At least three Sumner County Commissioners say they won’t be accepting iPads the county bought for them recently with federal COVID-19 relief money.
Commissioners were notified by email Feb. 8 that the iPads were purchased for each commissioner as “part of the Covid-19 grant and telecommute initiative.”
Commissioners also received a use agreement stating, “In the interests of furthering remote work, and paperless initiatives Sumner County Government will make available for use by elected officials one (1) Apple iPad Pro Tablet (iPad) for use while conducting any and all official county work. The iPad is intended for county government purposes and official county work only.”
County leaders were notified by the state Comptroller’s Office in August that the county would receive $2.8 million in federal CARES Act funds.
“Expenditures should be limited to those incurred due to COVID-19,” read the letter in part from then-Comptroller Justin Wilson.
Commissioners voted during the Sept. 21 meeting to appropriate the $2.8 million. The description that accompanied the legislation stated they would be used for “1. Mobile command center. 2. Two motor vehicle renewal self-service kiosks 3. Floor scrubber 4. External drop box for county administration building, IT equipment for county offices, and EMS headsets for communication.”
It also listed $1.6 million as “other charges.”
During a 20-minute discussion of what the money would be used for, technology was mentioned but iPads or any type of computers for elected officials were not.
County invoices show that 32 Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro Wi-Fi 4th generation tablets were ordered Oct. 28 at a cost of $994.01 each. Also bought were 32 Apple Smart keyboard and folio cases for $206.43 each. The total of the iPads, keyboards and cases was $38,414.08.
According to County IT Director Dennis Cary, the iPads were ordered for each of the 24 county commissioners as well as for eight elected officials: County Mayor Anthony Holt, Assessor of Property John Isbell, County Clerk Bill Kemp, Sheriff Sonny Weatherford, Circuit Court Clerk Kathryn Strong, Roads Superintendent Judy Hardin, Register of Deeds Cindy Briley and Trustee Cindy Williams.
Cary said that so far three commissioners, Mansfield, Moe Taylor and Merrol Hyde had declined the iPads.
During a Feb. 22 County Commission meeting, Mansfield and Taylor both said commissioners weren’t made aware of the purchase and that it wasn’t something they voted for.
“So who’s making [these] decisions?” asked Moe Taylor. “That’s not open and transparent government.”
Budget Committee Chairman Chris Taylor defended the purchases and said they were approved by the state.
“We couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t under their guidelines,” he said. Chris Taylor said the reason the purchase could be applied to COVID-19 relief funds is if the county commission ever needs to meet remotely again, the iPads will allow them to do so.
“We need to make sure we can provide government for citizens if this building shuts down,” he said. “It was an opportunity for us to make sure every commissioner had it. And that way we don’t have to worry about if something happens, we can still meet.”
The idea of purchasing iPads for commissioners was first brought up in a budget committee meeting in April of 2011 by then-County Commissioner Jim Vaughn.
Moe Taylor, who represents District 1 in Westmoreland, said he remembered Vaughn catching heat from citizens at the time who said the expenditure was frivolous.
“I have constituents who don’t have access to public water,” he said. “I’m not taking an iPad.”
District 6 Commissioner Deanne Dewitt said the idea of purchasing iPads was brought up during budget discussions in the last fiscal year as a way to cut back on the amount of paper used to print agendas.
“So the timing of the Covid money became a compelling additional use for why these iPads would be useful at a time when we’re meeting virtually,” she said.
Mansfield said after the meeting commissioners only met virtually three times that he recalled and that the money could have been better spent.
“That was federal money that was supposed to be restricted for what the county lost due to Covid,” he said. “It was just a perk for the commissioners at the taxpayers’ expense.”
In a phone conversation on Tuesday, Sumner County Mayor Anthony Holt said it was up to commissioners on how the money was spent but that he agrees with the decision to spend it on technology that included iPads.
“The iPads were just one way the money was used,” he said. “They had to use the money in a way that hopefully kept people safe and that was by remote means.”
He said the county commissioners have been wanting to cut down on printing costs of the 100-plus-page agendas for quite some time.
“I do think since this was free of local tax dollars, and it will save us in printing costs,” he said.
Commissioners receive agendas by email and they are posted on the county’s website, but Holt said this allows commissioners more mobility when accessing the documents.
Holt also said that even though he was offered one, he didn’t accept a county iPad because he already had one.
While Mansfield suggested giving his iPad to a charitable organization, Holt said that wasn’t possible.
He said the unwanted iPads will go to other county employees who can use them.
“I’m sure they won’t go to waste,” he said.