published Sunday, June 16th, 2013

Hamilton County Clerk's budget bulges

BY THE NUMBERS

2006 // 2012

Revenue: $1.8 million // $1.8 million

Expense: $1.6 million // $2 million

Profit: $184,781 // (-$156,419)

Source: Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson

Since she took office in 2002, Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson's staff has been paid well for its work.

But come budget time, Thompson will have to deliver either pink slips or pay cuts to some of her 40 employees, or sue the county she has served for the past 48 years.

Those are her only options, because County Mayor Jim Coppinger says emphatically he's not granting her $336,000 request to plug a budget hole left by systematically increasing payrolls and declining revenues.

Based on 2012 numbers, Thompson can cut pay 8.2 percent across the board, fire enough employees to overcome a $156,000 deficit -- which would only get her office in the black -- or sue the county to get the money she says she needs.

According to Hamilton County audit reports, Thompson's real money problem is about 3 years old, but it only reached critical mass this year -- and few red flags were waved in the meantime.

In March, for the first time in her 10-year tenure, Thompson asked the Hamilton County Commission for $192,194 in excess fees turned in over the past decade.

She said a 2006 law changed her fee system and restricted how much she could collect for filings in court cases. Under the new system, parties pay flat fees up front based on cases, not filings. A divorce that may have cost filers many hundreds of dollars before the change now costs up to $209.

Thompson told commissioners the new law had been driving revenue down since 2009, after older cases under the pre-2006 law were concluded. Without more money, she said, she wouldn't meet payroll through the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Commissioners gave her the money in March, as required by law, but they warned her not to expect a dime more come budget time. Several told her she needed to cut staff if her revenue was tanking.

Thompson will be up for re-election in 2014 and is paid $101,159 annually as set by the state.

DOLLARS AND SENSE

Numbers tell a more precise story about Thompson's money troubles.

Thompson says the 2006 law has been the cause of her revenue decline. But in fact, the law just spurred a brief revenue spike from 2005 to 2009, when fees were still being paid on each filing for older cases, and upfront fees were being paid on new cases.

What has changed is her expenses.

Last year's revenues were in line with 2006, but expenses were up by $333,000.

Thompson said she is not filling two vacant positions for the fiscal year that begins July 1, going from 42 total employees to 40, not including herself.

When asked Friday how she justified giving annual raises at a time of widespread belt-tightening in the public and private sectors, Thompson said she just wanted to reward her staff.

"We get $18,000 a year for promotions and I use that. I think you have to pay people for good work," Thompson said.

But figures show Thompson has been spending well more than $18,000 a year in raises.

Had she stuck with that figure, her payroll would have increased by $90,000 every five years. But from 2007 to 2012, her salary expenditures in the Circuit Court division alone rose by $201,000.

Some of that expense could have come from her practice of sharing out the salaries to staff when higher-paid employees quit, rather than putting the excess toward savings.

But Thompson isn't the only one steering her payrolls. Coppinger said last week he has always approved her salary agreement, which all constitutional officers sign, and Thompson has never exceeded it.

Thompson said had she known her finances were going bad, she never would have given raises.

"I've never been a numbers person; we've been looking at it month to month and we see what money we have. The auditor never said anything to me, [the finance department] never said anything to me and I just went along," Thompson said. "I never would have done that if I knew we would end up like this."

Thompson will meet Monday with Hamilton County Finance Department head Louis Wright and his deputy Al Kiser to discuss how she can shave her budget.

COURT CLERKS IN OTHER COUNTIES

Thompson blamed the 2006 law change for declining revenues, but other clerk offices have had different experiences.

The chief administrative officer for Shelby County Circuit Court, Van Sturdivant, served on the committee that recommended the law changes.

Sturdivant said the changes helped the clerk's office in Shelby County by saving time and getting money into the coffers up front.

The big differences between Shelby County and Hamilton County: Shelby County's clerk doesn't manage a General Sessions Court Civil Division, and Shelby's government fills revenue gaps -- but commissioners there also determine pay increases for the clerk's staff.

Also, revenue has increased from another source, a partnership with the Shelby County Clerk and Master's office, which handles delinquent property tax cases. In 2004 the office took in $1.9 million. Last year it was $3 million.

In Knox County, which opted out of the 2006 law, case filings in Circuit Court have hovered between 1,800 and 2,150 since 2004, court records show.

Revenue has fluctuated since 2005 but was down 15 percent last year, or $100,000, compared to the average revenue for the period.

For the same period, the Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk's Office caseload ranged from 5,561 cases filed in 2004 and 5,312 cases filed last year.

But the clerk's revenue is down only 2 percent since 2005, or $38,000, compared to the average for the period.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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