Community rallies around Interim Manager at MUD Board special meeting

By Tabitha Evans Moore | Editor & Publisher

LYNCHBURG, Tenn. — Nearly 30 citizens attended Thursday’s special-called Metro Utility Department (MUD) Board meeting and they gave the five-member board all they wanted. Another 300 interested citizens watched the live stream of the meeting on the Metro Utilities Facebook page.

The lone agenda item? The pay of the next Metro Utilities Manager.

In the June MUD Board meeting, the Board voted 4-1 to both not offer the permanent Utility Manager’s position to Interim Manager Ronnie Cunningham and instead offer the position to current Hartsville/Trousdale County Utility Manager Tommy McFarland.

In that meeting, Charles “Boo” Johnston made a motion to offer the job to Cunningham and Chairman Shane Taylor seconded that motion. During the roll call vote, only Johnston cast a vote for Cunningham. Chairman Taylor, Will Shavers, John Robertson, and Barry Posluszny all voted against Cunningham and in favor of McFarland.

That decision’s been the talk of the town ever since and citizens showed up in droves on Thursday to both rally around Cunningham and protest increasing the pay of the next MUD Manager. The well-attended meeting got a bit heated and tense at times.

Citizens push back and demand to be heard

Chairman Taylor opened the meeting and after a brief discussion attempted to go straight into entertaining a motion from Posluszny to increase the pay rate for the Utility Manger from its current rate to $78,000.

The MUD Manager made $65,922 in fiscal 2022-23 and is budgeted to increase three percent to $67,877 in the upcoming fiscal year. The nearly $11,000 increase did not sit well with the crowd and they asked to be heard prior to the vote. Chair Taylor attempted to push forward but the crowd persisted. Eventually Metro Mayor Sloan Stewart interjected and Chair Taylor opened the floor to public comment prior to the vote. For the next hour, people spoke against the pay increase and on Cunningham’s behalf.

Against any pay rate that would lead to a rate increase

Many citizens spoke against the $11,000 increase and demanded to know where those funds would come from in the upcoming budget. One of those was JoJo Bedford who served as MUD Officer Manager from 1999 to 2014.

“As the oversight committee, you have a responsibility to makes sure the water and sewer rates in Moore County stay as low as possible,” she said.

Her sentiments were echoed by Doug Sanders who served as the MUD Director form 2000-2010.

“This will blow up the budget,” Sanders said. “When I took the position back in 2000, I wanted it and I took a pay cut to come here. If Mr. McFarland wants the position, why isn’t he willing to do the same?”

Several current MUD employees spoke about what they considered the intrinsic unfairness of giving “unproven outsider” a nearly 15 percent pay increase out of the gate when current MUD employees will only receive a three percent raise in the 2023-24 budget.

CROWD: Certifications don’t trump experience

When asked directly by Dewanna Byrom, the mother of MUD employee Tyler Byrom, what the deciding factor was to not hire Cunningham, Chair Taylor stated that his unwillingness to get state and other certification played a key factor.

“Certifications are just a piece of paper,” stated Moore County resident and current Tullhoma Utilities employee Brady Goodwin. “Ninety-nine percent of my knowledge came from on the job training.”

Cunningham’s dedication and work ethic seemed key

Many people, including members of Cunningham’s family spoke on his behalf. His daughters Ashley Cunningham and Chelsea Martin spoke about school events, holidays, and other milestones Cunningham missed in their family because of water or sewer emergencies in the county.

“Will the new guys drop everything and drive an hour to fix a leak? My dad went out on Christmas Day and got phone calls — which he took – during my wedding – to deal with issues. He missed large portions of my childhood to be here for this county,” Ashley said.

Several MUD employees spoke about not only Cunningham’s willingness to come out at all hours but also his willingness to get his hands dirty.

“I can call Ronnie anytime and he’ll not only come but he’ll get in the hole with me,” stated Dylan Griffin. “Ronnie is the heart and soul of this operation. We trust him and his opinion.”

Former MUD Manager Sanders stated that during his time at MUD, “Ronnie was a super employee and someone I could always depend on every day. Sure, he doesn’t have the schooling but neither did I.”

Employees rally around Cunningham

Nearly a dozen MUD employees attended the meeting and all spoke in favor of Cunningham, who stated openly that he’s not willing to train another director after being passed over for the job now twice. Many were concerned that without Cunningham’s institutional knowledge, bad things might happen.

“Who’s gonna train the new guy,” asked MUD employee Tyler Byrom. “It’s a old system with lots of quirks. I’m not willing to give this new guy a chance because without Ronnie and Doyle (Baker) we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

“What happens when the new guy goes against Ronnie and Doyle and blows up the water lines underneath the nursing home?” MUD office worker Kristin Amos asked.

Board votes to keep manager’s pay at current rate

After hearing public comment, Posluszny withdrew his original motion and offered a compromise.

“I make a motion to raise the pay to $75,000 with an increase to $78,000 after a six month probation,” Posluszny stated. His replacement motion died on the vine without a second.

He tried again. This time his motion was to increase to MUD Manager’s pay to $75,000. That motion also received no second.

Finally board member Johnston made a motion to keep the pay at the current, budgeted rate. His motion received a round of applause from the crowd. Will Shavers seconded the motion and the board voted unanimously to leave the manager’s pay at the current budgeted rate of $67,877.

They will revisit the Metro Utility Manger hiring process at their July meeting, which will take place on Tuesday, July 11 at 6 p.m. at the Metro Utility Department. A new state law states that they must make time for public comments about any item on the posted agenda. •

{The Lynchburg Times is an independently-owned, community newspaper located in Lynchburg, Tennessee the home of The Jack Daniel Distillery. We tells the stories of local folks here in Lynchburg as well as those happening across Tennessee and the American South that we believe may be of interest to our readers. Like what we’re doing? You can support us for just $5 per month by following this link.}