state employees

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.

TDEC moves ahead with plans to privatize Fall Creek Falls State Park

Fall Creek Falls State Park employees learned Monday that the state is taking a significant formal step today in the plan to demolish, rebuild and privatize the park’s inn, restaurant and conference center, reports the Times-Free Press.

A request for proposals on the project is scheduled to be posted on the state’s website this morning, officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation confirmed Tuesday.

TDEC officials met with the park’s full-time employees at the conference center Monday to discuss how the building project and subsequent privatization will affect the 48 full-time hospitality workers at the park.

“People are mad,” Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson said. “The employees are mad.”

TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill said Tuesday the state plans to identify its top proposal in late March or early April and that demolition of the 44-year-old building could begin by next December.

Hill called it a $22 million project that will benefit the local, regional and state economy as a company enters to operate the park with “a private sector business model.”

Opponents of the project argue that state parks are not intended to be profit centers and that extensive renovation at the inn would be a more cost-effective solution to falling occupancy rates.

Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Randy Stamps said Tuesday that he is “mystified” the state wants to tear the inn down, adding he expects there to be legislative hearings about the matter when the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes next year…. “I do know there are some legislators who had no clue the money allotted to parks in the budget would be used this way.”

Nepotism at the Tennessee State Museum?

Less than a year after her son resigned, Tennessee State Museum Deputy Director Mary Jane Crockett-Green’s sister came out of retirement to work for the museum, raising further questions about the agency’s hiring practices in the days before Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell retires.

So reports Nashville Post Politics. Further:

Allegations of nepotism and favoritism have long followed both Riggins-Ezzell and Crockett-Green, but now even staff within the agency is revolting, as Crockett-Green looks like a favorite to replace her boss on Jan. 1 — at least in the interim until a new, outside hire is made. The Douglas Henry State Museum Commission will meet Friday afternoon to discuss possible replacements.

Riggins-Ezzell hired Loretta Lisa Hester, Crockett-Green’s sister, this past March for a part-time job. According to DHSMC Chair Tom Smith, the position is just on a project basis to complete data entry and inventory during a deaccessioning process, and the work is of a nature no other current museum employee was qualified to handle… Per the museum’s own organizational chart, Hester is working directly under Crockett-Green — a violation of the Tennessee State Employees Uniform Nepotism Policy Act of 1980.

Smith says that he has been told Hester is working directly under Riggins-Ezzell, despite what the chart says, and that her work will wrap up by the end of the month, before her sister could possibly take over as executive director. However, employees within the agency itself say Hester reports to both women, and that it wasn’t clear for months that the two were actually related. But it is clear Riggins-Ezzell knew the women were sisters.

…Chris Crockett (Crockett-Green’s son) was hired in 2005 as a museum preparator — someone who builds and tears down installations, among other duties. At the time of his hiring, Crockett did not disclose a 1998 felony conviction for dealing drugs, or that he was still on probation for the incident; in fact, he lied on his application about it.

… Crockett had also been arrested on additional felony drug charges in 2007 (later dropped; he pleaded guilty to felony possession of a weapon). He was then arrested again for reckless driving in 2012. And on June 30, 2015, he and two other men were arrested after attempting to purchase 100 pounds of marijuana in Wilson County, a drug bust that also led to the collection of 143 grams of cocaine and over 700 pills, including more than 100 ecstasy pills. (A trial on those charges is scheduled for January.)

TN prisons — public and private — running short on staff

There are more than 800 staff vacancies at Tennessee’s public and private prisons, reports The Tennessean. Officials say the state’s strong economy has increased competition for staff, though the newspaper notes there have been many months of complaints about pay, benefits, hours and safety from correctional officers, inmates and their families.

Right now, there are 519 vacancies at the state’s 10 public prisons, representing roughly 11 percent of the workforce, according to data provided by Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Neysa Taylor. Those prisons are supposed to have 4,576 employees, according to the information she provided.

…There are 306 vacancies at the state’s four private prisons, operated by CoreCivic, the company previously known as Corrections Corporation of America. That represents a vacancy ratio of 18.6 percent, company spokesman Jonathan Burns said.

“It’s important to note that vacancies reflect the total possible number of positions at each facility and are not reflective of the number of positions necessary for the safe and secure operation of our facilities,” Burns said.

Additionally, CoreCivic uses a private third-party contractor at times to hire for temporary workers to fill some of those vacancies. An online listing for a company called G4S shows a security officer opening in Hartsville, Tenn. — home of the Turner Trousdale Correctional Center, the largest prison in the state. The site says the salary is in the range of $20 to $25 an hour. The average starting salary for a CoreCivic officer is closer to $13 an hour, Burns confirmed.

…Part of the problem at public prisons is staff pay and an inability to keep staff for very long, according to the department’s latest statistical abstract. Systemwide for the current budget year, the turnover rate was more than 36 percent. At the Tennessee Prison for Women, recently plagued by myriad issues that led to leadership changes, the turnover rate was higher than 60 percent.

CPA firm echoes Haslam outsourcing savings estimate

An accounting firm, hired by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration to review its estimate of savings through outsourcing some services on college campuses, has confirmed the estimates of $35 million in projected savings.

Further from The Tennessean:

After college leaders, including (UT President Joe) DiPietro and former Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, questioned the veracity of the state’s math, the Haslam administration agreed to hire Nashville-based KraftCPAs to vet those savings. The KraftCPAs review found the potential for $35.2 million in annual savings.

Terry Cowles, director of the state’s Office of Customer Focused Government, said the consistency between the two projections justified a continued push to pursue outsourcing.

“We appreciate the cooperation of all those who assisted this effort to improve services at state facilities while saving Tennesseans’ tax dollars,” Cowles said in the statement. “Now that we see a less than two percent impact to the overall potential savings from this objective report, we continue moving forward.”

But a spokesman for the United College Workers union called the KraftCPAs review “anything but independent” because of the company’s donations to Haslam’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns for governor. State records also show that a KraftCPAs manager donated to both of Haslam’s campaigns as well.

“KraftCPAs has multiple political and financial connections to the Haslam administration,” UCW spokesman Thomas Walker said. “It’s hard to imagine them conducting this work independent of those connections.”

Haslam refuted those claims during a conversation with reporters Monday.

“Kraft is one of the most respected CPA firms here in the state,” Haslam said. “They don’t need this work here to make their business.”

Critics have repeatedly blasted Haslam’s proposal to privatize facilities management for a wide range of state properties — including college campuses, parks and prisons — predicting it would translate to subpar services and slashed pay and benefits for employees. (Note: See,  for example, Tennessee State Employees Association Randy Stamps’ op-ed piece in the News Sentinel, HERE.)

Haslam has said the savings are possible without layoffs or cuts to pay or benefits, a sentiment he reiterated Monday. He also said the savings could keep tuition costs down in the future.