state employees

Three guards injured in TN prison inmate uprising

Three corrections officers were injured, including one held hostage for about three hours, in a Sunday inmate uprising at Turney Center state prison, located about 60 miles west of Nashville in Hickman County.

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Three state correction officer suicides reported in one month

Three officers with the Tennessee Department of Correction have died by suicide in just this past month, according to an internal memo sent to employees and reported by the Nashville Scene.

 

The department is not releasing the names of the individuals “out of respect and deference to the families,” according to TDOC spokesperson Alison Randgaard.

“We are devastated by the loss of our colleagues which is reflected in Commissioner [Tony] Parker’s letter to staff,” Randgaard wrote in an email.

…In the memo sent Wednesday from Parker, he urges employees to take an account of their personal stress level. The department has struggled in recent years to fully staff its prisons, causing safety issues. It faced an exodus of correctional officers two years ago after drastically changing scheduling.

TN Supremes: Judges can fire employees at will

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts

Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the position of trial judge secretarial assistant is subject to the employment-at-will doctrine that generally applies in Tennessee.  The Court’s holding means that either the trial judge or the person employed in the secretarial assistant position may terminate the employment relationship at any time during the trial judge’s tenure.  If the employment relationship is not terminated earlier, then the employment relationship ends automatically when the trial judge’s tenure ends.

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Bill to block state park privatization moving in House & Senate

Republican-controlled committees of both the House and Senate have approved a Democrat-sponsored bill that would block new privatization efforts at Tennessee state parks.

Key sentence in the bill (SB1110/HB1208), sponsored by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis:

“The management, operation, and preservation of state parks, including the management, operation, and preservation of any buildings, facilities, structures, or improvements upon state park property must not be the subject of any private contract or otherwise outsourced to any private company or individual.”

It doesn’t apply to contracts in place before July 1, 2017. But Fitzhugh says that existing contracts coming up for renewal after that date could be subject to the prohibition when they expire and come up for renewal.

In the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Kyle’s bill was approved quickly Monday without discussion  – Chairman Steve Southerland seconded the motion for passage — on a vote of 7-0-1. Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, abstained.

On Wednesday, the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee approved the bill on voice vote with no apparent opposition after a short discussion, including Fitzhugh declaring privatization of parks “is something the people do not want” and there is a danger of “overpricing” park visits under current plans so that average Tennesseans cannot afford them “when we try to make a profit out of state parks.”

At Fall Creek Falls State Park, current plans call for demolishing the present Inn, building a new one at a state cost of $22 million, then turning operations over to a private company with anticipation that the average cost of a room would be $151 per night, compared to $75 at the existing Inn.

Near unanimous Republican support for a Democrat-sponsored bill even remotely controversial is an oddity. But it remains to be seen whether the committee votes are a symbolic gesture that will be scuttled later in the process, a genuine defiance of the governor’s plans or something in between.

Note: See also Sam Stockard’s report following Senate committee approval, but prior to the House sub’s vote. The article notes that current Haslam administration plans call for getting a contract signed for the Fall Creek Falls private operations in May, which could mean the deal gets included in the grandfather clause for contracts in place by July 1.

Fall Creek Falls Park privitization to proceed with revised oversight

The State Building Commission will now have firmer control over building-related aspects of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s plans for outsourcing Fall Creek Falls State Park’s operations under amended rules for bidders approved on Thursday, reports the Times-Free Press.

But Treasurer David Lillard, a commission member, made it clear during the commission’s executive subcommittee meeting that the panel’s oversight jurisdiction does not extend to the request for proposals’ other major area: The outsourcing of hospitality functions at the popular Upper Cumberland Plateau park in Van Buren and Bledsoe counties.

Statutorily, those are “not within the Building Commission’s purview,” Lillard said, noting the excluded list includes current workers’ continued employment, pay and benefits in operational areas ranging from the park inn, restaurant and convention center to the golf course and gift shop.

But the SBC will retain strict oversight within provisions of the request for proposals over the park’s chosen vendor, who will be called upon to spend $22 million in taxpayer money to tear down the existing inn and rebuild it.

Members unanimously approved the tighter oversight in efforts to resolve a revolt by professional Tennessee-based architects and engineers.

…Critics see the revised request for proposals as the template for renewed administration efforts. Haslam’s proposed budget calls for new capital expenditures at several other parks.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, an outsourcing critic, said the amended request for proposals provides “more legislative oversight” over the park’s demolition and construction.

Note: The TDEC press release is below.

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Haslam budget laying groundwork for state park privatization beyond Fall Creek Falls?

Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed 2017-18 budget includes an unprecedented $58.8 million in capital spending at state parks across Tennessee, leading to speculation that the administration has plans for privatization at three state park that get most of the money, reports the Times-Free Press.

That would follow the pattern set earlier when the 2016-2017  Haslam budget included major funding for Fall Creek Falls state park. Only months after the budget was adopted did the administration announce that the park’s operations would be privatized after the state spends money building a new park inn and other improvements.

“At this time, there are no active plans in place” in regards to further privatization efforts at those three parks, Paris Landing, Pickwick Landing and Henry Horton, said a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokesperson in an email Friday.

Elected leaders from those park areas polled this week — all in Middle or West Tennessee — also said they have not been told if the state plans to pursue privatization at their parks. But each were familiar with the concept after a 2015 attempt to outsource hospitality operations at 11 state parks that failed because of the facilities’ poor conditions.

…(State Sen. John) Stevens’ district includes Henry County’s Paris Landing State Park, which is set to receive $23.07 million for the demolition of its inn and construction of a new inn that would include conference space and a restaurant.

He said he supports rebuilding the inn and is thankful for the administration’s proposed investment, adding that locals are interested in having input in the facility’s design.

“I have spoken to our local chamber and there is support in the community for the new building coupled with concern, privatization being one,” Stevens said.

…Marshall County’s Henry Horton State Park would receive $10.05 million under the proposed budget for the demolition of the inn, visitor center, and restaurant there. The money would also pay for the construction of a new visitor center and restaurant, but not another inn.

…An inn would remain part of Pickwick Landing State Park in Hardin County under the proposed budget. Nearly $12 million would be spent to renovate the current facility, which includes a conference center and restaurant.

AG opinion sought on legality of Fall Creek Falls privatization

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, whose district includes the 26,000-acre Fall Creek Falls State Park, has requested a legal opinion from Attorney General Herbert Slatery on whether proper procedures were followed in plans to privatize park operations, reports the Times-Free Press.

The Tennessee State Employees Association also is raising questions about Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s push to turn hospitality services over to a private operator at Fall Creek Falls, long considered the “crown jewel” of Tennessee’s park system.

Employees association Executive Director Randy Stamps, an attorney, told the Times Free Press he questions whether Haslam has the legal authority to go forward with the move.

“We believe they’re in such a big hurry to rush through this RFP [request for proposals] that maybe they overlooked some pertinent sections of state law,” said Stamps, a former Republican state representative.

Bowling said in an interview that employees asked her to seek the legal opinion.

“I’m glad to do that,” Bowling said. Park workers in her district have protested over fear for their jobs, and Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson worries about lost revenue for up to two years while a new lodge is built that a for-profit company would run.

“Confusion is always the enemy of good public policy,” Bowling said, “and so if we know in fact that’s following the code, that’s one set of information. If we know that it wasn’t, that opens up a different avenue. But we have to know. That’s foundational.”

Two Democratic lawmakers are convinced Haslam wants to privatize other state parks with similar amenities. Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, held a town hall meeting Friday in Spencer, the town closest to the park.

And Stamps said the statute dealing with state parks and contracting “appears to prohibit the outsourcing of state services without it being part of the master plan for parks.”

“At this time, we’re unaware that this is part of their master plan that’s been approved appropriately,” Stamps said.

“It could be that they overlooked the law,” he added. “It could be that they dealt with it in some way. But right now it appears they’re in violation of the statute.”

Eric Ward, spokeman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said officials are on sound legal ground.

“TDEC hasn’t seen Sen. Bowling’s request, but we’re confident our proposed effort to ensure the long-term viability of Fall Creek Falls is well within our legal authority and we’re happy to answer any questions from the attorney general or members of the General Assembly related to this matter,” Ward said.

McNally names Rick Nicholson as Senate chief of staff, succeeding Lance Frizzell

News release from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s office

Lt. Governor McNally (R-Oak Ridge) today announced the appointment of Senate Chief of Staff Rick Nicholson.

“I have worked with Rick closely in his various roles with the legislature. Over his career, he has consistently impressed me with his knowledge and expertise. He is a trusted and professional policy advisor. His temperament, policy expertise and executive experience make him perfectly suited to serve the Senate as Chief of Staff. I am confident he will do an excellent job.”

A 26-year veteran of the General Assembly, Rick Nicholson started with the legislature working in the Chief Clerk’s office. He was appointed Assistant Chief Clerk of the Senate under Chief Clerk Clyde McCullough in 1998. In 2001, Nicholson went to work for then Chairman McNally as a committee research analyst. In 2012, Nicholson was appointed Senate Budget Director by Lt. Governor Ramsey.

McNally also praised departing Chief of Staff Lance Frizzell whose appointment expired in January. Frizzell is leaving the General Assembly to pursue other opportunities.

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Privatization conference draws protesters at Fall Creek Falls State Park

Officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation met Thursday with five companies interested in operating the park’s hospitality services while “a couple of dozen” protesters braved the cold outside to show their displeasure with the proposed privatization, reports the Times-Free Press.

The companies are scheduled to notify the state by Monday if they intend to respond to a request for proposals that was posted in December outlining the state’s willingness to spend up to $22.1 million for a new inn that would be owned by the state but run by a private company. The contract with a private company would last until December 2029.

The request states TDEC’s desire for the redeveloped lodge to be operational and open to the public by January 2020. It also calls for the new facility to be “a full-service hotel with a sophisticated, yet relaxed, contemporary design with modern upscale rustic décor.”

Requirements of the request for proposals call for the new inn to have 75-95 rooms that, according to projections in the request, could be rented for $151 per night.

Rooms in the current 145-room facility, built in 1971, rent for $76 per night, but it has deteriorated due to a lack of state funds for maintenance.

Brock Hill, deputy commissioner of the environment and conservation department, said in a statement released Thursday afternoon that, “The right partner will help us more effectively steward taxpayer dollars while ensuring the long-term viability of Fall Creek Falls’ hospitality operations.”

Opposition is centered on the impending loss of state jobs for inn employees, who would be displaced for two years during construction of the new facility, although the request for proposals stipulates they be guaranteed interviews with the new company. Hill has also said the state will seek placements in other state jobs for those affected.

Opponents also fear that the move to privatize hospitality services at Fall Creek Falls could be the first in a series of actions to privatize more state park facilities. They contended Thursday that the projected price of the hotel mentioned in the RFP would put a financial strain on families seeking to stay at the inn.

The request proposes that the state receive a minimum of 4.5 percent of annual gross revenue from the park’s hospitality services, which also include 20 cabins, 10 villas and an 18-hole golf course.

“It’s not a good deal for Tennessee,” Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Randy Stamps said, his breath visible as he held a protest sign. “This park was never intended to be a profit center. It’s intended to preserve land and provide an affordable place for Tennesseans to come and enjoy the outdoors.”

TDOT worker, struck by car on Christmas Eve, dies of injuries (third TDOT fatality of 2016)

 

News release from Tennessee Department of Transportation

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Department of Transportation HELP Operator James Rogers has died of complications resulting from injuries sustained when he was struck by a vehicle while assisting a stranded motorist on December 24.

Rogers was changing a flat tire for a family stranded on I-40 at mile marker 221 in Davidson County. A member of the family was assisting with the tire change, but Rogers advised him to go inside the car for safety purposes. Rogers was struck a few minutes later by a vehicle crossing onto the shoulder.

Rogers, 30, passed away on December 28. Rogers had a five-year-old son.

TDOT HELP Operators have routes on Tennessee’s most heavily traveled highways in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville. The program began in 1999 for the purpose of reducing traffic congestion, improving safety, and assisting motorists in distress. The Region 3 HELP Operators in Middle Tennessee have responded to approximately 40,000 incidents in 2016.

Rogers is the third TDOT employee to be killed in the line of duty in 2016 and the 112th since the agency began keeping records in 1948

Note:  WTVF-TV reported earlier that a fundraising website had been set up to help Rogers’ family. This post updates and replaces an earlier post.