax collections were $2.6 million less than the February estimate, and on a year-to-date basis, August through February, collections are $2.4 million above the estimate.

Business tax collections were $4.5 million above the February budgeted estimate, and for seven months collections are $18.3 million more than the budgeted estimate of $20.6 million.

Year-to-date collections for seven months were $369.7 million more than the budgeted estimate. The general fund was over collected by $336.5 million and the four other funds were over collected by $33.2 million.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Radio bid tabled to explore options

Members of E-911 Board
The Knox County E-911 Board on Friday again declined to sign off on a $9 million radio system contract, but officials have not yet killed a proposal to do business with Harris Corp, the company that won the rights to provide a digital communications system that would connect thousands of local emergency responders.

Instead, board members opted to look into just how much it would cost to join the Tennessee Valley Regional Communications System and whether doing so would enable the county to receive financial support to sign Harris or a similar company.

"We are getting some additional information to decide if what is proposed to us is the best way to then be able to build our own system and connect to the valley system," Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who also serves on the E-911 Board, said. "This is about the safety of our community. This is about making sure our emergency responders – police, fire, and ambulance, all of them have a good system that they can rely on and that will be there when they need it. We can tie in to each other and others in our region."

Board members want to see if also connecting it to the TVRCS will open up the county to additional funding it might not necessarily get.

In others words, the board didn't want to immediately agree to the Harris contract in fear that it would commit itself to paying the company $9 million when there is a chance that state or federal money is available by joining the regional network.

"If you go a little slower, you will get there a little faster. That's what we are doing here today," county Mayor Tim Burchett said. "If there is another option where we can provide better public safety with cost savings to the taxpayer, we would be foolish not to address that."

The E-911 board agreed that a 6-member "users" committee comprised of emergency personnel from the Knoxille Police Department, the Sheriff's Office, the city's fire department, FEMA, Rural Metro and Farragut would look into the TVRCA issue, and report back more than likely during the board's next meeting on April 15.

At that point, officials could potentially vote again on the Harris or contract or opt to send the entire process back to the drawing board.

Former law director passes away

Richard Beeler
Former Knox County Law Director Richard Talmage Beeler died late Thursday night at age 57, the Knox County Sheriff's Office confirmed Friday.

Richard Talmage Beeler served as law director 1990 to 2000. After his service with the county, Beeler was a partner of the law firm Robertson, Overbey, Wilson & Beeler. He later left the firm, but still practiced law.

Not only did Beeler love the law, he also was a huge parachute enthusiast, skydiving solo hundreds of times. I liked him. He was a good guy.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ex-Trustee Lowe pleads guilty to theft; to serve 1 year, pay fine

Former Knox County Trustee Mike Lowe pleaded guilty today in what prosecutors called the "most significant public corruption" case in the county's history.

He'll serve less than a year. However, the way it works out, the county will be in control of forcing him to pay back some $200,000 in fines as opposed to the state monitoring him. I think. Heh.

Here's the Knox County DA's press release RIGHT SMACK HERE.

Always the politician, Lowe entered court shaking everyone's hand. He sought at an on-camera interview and apologized profusely. Interesting stuff.

You can read the full story RIGHT SMACK HERE.

Forum set to talk about KCS budget

KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre will host a community forum to discuss the FY 2015-16 budget  on April 6 at 6 p.m. at Amherst Elementary School (located at 5101 Schaad Road).

The meeting will be streamed live at knoxschools.org and broadcast live on Comcast Channel 10 and AT&T U-verse Channel 99.
Please note that two or more Board of Education members may be present and the community is invited to attend.

Don't complain if you don't show up.

FY 2015-16 school budget released

School Board
Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre unveiled his proposed budget Wednesday evening for the upcoming fiscal year, a roughly $440.8 million no frills spending plan that essentially maintains current services, offers no major initiatives, but does provide for a teacher pay raise.

"This FY16 budget is not an ideal proposal by any means, but it is a budget that is reasonable, responsible, and supportive of the terrific educational work happening in our classrooms across our school system," McIntyre said. "Ultimately, I feel strongly that if fully funded, this is a budget that will move us forward in our journey toward our ambitious goal of 'Excellence for Every Child.'"

At the heart of the proposal is a 4 percent pay bump for teachers that will cost $10 million. However, the increase assumes that the state will kick in about $4.4 million and that the Knox County Commission will appropriate another $5.6 million above and beyond normal revenue projections.

Overall, the spending plan will increase 3.7 percent, or about $16 million, from the current budget of $424.9 million.

"Our teachers continue to do an extraordinary job of facilitating student learning and success in an era of great change and enhanced expectations," McIntyre said. "In order to retain our outstanding teachers and recruit the next generation of exemplary educators, we must ensure that we offer a more competitive and professional level of compensation for our teachers."

McIntyre's budget eliminates some positions, including five teacher and 12 clerical jobs, which he wants to cut through attrition. He also proposed eliminating four central office and school-wide positions.

In addition, the spending plan also cuts Project GRAD monies and the APEX performance pay, and reduces the summer "bridge" program by 50 percent.

McIntyre said it would be up to the school board to make the ultimate decision, and cutting APEX would "be a conscious choice" on its part that would occur "more halfway into the school year in which they are being earned, but despite the disadvantages, this is perhaps the most reasonable course of action."

Several board members questioned many of the items listed, from APEX funding to the potential job cuts.

The proposed budget also assumes continued funding of the almost $2.9 million early literacy program, which is supported by a grant from the county mayor's office.

County Mayor Tim Burchett, however, has said he isn't sure he'll continue it because he's said that he doesn't believe that the program has been very successful.

The superintendent said if the grant wasn't extended he could cut the program.

"With limited budgetary flexibility, the loss of these funds would be devastating to our early literacy efforts," he said.

McIntyre also proposed a $15.75 million capital improvement budget for the upcoming fiscal year with almost half – more than $6.7 million – in additions and renovations for Pond Gap Elementary School.

It also includes upgrades to Karns High School and upgrades to the parking and drives at two elementary schools. The capital improvement proposal sets aside $2 million for security improvements and $350,000 technology and communication upgrades across the school systems.

At Pond Gap, the superintendent proposed renovating and adding some 47,250-square feet to include 12 new classrooms, several suits, a gymnasium, art and music rooms, media center, cafeteria, kitchen and new bus drive.

At Karns High School, McIntyre suggested putting $750,000 into replacing lockers, ceiling tile, wall base molding and parking lot lighting.

The 2015-16 fiscal year starts July 1.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Mayor Rogero to seek re-election

If you don't know by now, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero recently stated the obvious: She is seeking re-election in 2015.

She plans to host a kick-off reception at 6 p.m. on March 24 at the Standard on Jackson Avenue.  Free parking is available after 6 p.m. across the street from the Standard in the W. Jackson Avene lot.

Rogero,  the city's first female mayor, won the office in 2011.

The Knoxville mayoral post is a non-partisan seat, but Rogero is a Democrat.

I talked to Buddy Burkhardt, the Knox County Republican Party's new chairman, and he said members are looking for a potential candidate to challenge Rogero.

If anything Ivan Harmon will probably run. Heh. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Burkhardt picked to lead Knox GOP

Buddy Burkhardt
The Knox County Republican Party picked Buddy Burkhardt to serve as its chairman for the next two years.

Burkhardt, who works in technical support at the Knox County Sheriff's Office, succeeds Ruthie Kuhlman.

In addition, the GOP during its reorganizational meeting last Saturday at Crown College also picked Suzanne Dewar to serve as vice chair, and former county Commissioner Michele Carringer to serve as secretary.

"I am focusing on the future and I believe that a strong, conservative Republican Party is good for the citizens and prosperity of Knox County," Burkhardt said.

He added that at this point he wants to "move the party forward," and update the group's website and its Facebook page.

Burkhardt said he wants to promote candidate appearances, fundraisers and contact information for candidates and elected officials.

"I want it so that people can contact them directly and easily," he said.

The new chairman also wants to focus on creating a grassroots effort to get more residents involved in the party. He said key to that would be seeking help from the party's precinct leaders which would "give them a stronger sense of involvement."

"I want to get those people more involved in making phone calls and helping candidates in their precincts," he said. "Candidates are always looking for people to work the polls for them. I want to try to try to get a grassroots efforts going, because if people feel they are more involved, then they will be more involved."

The major local election this year is for the Knoxville mayoral seat, currently held by Madeline Rogero, a Democrat who announced her intentions Monday night on Twitter to seek re-election.

The post is non-partisan, but Burkhardt said "we know who the Democrats and Republicans are, and we can get involved and support our Republicans."

He said local GOP officials are looking for someone to potentially challenge Rogero, and talking about ways to raise money.

Next year, the county will have a couple major seats up for re-election, including the property assessor's post and the law director position. In addition, about half of the county commission seats are open.

The Knox County Democratic Party will hold its reorganizational convention March 28 at the CWA union hall.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Knox County closed due to weather

If you don't know by now, officials have shut down Knox County government (and the schools and the courts) for the day, due to the weather.

From the county:

The following Knox County Government offices will be closed Thursday, March 5, 2015:

  • Offices reporting to the Knox County Mayor, including senior centers, libraries, health department, veterans services and convenience/recycling centers.
  • Circuit & Civil Sessions Court Clerk
  • Knox County law Director
  • Knox County Property Assessor
  • Knox County Trustee, including all satellite offices
  • General Sessions Court Clerk, Fourth Circuit Court Clerk and Criminal Court Clerk offices.
  • Knox County Clerk, including all satellite offices
  • Knox County Election Commission
  • Knox County District Attorney General

NOTE: Employees are urged to use their own discretion as to whether they can travel safely. Employees choosing not to report to work should use appropriate leave.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mayor Burchett to host 10 constituent meetings throughout county in March

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett's office announced that he will hold 10 constituent meetings in March to give residents the chance to meet and speak one-on-one with him. The meetings are open to the public, and held throughout the county.

They are:

Monday, March 2 
3:30 - 4:30 p.m.
Burlington Library
4614 Asheville Highway

Thursday, March 5
4-5 p.m.
Fountain City Library
5300 Stanton Road

Monday, March 9

4:30-5:30 p.m.
Cedar Bluff Library
9045 Cross Park Drive

Thursday, March 12
3:30-4:30 p.m.
Bearden Library
100 Golf Club Road

Monday, March 16
9-10 a.m.
Strang Senior Center
109 Lovell Heights Road

Thursday, March 19
11 a.m. to noon
Karns Library
7516 Oak Ridge Highway

Monday, March 23
3:30-4:30 p.m.
Powell Library
330 W. Emory Rd

Wednesday, March 25

9:30-10:30 a.m.
Corryton Senior Center
9331 Davis Drive

Friday, March 27
11 a.m. to noon
Carter Senior Center
9036 Asheville Highway

Monday, March 30
4:30-5:30 p.m.
Howard Pinkston Library
7732 Martin Mill Pike

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Chief Magistrate Brown resigning

Mark Brown
Knox County General Sessions Court Chief Magistrate Mark Brown has submitted his letter of resignation, telling officials that his last day on the job will be April 10 before he moves to Nashville to be closer to his family.

"As you are aware, I remarried over a year ago," he wrote in his letter submitted Jan. 28 and made public Tuesday. "Due to employment constraints, my wife and I have lived in different parts of the state. This move is a positive development toward uniting our two households in one location."

Brown, who began serving as a magistrate in February 2009, made $85,000 annually in his position as chief magistrate, according to records.

"Thank you for the support I have received during my six years of employment," his letter states. The many professional relationships and personal friendships developed during this time have enriched my life."

Brown, who also ran his own private law practice, is a former vice mayor for the city of Knoxville and served on the Knoxville City Council for seven years. He earned his law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law.

The county has five magistrates, often called judicial commissioners, who work 36 hours per week on a rotating schedule. The magistrates are charged with reviewing applications for warrants and summonses and conduct the initial court appearances of prisoners via closed-circuit television.

The general sessions court judges usually accept resumes and then send a handful of their top choices to the Knox County Commission to make a final decision. Although officials have yet to iron out the details, the judges in the coming days are expected to accept resumes for Brown's position.

The County Commission is tentatively looking at March 16 to interview candidates, and April 20 to hold a special session to fill the magistrate vacancy.

The commission last filled an open magistrate position in August, when then-chief Magistrate Richard Major stepped down to work as Knox county Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond's second-in-command.

The board appointed local attorney Ray Jenkins to succeed Major.

New look for KPD uniforms unveiled

KPD's newest patch, left, and most recent one
The Knoxville Police Department's uniforms are getting a new look. For the fourth time in the department's 166-year history, the department is adding a new design to its uniform: a shoulder patch.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Police Chief David Rausch unveiled the new shoulder patch for the department's uniforms late Tuesday morning at the Safety Center. The last time the patch was redesigned was in the 1970s.

Chief Rausch said the department has worked on this patch for more than a year, and it's only the fourth patch in the department's history. The department said the new patch reflects qualities of the city, including scenes of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Sunsphere, the Howard Baker Jr. Federal Courthouse, Ayers Hall, and other iconic sites.

Past KPD patches
Some officers are already wearing the new patch, and the department will add more through the month. Chief Rausch said the city won't bear any additional costs for the patch.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Storms could ding sales tax revenue

Chris Caldwell
Overall sales tax revenues for Knox County are up right now, but they could take a hit because of February’s snowstorms.

However, Knox County’s finance director, Chris Caldwell, says he’s not hitting the panic buttons just yet.

“It will be interesting to see what the February tax numbers are this year with the snow and ice events,” Caldwell said. “I would expect a possible decrease.”

Just how much, though, is not known at this point. The county won’t get the numbers back from the state until mid-April.

As it stands, the county is up $5.9 million in sales tax revenues from July through December – the first six months of the current fiscal year – compared to the same time period last year. The total does not include sales tax revenues from Knoxville or Farragut.

Overall county expenses are about even, so Caldwell said he’s confident that the numbers will eventually work themselves out.

But, the sales tax revenues are often fickle and officials say recent inclement weather could hurt them.

Last month was one of the coldest Februarys in Knoxville’s history with an average temperature of 32.1 degrees, which is 10.3 degrees below normal.

In addition, 8.2 inches of snow fell for the total month, which is 6.6 inches more than the average February.

Knox County schools were closed Feb. 16 for Presidents’ Day when the snow first fell and remained closed due to weather through Feb. 27. Many businesses were shut down as main and secondary roads were hazardous for drivers, and the Knoxville Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office responded only to life and death emergencies.

“There will be an impact,” Caldwell said. “But I don’t think you’ll see it being horrible.”

Knox County, Knoxville and Farragut brought in a combined $15.6 million in sales tax revenue in February 2014.

Sales tax revenues make up only 6.3 percent of the county’s overall general fund, but comprise about 30 percent of the school system’s budget.