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Sparks fly at Unicoi board meeting

Sue Guinn Legg • Jul 16, 2018 at 11:16 PM

UNICOI — It was another hot night at Town Hall in Unicoi on Monday as a standing-room-only crowd came to hear the mayor and aldermen exchange barbs over the town’s alleged mispayments of retirement benefits for the town attorney and errant payments of health insurance premiums for the spouses of two current and past town employees.

The fireworks began during the discussion of a resolution to continue paying dependent health insurance premiums through December for what the resolution said were “employees” affected by an administrative error that began in between October 2017, for an additional cost of $5,445 through the end of the year.

Alderman Roger Cooper began the discussion by asking Town Attorney Lois Shults-Davis if the resolution is completely accurate, if it contained misleading statements and how many employees it affects.

When Shutls-Davis said the document was accurate and affected one past and one current employee, Cooper countered that because only one current employee was impacted the resolution was misleading in reference to multiple employees when it actually impacts only one current employee.

Shults-Davis replied that, in general, municipal resolutions should address everyone it impacts rather than a single person or instance.

On Cooper’s request, Town Recorder Michael Borders provided a history of the circumstances surrounding the resolution. Borders said he discovered the error made by the prior town attorney soon after he began his employment, and after about six weeks of consultation with the state, received confirmation the dependent health premium payments were being made in error.

Cooper said his point was that the former town recorder, Mike Housewright, “owes this town some serious dollars” and that the town’s continued payment of dependent health insurance premiums for the Mountain Harvest kitchen director brought her total salary and benefits to close to $90,000 annually.

Alderman Jeff Linville said the town promised the kitchen manager, Lee Manning, its payment of the dependent premiums upon her employment and noted that withdrawing those payments in the middle of a health insurance cycle would create a hardship.

Alderman Kathy Bullen said while the resolution appeared to be broad in its scope, it was actually very specific and caused her to feel “the town is being held hostage.”

As Bullen continued, saying it was inappropriate for the town “to do for one and not for the other,” Mayor Johnny Lynch gaveled her for being out of order, saying she had violated the Roberts Rules of Order with a personal attack telling her to apologize to the board for the violation or stop speaking.

Bullen continued speaking and was again gaveled out of order by Lynch, after which she said she would not apologize.

Shults-Davis interjected that proper procedure at that point was for a board member to call for a vote on the resolution and proceed.

The resolution was then approved by a vote of three to two with Cooper and Bullen opposed.

Friction sparked again on the board’s next item of business, a discussion requested by Cooper of Shults-Davis errant inclusion the town’s Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System plan following a resolution passed by the board in 2013 that did not specify her inclusion as a attorney employed by retainer and paid by the hour.

Cooper said a former town clerk placed Shults-Davis in the system and the premium payments were not caught by the town auditors until recently because there are no records reflecting the more than $30,000 in premiums that have been paid.

Shults-Davis, who had previously addressed the same concerns raised by Cooper in the board’s June meeting, reiterated that the former town attorney Larry Rae believed the resolution passed by the board included her in the state retirement plan, and his successor continued her inclusion in the plan.

She said at the time the resolution was passed she was concerned the resolution did not properly include her the system, and after several back-and-forth communications with the state told the board more information was needed.

Shults-Davis told the Johnson City Press several weeks ago that because of her uncertainty about her eligibility, she had paid 100 percent of retirement premiums and none of her premiums had ever been paid by the town.

She reiterated that contention to the board Monday despite Cooper’s contention that town money was involved. Shults-Davis also told Cooper he was also in error in his contentions that there is no town record of her TCRS premium payments and offered to share her pay stubs showing the deductions.

Lynch interjected that the board had discussed the matter at its last meeting, and asked Cooper if he had a motion.

Cooper responded that he only wanted people to know.

Borders said the TCRS notified the town in late June that Shults-Davis is not eligible to participate in the plan because she is not a town employee. He said the town has refunded Shults-Davis for her payment of the premiums and is continuing to consult with the state to resolve the matter.

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