state employees

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.

Continue reading

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.

Outsourcing plan developed in secrecy with potential contractors

For almost a year and a half, a small group of highly paid state executives have been regularly meeting in secret, determining the future of more than 3,000 state employees whose jobs could be outsourced, according to the Nashville Post.

From late August through November of this year, the (10-member “steering committee) was joined by representatives of the company or companies — name and number unknown — that will bid on the contract to hire outside workers for physically laborious state jobs.

Officials issued a request for proposals on Dec. 1, with a timeline that will have the state accepting a bid in late March — and only companies that have been involved in the process so far are allowed to apply.

The unprecedented secrecy of the process has already led to questions about the results of an outside accounting review by KraftCPAs, a Nashville firm with strong ties to Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. Now, documents obtained by the Post via an open records request, along with the RFP itself, show that the state’s claims to protect all current employees’ jobs and provide the same level of benefits are misleading at best — although critics of the plan use much harsher language.

“The Governor is already breaking his own promises about outsourcing, and the proof is right there in the RFP,” said Thomas Walker, a spokesperson for United Campus Workers.

(While the governor has said no employees will lose their jobs or have compensation reduced, the article notes that employees are not covered by the promise if they work less than 30 hours a week, have been employed less than six months or fail a background check not now required. Also, the job can be moved to a new location up to 50 miles away. And when vacancies occur, the contractor need not fill them and, if so, can hire new employees at lower pay.)

…Despite making many qualifying statements about how nothing is set in stone until a contract is signed, it’s apparent that the steering committee itself is considering the outsourcing move a virtually done deal.

…Keep in mind that “vested” or “collaborative value development” procurement is basically designed to result in a done deal. Under the process… the contractor is involved in creating the RFP to which it will respond in the hopes of getting a contract. It is a process that has been used by some large companies but is virtually untested in the public sector.

Respondents to the RFI were given the opportunity to reply to a RFQ, or request for qualifications, that was issued April 11. Only the companies deemed qualified were allowed to participate in the vested creation of the RFP, which occurred during meetings every Thursday and Friday from Aug. 25 to Nov. 21, per PowerPoint slides from April and August steering committee meetings. And only those companies will be allowed to respond to the RFP itself.

How many companies are there? Is there even more than one company involved? Only the people involved in the process know, and they’ve all signed non-disclosure agreements.

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.

Legality of state museum leader’s pay raise procedure questioned

State Rep. Steve McDaniel, as chairman of the board overseeing the Tennessee State Museum, apparently approved a 25 percent pay raise for Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell earlier this year and told no other board members about the move, reports Cari Wade Gervin. Some other members of the board – though all apparently agree she was underpaid — are now questioning whether the procedure was legal.

When asked why he didn’t bring up the raises during the relevant discussion of the April DHSMC meeting, much less the rest of the year’s meetings, McDaniel didn’t have a good answer.

“I didn’t think about it, to be honest. We probably should have had it on the agenda, but it just didn’t occur to me,” McDaniel said. “If I had thought to bring it up, I would have brought it up.”

When asked if he thought he had done anything wrong by approving the raises without letting anyone else on the commission know, much less discussing it with them, McDaniel seemed unconcerned.

“Did I do anything wrong? Apparently not,” McDaniel said. “I don’t know that I had to tell them, because I was acting in my role as chair.”

Continue reading

Power problems close Tennessee Tower

The Tennessee Tower, workplace for about 2,100 state government employees, was closed today because of a power outage, according to Department of General Services spokesman David Roberson.

Electric service in the building was shut down over the weekend for scheduled maintenance work but “had to be extended because of unexpected problems,” said Roberson. Details on the nature of the problem were not available Monday morning, he said.

The  building is expected to reopen on Tuesday, Roberson said.

Ashe asks comptroller review of museum leader’s pay raise

Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a member of the board overseeing the Tennessee State Museum, has asked state Comptroller Justin Wilson to “review and investigate” circumstances surrounding a $23,000 boost in annual pay given in April to Lois Riggins-Ezzell, the museum’s longtime executive director.

Ashe has also questioned the propriety of a $40,000 job approved for Riggins-Ezzell that will take effect after her retirement on Dec. 31. The new position as a fundraiser was approved last week by the Tennessee state Museum Foundation (previous post HERE.).

And he says the $95,500 contract recently awarded to Carter Balwin Inc., an Atlanta-based executive search company, to seek a successor to Riggins-Ezzell seems excessive, given  that the University of Tennessee is paying $75,000 for the search for a successor to retiring UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek.

Excerpt from the News-Sentinel:

Riggins-Ezell began 2016 with an annual salary set at $90,216 that has been increased to $113,940 currently, according to Ashley Fuqua, public information officer for the state Department of Human Resources. Almost all that increase came in April, following a discussion of salaries at a meeting of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, as the museum oversight board is officially known.

Both Thomas Smith, current chairman of the commission, and state Rep. Steve McDaniel, who was chairman in April, say they were unaware of the Riggins-Ezell pay raise until Ashe reported the increase and raised questions about how it was approved in a series of emails to commission members and media last week.

Fuqua, however, said the department has a form – signed by McDaniel – authorizing the April salary increase. McDaniel, who earlier said he did not remember the pay raise or any action approving it, said when told of the form that he must have been mistaken.

“I still don’t recall it, but if they say I did, I guess I did,” he said in a telephone interview. McDaniel said he does recall filling out an evaluation of Riggins-Ezzell and “giving her the highest marks I possibly could.”

Ashe said he thinks the full commission should have voted on a salary increase of 25 percent and questioned whether the chairman – “if he did actually sign the form” – could act on his own. Smith said he understands that the commission chairman is entitled to approve pay raises without a commission vote, though he is still seeking more information on the situation.

… Besides getting a pay raise herself, Riggins-Ezzell also approved salary increases for two museum staffers who work closely with her – Mary Jane Crockett-Green, director of administration, and Sharon Dennis, her executive assistant. Crockett-Green got a pay raise of about 25 percent – on the same level as Riggins-Ezzell – that puts her current salary at $6,449 per month or $77,348 annually. Dennis received a pay raise of $7,716 per year – though a portion of that was a regular step increase not tied to the executive director’s approval – that makes her current annual salary $46,521.

Note: Text of Ashe’s email request to the comptroller is below.

Continue reading