Aside from directing HCCD to perform dispatching services, that contract removes the county from any legal liability that the agency might incur.
Although the County Commission approved HCCD funding last month in the amount of $175,000 for the 2019-20 fiscal year, Mayor Jim Lee has yet to sign the agreement.
The county mayor appoints 911 Board members when their terms expire, but otherwise he has no statutory authority over the 911 Board.
911 funding threats
Before Lee made his new appointments last year, the previous 911 Board approved a four-year director contract with Gay Murrell.
This past January, Lee threatened to withhold 911 funding unless Murrell signed a new 911 Board employment contract that he drafted.
In April, Lee told the 911 Board he wouldn’t sign the agreement until Murrell worked with him on revising her contract.
Murrell has worked for HCCD since it was created in 1993, and she has been director for 18 years.
Some county officials accused Lee of overstepping his bounds with the funding threat, and last month the County Commission approved its 2019-20 budget, including the $175,000 HCCD funding.
No contract while Murrell is director
Lee didn’t attend Thursday’s 911 Board meeting, but he sent a messenger with his new demand.
David Good, who is a trooper with the Tennessee Highway Patrol, was among Lee’s new appointees last year to the 911 Board.
On Thursday, 911 Board Chairman Mike Herrell informed the board that although the HCCD’s 2019-20 funding was approved, Lee still hadn’t signed the interlocal agreement.
Herrell expressed his concern over the potential legal liability that the lack of a contract with HCCD places on the county.
“I was talking to Mayor Lee before I came here,” Good told the 911 board Thursday. “I’ll tell you word for word what he told me to tell you. He said that as long as Gay (Murrell) is 911 director and still employed here, he will not sign the contract.”
Herrell responded, “As a county commissioner, I’m going to say he (Lee) is putting the county in a lawsuit situation by not signing. That puts the liability on the county. We’re giving them $175,000. I don’t know why we would want to be in a situation to have a lawsuit thrown on the county.”
Good: “That’s what he said. The fact she can’t never get the budget done right. Has never had a passed audit the past several years. He’s just not going to sign it. ...”
Murrell: “Until I'm gone.”
Mayor Lee responds
Via email Tuesday evening Mayor Lee told the Times News, “The reason I will not sign the Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement is because I do not feel it’s in the best interest of the citizens of Hawkins County. The ECD/911 has failed their audit for several years which was conducted by David M. Ellis CPA.”
Lee pointed out an example from the 2017 audit which states, “several line items of expenditures exceeded their budgeted amounts” and incurred expenses (not legally) approved in accordance with the state statute.
“Before I enter into a contract with them I would like to see their bank statements and credit card statements for the past 3 years,” Lee said. “They get a contribution of over $175,000 each year from Hawkins County tax payers plus the amount they receive from the fee on every phone for 911. Remember that E911/ECD is not a government agency like most citizens think. I think the taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent. It’s simple, show me the records I have mentioned and the salaries she is paying the employees including her family members.”
Overspending attributed to overtime
Murrell told the Times News Tuesday that over the past three fiscal years her spending has exceeded the amount budgeted, and that issue was the lone finding on the audits from each of those fiscal years.
Herrell defended Murrell Tuesday, noting that underestimated spending on HCCD budgets can be attributed mainly to overtime.
Similar to the issues experienced in recent years by the Hawkins County EMS ambulance service, HCCD has suffered staffing shortages that resulted in the need for overtime, Herrell said.
“She has not done anything wrong”
Herrell told the Times News he disagrees with Lee’s position that Murrell should be replaced as 911 director.
“She has not done anything wrong since I’ve been on the 911 Board that we could address and get rid of her,” Herrell said. “The mayor is saying we need to get rid of her, but we don’t have any cause to get rid of her. You’ve got to have a reason to get rid of somebody. You can’t just do it because you don’t like them, dislike them, or whatever.”
“Take more responsibility as a board”
Herrell added, “We as a board are trying to get a better understanding of 911. Four years ago, I was against a lot of stuff 911 was doing. After being on the 911 Board, I realize why they had to do certain things. I understand it a little better. It’s a learning curve for me, and there are two or three new members beside me, and we’re just trying to learn it and try to take more responsibility as a board, whereas in the past the boards gave Gay all the responsibility.”
The first time Murrell met with Lee’s newly appointed 911 Board, she asked for help from the board in working on the budget. On Thursday, Herrell appointed a 911 Budget Committee to create the budgets. That committee consists of board members Lynn Campbell, Fred Castle, and Doug Nelson, and ex-officio members Herrell and Murrell.
“The Board is taking on more of the responsibility and taking it off of Gay, and let her focus on 911,” Herrell said. “She’s having a hard time hiring people and getting them to stay, and when you don’t have the people you’ve got to work overtime.”
Herrell said he plans on bringing the issue of the unsigned interlocal agreement before the full commission when it meets Sept. 23 so that Lee can explain his position on the issue.