Tennessee is opening four offices abroad in efforts to expand the state’s exports of products and services, which already total $30 billion annually, according to the Tennessean. Export development offices are being set up in China, Mexico, Germany and the United Kingdom with the goal of increasing the state’s exports by 10 percent — or $3 billion — over the next three years, said Bill Hagerty, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.
The initiative will be led by the department’s International Division, and it will be the first time since 1997 that the state has operated offices abroad “solely dedicated to advancing Tennessee exports,” the department said in an announcement.
In picking the four countries for the export initiative, “We basically just ran the math and put them where the largest flow (of Tennessee exports) exists today,” Hagerty said. The office in Germany will serve the entire European Union.
The Ned McWherter Center for Rural Development has been led by former state Sen. Roy Herron, now a candidate for chairman of the state Democratic Party, since 2008 without accomplishing much, according to Steven Hale.
The center, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to Tennessee students, was created with a $900,000 state grant in 2008. The grant was part of that year’s state budget during Herron’s term as senator and while he was the president of the organization.
But since that time, the center’s output has been minimal, according to tax records examined by The City Paper. Between 2008 and 2010, the center awarded no scholarships. The nonprofit began 2011 with $1,045,052 in assets but awarded only $35,750 in scholarships to students that year, the most recent available for public examination.
Herron announced in 2012 that he would not seek re-election, noting that he would devote his efforts to the McWherter center.
The center still bears the name of the late former governor, who died in April 2011, despite a nearly year-old request from the McWherter family that his name be removed from the organization.
Along with Herron, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and former Democratic Rep. Mark Maddox are listed as officers for the organization. Michael McWherter, son of the former governor, made the request in a letter to all three dated Feb. 20, 2012.
News release from Senate Republican Caucus:
NASHVILLE – State Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), Chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, said today he has put the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) on notice regarding his committee’s intentions to carefully review their spending practices. THDA came under fire after lavish spending on employee-related activities was uncovered in an investigative report by WTVF-TV in Nashville. The State and Local Government Committee reviews THDA’s budget and is responsible for recommending changes to the full Senate in the agency’s spending plan.
“It is essential that not only you but also the entire agency recognize that THDA is a state agency,” said Chairman Yager in a letter to Perrey. “This demands the agency have the fiscal discipline that is expected of every state agency. In fact, the nature of the agency’s work is such that it should be held to an even higher standard.”
“The Senate Committee I chair on State and Local Government will be reviewing the progress you make in implementing needed reforms in the coming months,” the letter continued.
THDA was created by the General Assembly in 1973 to provide housing assistance to Tennesseans in need by offering a variety of housing-related programs, especially for those with low incomes. Until October, the agency was led by Executive Director Ted Fellman.
Perrey was questioned by Yager on Monday regarding the expenditures at a meeting of the Joint Fiscal Review Committee, which also has legislative oversight responsibilities for state spending.
“We’ve lost sight of the good you do because of these outrageous activities that were funded through your budget,” Yager told Perrey at that hearing.
He also asked Perrey about whether he expressed concerns as a former THDA Board member before being selected as the new Executive Director. Perrey said he was not aware of some of the more lavish expenditures but pledged that they would not be repeated.
“Director Perrey has given us his word that the Agency will not repeat these excessive expenditures and we are going to hold him to that,” added Yager. “We will be holding THDA fully accountable for the dollars they spend.”
State lawmakers are taking the Tennessee Housing Development Agency to task for tens of thousands of dollars spent on arcade outings and stretch limos, reports WPLN. THDA’s new director appeared before the Fiscal Review Committee Monday. Agency chief Ralph Perrey says now that he’s at the helm – quote – “what you will not see is us spending money to treat ourselves.”
THDA now estimates $75,000 was spent over the last two years on rewards. But before becoming executive director this month, Perrey was on the THDA board. So lawmakers ask why he didn’t act then.
“I was aware that we were doing some employee appreciation events. That didn’t raise a red flag to me when I heard it. It should have.”
See also a report on the hearing from Phil Williams, who first pointed out the spending on employee appreciation.
The Tennessee Housing Development Agency, created to help in financing home for low and modest income Tennesseans, also spends “tens of thousands of dollars having fun,” according to WTVF-TV’s Phil Williams. But it’s called “employee development.” So, this past summer, the entire office took off to go to Dave & Busters.
In addition to a full-course, lunch buffet, each employee also got $40 for video games or for bowling.
The total cost: $9,939.
“The people who work in accounting get to know the people who work in tax credits,” Smith explained. “The people who work in housing management get to know the people in public affairs.”
“Can they not get to know each other here at the office?” NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.
“Yes — it’s a little crowded here,” she answered.
To celebrate Fellman’s 50th birthday, THDA bought enough balloons to fill up the boss’ office. They hired a balloon artist, as well as a caterer to serve up banana pudding.
The price tag: $1,300.
For administrative professionals day, the agency brought in a stretch limo just to take its secretaries out to lunch.
The limo by itself: $641.
News release from governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Bill Hagerty will take a temporary leave of absence to volunteer as a member of the Romney/Ryan presidential readiness team in Washington, D.C.
Hagerty’s unpaid leave will run from Monday, September 17 through Tuesday, November 6. Despite the scheduled time away, he will be in Nashville October 18 and 19 to oversee the Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development.
The presidential readiness team is led by former Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah. Hagerty served in a similar role for the 2008 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
“Bill’s background makes him a logical choice to serve in this role,” Haslam said. “He will do a great job.”
Deputy to the Governor Claude Ramsey will assume oversight of the department during Hagerty’s leave of absence.
“Creating and growing Tennessee jobs is a top priority for our administration, and I appreciate Claude for his willingness to serve in this capacity in the upcoming weeks,” Haslam continued. “His experience will be an asset to the department as we continue to focus on new jobs in Tennessee.”
— Update Note: The Tennessee Democratic Party does not approve. Excerpt from a party news release: “Once again Hagerty and Haslam have said to the people of Tennessee that their economic future is less important than the economic future of the special interests, millionaires and billionaires who would benefit from the top-down policies of Romney economics,” said Chip Forrester, Chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
Hagerty will return to the department on Wednesday, November 7.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Beginning on Sept. 1, anyone claiming unemployment benefits will have to show that they are actively looking for work, including keeping a work search log.
According to a news release from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, claimants will be required to conduct three work searches each week.
A list of valid work search activity is available on the department’s website at www.tn.gov/labor-wfd or at the nearest Tennessee Career Center.
Labor and Workforce Development officials will conduct random audits of 1,000 claimants’ work search documentation each week to verify work search activity. If work search claims are found to be fraudulent, the department will stop a claimant’s benefits immediately and can suspend payments for eight weeks.
Notices will be mailed next week about the new requirements.
The state’s housing agency turned down the chance to apply for $12 million in federal rental assistance for people with disabilities — overruling a recommendation by its own staff and by the state’s TennCare Medicaid agency.
More from The Tennessean: Advocates for the disabled say the funding is desperately needed to address a housing crisis among people with disabilities who want to live independently but who are often forced into homelessness or into institutions, which cost the state more money.
The aid is the only major new source of federal funding available this year for people who are very poor and have physical, mental or developmental disabilities, said Ann O’Hara, associate director for Boston-based Technical Assistance Collaborative Resource Center on Supportive Housing, a consulting firm. O’Hara said her agency has worked with at least 20 other states that have expressed interest in the funding.
The 2010 law creating the new Section 811 rental assistance program was passed with rare bipartisan support, with unanimous votes in both the House and Senate. It requires no upfront state money, but it does require that the state Medicaid agency partner with a housing agency to provide vouchers that people can use to pay their landlords.
Board members of the Tennessee Housing and Development Agency at their July 24 meeting shelved the plan to apply for a piece of the $85 million in funding that just became available, declining to take a vote. The deadline for applications passed on July 31.
A memo from THDA staff members to the board said “staff recommends board approval to submit an application.” TennCare also recommended that the state apply for the maximum state allotment of $12 million, saying the money would pay for TennCare’s efforts to keep people out of nursing homes.
Board member Ralph Perrey said he had philosophical differences with the federal program requiring a 20-year commitment from states but offering only five years of guaranteed funding, with annual congressional approval required afterward.
O’Hara said that all programs subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that THDA and other agencies already administer come with similar terms. Programs for the homeless and for seniors and Section 8 rental vouchers operate in the same way, she said.
Executive Director Tim Fellman said he and other board members were concerned that the program capped administrative costs at 5 percent of the federal grant.
That could mean THDA would have to use its own money to cover administrative costs of the program, he said
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee attorney general and Tennessee Housing Development Agency have created a mortgage hotline for struggling homeowners.
The development comes after attorneys general across the country reached an agreement with the nation’s top five mortgage services that will provide an estimated $140 million in relief to Tennesseans.
Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper said the idea behind the hotline is to make sure the state’s homeowners get the help they deserve.
Homeowners calling the new hotline can learn about housing assistance programs or be directed to foreclosure prevention counselors.
The toll-free number is (855) 876-7283. It is available Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Central time.
— Note: News release below.
Woody Degan, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris in the Aug. 2 Republican primary, says the Department of Economic Development has hired a woman to make the department compliant with Sharia law.
Not so, says Politifact Tennessee.
Here’s the Degan quote:
“They’re making our Economic Development department Sharia compliant. They hired Samar Ali, who came directly from the Obama administration, who specializes in Sharia compliance. That’s what her job is.”
Ruling on the truth of that statement: “Pants on Fire.”