published Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Budgetary buffoonery at the Hamilton County clerk's office

Excuses are like belly buttons, as the saying goes. Everyone has one. Few people, however, have excuses as ridiculous and exasperating as one offered by Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson.

When asked why she mismanaged the clerk's office budget, leaving it with a $156,000 deficit and a projected $336,000 shortfall next year, Thompson replied, "I've never been a numbers person."

You can say that again, Paula.

Thompson's ham-handed management of the clerk's office budget was uncovered in Sunday's Times Free Press by reporters Louie Brogdon and Todd South. They discovered that Thompson bungled the budget by lavishing her staff with substantial pay hikes, even at a time in which many county employees' salaries were frozen due to the tumultuous economy.

For a period encompassing five fiscal years from 2007-2012, Thompson's budget built-in $18,000 a year -- $90,000 total -- for employee raises. Thompson, however, showered Circuit Court workers with more than $200,000 in pay hikes during that time. It turns out that when one of Thompson's higher-paid employees left the clerk's office and was replaced with an employee with a lower salary, she would take the windfall and use it for raises, rather than saving the difference. If Thompson had simply refrained from that unusual and irresponsible practice, her office would be in fine financial shape.

Instead, Thompson now faces the reality of having to trim expenses by slashing the payroll or firing several of the employees she unreasonably coddled. In order to cover the $156,000 deficit she created through her bad bookkeeping and exorbitant raises, Thompson will need to either levy an 8.2 percent across-the-board pay cut or showing about four workers the door.

With the Circuit Court Clerk's office salary expenses skyrocketing more than 25 percent since 2006 and revenue collections remaining fairly constant, Thompson's fiscal disaster shouldn't have come as a surprise. But it did.

Hamilton County Auditor Bill McGriff never raised red flags to warn Thompson of the mess she was creating for her agency. To make matters worse, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and his predecessor, Claude Ramsey, apparently rubber-stamped the clerk's office budget request without inspecting the particulars.

Thompson, for her part, is apparently a good clerk and a fine person, but she comes across as utterly incompetent when it comes to managing public funds.

The facts seem to back up Thompson's pathetic defense of not being "a numbers person." When asked for payroll and budget numbers by the Times Free Press, she could not come up with numbers for two weeks -- and when she finally did, they didn't add up. Thompson also did not have a plan for preparing a budget and failed to have a method for projecting revenue amounts the court expected to bring in each year.

Her budgeting system of hoping for the best is unacceptable, especially since she manages a $2 million agency. The fact that Thompson is a 48-year veteran of Hamilton County government and has served as court clerk for a decade makes her ineptitude even more bewildering.

Thompson, and to a lesser degree Coppinger, McGriff, Ramsey and the Hamilton County commissioners, deserve their share of the blame for the budget troubles at the Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk's Office. Ultimately, however, it was Hamilton County voters who voted in, and later re-elected, someone to manage a major county agency who is clearly in way over her head.

Hamilton County residents can fix the problem in 2014 when Thompson is next up for re-election. In the meantime, Hamilton County leaders must pull together to ensure that Thompson's budget blunders don't get worse and end up leaving county taxpayers paying to clean up the mess.

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aae1049 said...

Elected office is service, not a guaranteed job. Some fresh perspective and leadership in the circuit court system is Way over due. For Paula Thompson's salary, there are plenty of highly qualified attorneys versed on procedural and documentation requirements to be a great clerk.

The terms of the circuit court judges are too long. I believe 8 years, or something like that. The voters only have an opportunity once in every 8 years, let's replace all the judges too. They have a reputation for being a little too close and a public perception of decisions being rendered on who ya know, i.e. court house mafia. Incumbency only makes them worse.

June 18, 2013 at 3:40 p.m.
Diskatopia said...

The author of this piece seemingly can't grasp economics, time value of money, and basic math, and clearly leaves out some data to try and make it seem he/she is being reasonable, when in reality the article is blabber with sound and fury signifying nothing. Here are some facts, with math from the data we have fro the piece above and the article from last Sunday's TFP:

According to the graph provided, the budget in 2003 was $1.5million. In 2012 it was $2.0 million. Assuming all things stayed the same , when adjusted for CPI from 2003-2012 the budget in 2012 should be $1.91million. So the budget of 2012 was a $90,000 increase above CPI/inflation, which is EASILY explained-- the office had 41 employees in 2003 and 43 in 2012, possibly to cover the larger case load (a 5% increase in employees, an approximate 18% increase in caseload(?*)).

Which leads us to another bit of avoiding-the-math nonsense by the author-- the "$200,000 in pay hikes." Saying that makes it sound HUGE, doesn't it? Two hundred thousand dollars! But let's look at the breakdown: giving the author the benefit of assuming that that $200,000 does NOT include the one employee-added's salary, but just increases in pay, that comes to a raise on average of about $950 a year, or about $4750 over the five years-- which is JUST EVEN with CPI for salaries of $38,000. Hardly some massive getting rich scheme-- just fair raises (at least on average)versus inflation. Hardly "substantial pay hikes" as the author contends, just a staying even with inflation. How many years should someone be paid exactly the same salary? Will the author be making the same salary in 10 years for the same work he/she does now?

Now, to the REAL reason for the shortfall-- LOOK AT THE GRAPH! It CLEARLY is not a ballooning of expenses, which steadily increase pretty much like CPI/inflation do, but it is clearly a revenue shortfall, possibly due to the fee cap on filers' costs-- currently $209-- so how much are they allowed to increase that each year, and is that keeping up with CPI? Caseload has dropped a little from 2008, true-- and there are two employees fewer than then, also.

From the buzzwords used in the piece above (and the bias that slipped through in the article by Brogdon and South--"Bulges"?), it seems the authors have some personal axes-to-grind with the Circuit Court office. Or just can't be bothered to parse the data given.

Begrudging folks for their salaries staying pretty much even with inflation over a decade is just silly and pointless.

The solution to the shortfall is clear and obvious-- get the fees charged to filers up to $239 instead of $209.

*the data given for 2004-6 does not include "judicial cases"

June 18, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.
aae1049 said...

No axes, the voters should elect some fresh perspectives. There are some really talented attorneys that would be great clerks, judges too. Retire people, elected office is not lifetime employment.

June 18, 2013 at 5:01 p.m.
Diskatopia said...

"Fresh perspectives" has nothing to do with data. As can be seen by the data, the "perpective" of their budget currently is neither extravagant nor cut-to-ineffective, it is pretty much middle of the road. If by "fresh perspectives" you mean someone who will slash salaries and who WON'T give employees raises to keep them even with inflation, then prepare for massive increases in attorneys complaining about filings taking forever. We can EASILY tell that the salaries currently are not excessive, as even if 100% of their expenditures were salary (obviously not, but let's play), the average salary would be roughly $48,500-- slightly above the average teacher salary in Tennessee. Not rich in the slightest. And remember, that $48,500 is assuming they have NO OTHER EXPENDITURES.

June 18, 2013 at 5:34 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Chattanooga has a poverty rate of about 31 percent, and when Paula Thompson was handing out raises the economy was rock bottom still.

Are you suggesting the clerks would quit? I doubt that during these hard economic times, they are lucky to be employed with awesome insurance and leave benefits. The paid vacation and sick leave benefits, and insurance is unsurpassed of any public or private employer. You left that part out.

Almost all of the circuit court clerk positions are not professional jobs, requiring a BA or BS as a teacher. $48,000, teachers do not make this wage.

June 18, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.
Diskatopia said...

So if Chattanooga has a high poverty rate civil servant jobs should pay poverty wages?

The state of the economy has nothing to do with the salaries paid to civil servants, nor should it, ever-- should they get huge raises when the economy is booming? The salaries are likely very fair and commensurate or LESS than similar private sector jobs (say at BCBST, Cigna, etc.), and "raises" at CPI levels are not some magic road to riches, they are just keeping people even.

The mindset you put forth shows the problems this nation has faced for nearly thirty years-- dissing the middleclass worker, especially the civil servant, BY other middleclass workers, for the "crime" of staying even, with their meager "raises." Meanwhile the uber wealthy like Governor Haslam slash their own taxes by millions of dollars and claim they must cut government salaries-- and hardly anyone in the Tennessee print media complains about the sleight-of-hand, the shifting of the money from the middleclass workers' pockets to Haslam's via his massive tax cut for the wealthy. But it's okay, because we all each got a $3/year sales tax cut, and Haslam needs the million$ to sock away more than the workers need their few thousand$, all they do is serve The People.

But I digress... you miss that that $48.5k in my example assumes ALL of the budget went to salaries, and that it is an average. If 2/3rds went to salaries, it drops to $32.3k on average. You brought up insurance-- likely a large part of the budget goes to that also. Not some amazing high paying gig ($30-40k and health insurance), by any stretch, unless one is stuck in 1983 price mode.

And yes, average teacher salary in Tennesee is around $48,000-- feel free to go look it up. No, it's not riches, it is a fair pay level.

This is the bizarro-think created by the ultrarightwing over the last 30 years: "damn those teachers and civil servants for making a living wage--and we must cut the taxes of the wealthy even more!" It is a terribly sad national fugue state with respect to economics history, and will lead to the eventual collapse of the middle class, and the nation will likely fall into a plutocratic corporate feudal state if the economic lunacy of nigh self-hatred of the middleclass by middleclass people in other jobs is not ended soon.

Again-- the data is there, and unless the TFP reported incorrect numbers-- no one at the Circuit Court offices is making out like a bandit, and to imagine they are at such average wages is, well, silly and math bereft.

June 18, 2013 at 9:12 p.m.
Diskatopia said...

Here is some more data extrapolation done assuming that the data in the article and the op ed above is all true:

Assume that the "25 percent" increase in "salary expenses" since 2006 is correct, and assume that salary expenses is only salary and not insurance, etc. Next assume that ALL of the expenditure increase since 2006 is that salary increase. That makes salary totals for 2012-2013 roughly all $2million of expenditures, which I have assumed above and we know is not true, but is the extreme example to make a point.

And if we assume the "25 percent" is the lesser $200k amount in salary increase mentioned above for 2007-2012, then it is going from an average salary of $19.5k to an average salary of either $23.2 or $24.4k in 2012-13 (depends on 41 or 43 employees).

Is that REALLY an egregious salary and increase? Really?

It is stunning and revealing that the author of the editorial or anyone would think such meager salaries and increases are "lavishing" and "substantial" and were "showered" on employees....

Again, it seems clear that either the editorial author has some personal ax to grind with the Circuit Court, or just didn't even bother to do the math before flying off the handle.

June 18, 2013 at 9:52 p.m.
aae1049 said...

I love teachers, they are educated, BS or BA, and must love their work as a majority. The circuit court clerk's office does not have a BS or BA requirement, and are mostly secretaries. I think that everyone should have a livable wage, but $50,000 or so plus benefits for copies, filing, and records is a bit much.

You cannot compare the work of professional educators with 4 year degree requirements to nonprofessional filing work.

June 19, 2013 at 12:13 a.m.
fairmon said...

The salaries and benefits are significantly above any private sector job for like work. Anyone wanting to know what they get for their $ should quietly do their own checking. Efficiency and improvement is a foreign language to some government operations. I wonder why civil servants comp should keep up with or exceed inflation when the rest of the country is not?

June 19, 2013 at 7:17 a.m.
klifnotes said...

That's not necessarily true, fairmon. Government wages often reflect those in the private sector. On closer look those government employees have worked years to get to the salaries they now earn. And unlike many private sector jobs, where the employer sometimes pay all healthcare benefits for their employees and a portion for their families, government employees who opt for insurance coverage most often have to pay for both themselves and their families, taken from their paychecks.

Also on the teaching issue, unless the rules have changed most recently, there's no requirement that states teachers much have a 4 year degree to teach in the state of Tennessee.

June 19, 2013 at 10:26 a.m.
soakya said...

Who in the private sector is paying the entire cost for their employees healthcare? Also the private sector has moved toward a defined contribution pension plans while the public sector for the most part still fund a defined benefit plan. Plus who can retire in the private sector in 20 years.

(e) The state board of education shall not issue professional licenses upon the work done in any college or university, except from a list of standard teacher-training institutions, colleges and universities that shall be approved by the state board of education after inspection as may be provided by the board.

June 19, 2013 at 10:57 a.m.
Diskatopia said...

"The salaries and benefits are significantly above any private sector job for like work." This is false-- $20k-$30k a year after 3-10 years of experience is at or BELOW similar paperwork jobs locally. Check Cigna, Unum, BCBST, local law firms, etc.

"I wonder why civil servants comp should keep up with or exceed inflation when the rest of the country is not?" They do not exceed inflation, or not by any significant amount that I have seen, but the question really is "why should they not match inflation?" The work is generally the same year in and year out, their salaries are not tied to profits and losses like private businesses (or at least like private businesses' salaries SHOULD be, see below).

Private businesses that are not raising salaries with inflation currently are either

a) really having hard times with sales down and prices cut or (in many cases I have seen) b) using the media fearmongering about the economy to diss their workers by not sharing the increased cash flow from price increases while stockpiling cash

Remember, inflation and CPI are TIED TO PRICES, so, in a rough sense, the businesses PRICE INCREASES are causing the inflation and they are pocketing the extra profits instead of increasing salaries of workers to match the inflation, at least on average.

Overall (averaging ALL businesses) businesses cannot say their cash flow is not up to or nearly keeping up with inflation (again, on average), because that cash flow average is TIED TO INFLATION, and is a driving cause.

This is the result of the cut!/sequester!/slash! mentality that the ultrarightwing has foisted onto the middleclasses for 30 years, and will collapse the economy more if not reversed-- the way it is SUPPOSED to be is: business increases prices, cash flow increases, and business increases salaries, thus people can still afford the products. However, many businesses are increasing prices and NOT salaries, thus fewer people can afford the products, thus the price goes up to keep cash flow even, thus even fewer can afford the products-- the market death spirals, unless businesses shares the profits with employees in the form of raises.

June 19, 2013 at 11:50 a.m.
soakya said...

prices are rising because of the expansion of the money supply. Low interest rates and printing more money. When the money supply increases the value of the dollar declines.

I don't think we need to worry about the cut/sequester/slash mentality collapsing the economy because that's not what is collapsing the economy.

June 19, 2013 at 12:40 p.m.
klifnotes said...

soakya said... Who in the private sector is paying the entire cost for their employees healthcare?


Every fulltime job I've ever had in the private sector my healthcare insurance was paid for by my employer. The only time I had to contribute to my coverage was when I added a dependent (spouse and/or children). On the other hand, when I worked for the federal government if I'd opted for healthcare insurance I would have had to pay over 200 bucks a month, and that was just for me with no dependent included. I was thankful that I was already covered by my spouse private sector job insurance coverage while I worked for the federal government. That private verses government health insurance was pretty cheap too. It cost only a little over a hundred a month to cover dependents, any children included.

June 19, 2013 at 1:21 p.m.
Diskatopia said...

"I don't think we need to worry about the cut/sequester/slash mentality collapsing the economy because that's not what is collapsing the economy. "

It is not what initiates collapse, but such wrongly-timed austerity moves do keep the collapse going and severely hamper any recovery-- they are just more fuel for the fire as the crash happens. Unfortunately, due to 30 years of the trick(le)-down lie and other voodoo(doo) econ, many people have been brainwashed into believing the exact opposite, and keep pushing for cuts and more cuts-- in effect cutting the throats of the middleclasses. The austerity insanity is hamstringing the economy, and more and more and more cuts (with the savings going to the bank accounts of the uber wealthy--see: Haslam state tax cuts) will only hasten a death spiral for the middleclasses.

The fact that some folks are attacking the Circuit Court salaries as "lavish" and urging cuts when the data seems to point to the salaries averaging between $20k to at most $40k a year*.... well, this attack on lower middleclass earners by (usually) middleclass earners is a pernicious symptom of this death spiral of the economy, and it is important that such symptoms and fact-challenged attacks be called out and corrected with facts and data.

So I challenge the editorial writer-- get more of the facts, do the math. There is even a chance the editorial writer MAY even be correct in his/her vociferous outrage, say for example if 30 of the employees are only working 20 hour weeks. Likely most are full time, but TFP should find out and let us know. But, going with the data we have been presented so far, the editorial writer essentially calling the likely lower middleclass salaries and raises "lavish" is a symptom of the problem this nation faces.

*I am assuming that most are full time-- if a large part of the employees are part time, then more data is needed

June 19, 2013 at 2:58 p.m.
Diskatopia said...

The data is out there and readily available online, so here are some numbers to start with:

Top five highest paid employees--

Name/2011/2008/yearly increase

Thompson/ 100772 / 98457 / 0.8%

Sissom/ 84872 / 82923 / 0.8%

Masterson / 84717 / 82772 / 0.8%

Neighbors / 63271 / 60059 / 1.8%

Daniels / 63271 / 60059 / 1.8%

We see less than inflation increases in the top 3, with increases slighly more than inflation for the next two, and although the salaries are very good, they seem inline with private business managers' salaries (again, compare with Cigna, Unum, BCBST, etc.) and with local public servant salaries.

Next, if we subtract those employees salaries and assume the rest are full time, that brings the average of the rest of the employees (who very likely received most of the "two hundred thousand dollars" in increases the editorial writer compains about) to roughly $30,000, possibly less.

Extrapolating what we have, we can guesstimate that the top fives' salary increases total about $21,000 of the $200,000 in increases over 5 years mentioned (assuming the $200,000 IS the increase, i.e. 2012salaries-2007salaries, and not just the amounts paid out over that time, which would make the raises much smaller, 1/5th of these estimates). That leaves an average "raise" of roughly $830-$980 a year for the other employees.

Someone making $4150 to $4900 more now than they did in 2007 is not being "showered" with raises.

Again, as of the 2011 data, it seems they are mostly lower middleclass to middleclass salaries (at least 37 below $60k that year), with the top three definitely doing very well and 3 more making a little above $60k, which is also good, while the rest make about half of that but got larger "raises" percentage-wise.

So far from the data, there is no big pirating going on, in fact nothing seesm out-of-hand at all, and the revenue shortage they are experience can be fixed simply by allowing them to charge filers $229-$239 per filing instead of the $209 mandated.

And, in case anyone is wondering-- no, I do not know anyone who works at the Circuit Court offices and I have no connections in any way with those offices. I am just doing my small part to fight against the cut!/slash!/sequester!/austerity! insanity that is crippling our nation and society.

June 19, 2013 at 3:51 p.m.
soakya said...

Diskatopia,I want to make sure I understand what you are saying. you believe the cut/sequester/austerity insanity is what is crippling our nation. You believe that a sliver, and I do mean a sliver cut in spending that has added over 6 trillion in additional debt the past 5 years 10 trillion the past 14 years is crippling our nation.
How long do you think we can run trillion dollar deficits? What happens when interest rates begin to rise?

Sounds like you are a keynesian-Krugman disciple but if you are interested and have a little time Milton Friedman made a 10 part video series called "Free to Choose" that is worth at least giving a try.

June 19, 2013 at 6:40 p.m.
fairmon said...

I didn't mention teachers salaries or qualification requirements. I am familiar with comp rates and comparisons which do have a wide range. But compared to like work in the top quadrant government employees do well. Observation of many government operations, not all observed but many are under worked and pampered while being compensated well just for staying on roll. They seem to forget their job or role is to provide a service to those paying the bills not to be served by those providing the money.

June 19, 2013 at 11:21 p.m.
fairmon said...

deskotopia said.... I am just doing my small part to fight against the cut!/slash!/sequester!/austerity! insanity that is crippling our nation and society.

You could exert the same energy to slash the waste and fraud at all levels of government. Of course if you have no problem jeopardizing future generations with a debt they cannot possibly pay to satisfy the greed of many now then reducing spending is not on your list. Insanity is to keep doing what you have been doing and expecting a different result...No one has ever borrowed or spent themselves to prosperity.

June 19, 2013 at 11:28 p.m.
Diskatopia said...

Soakya-- the cuts have not been a sliver, they have been steady bleeding over the years since Reagan's second term (after his cronies started pillaging the middle and uppermiddle classes to siphon more income to the uber wealthy). Look up the data on the number of federal and state employees through the years, both in real numbers and per capita, not including military. We have many fewer federal employees now than during Reagan-- not just per capita but in ACTUAL NUMBER. And yet Austerites clamor that THAT is were the problem is-- too many government employees, making "lavish" (i.e., middleclass) salaries. Murdoch's and the Koch's propaganda has worked miracles for the uber wealthy-- the average total effective tax rate of the Forbes Top400 (avg. annual income over $350million)... is 17%. Thus, Caymans banks.

Deficits are where Austerites totally misunderstand macroeconomies-- the answer to deficit problems is not in slashing spending but in increasing revenues. Austerity does the exact opposite and extends the misery in the economy, this has been shown historically time after time after time.

Half of the deficit problem is spending, half is collapsed revenues. Increasing revenues, or at least the THREAT of such in the form of increased tax rates on the uber wealthy to reasonable levels, will fix the deficit problem because it works at the problem from both ends-- increasing tax rates on the wealthy (NOT on the middleclasses, as rightwingers continually do and urge, and Obama has fallen for to a degree) encourages true job creation, as the wealthy would rather get personal utility out of the money (deductible HIRING and investment in jobs-creating business infrastructure, PRE-tax) rather than just paying the money in as taxes, and as unemployment goes down, spending on safety net goes down AND revenues received from more citizens working goes up, the deficit shrinks from both ends. Again, the insanely low tax rates the uber wealthy face now are a jobs boon almost nowhere except Caymans banks.

Higher capital gains tax rates on the uber wealthy also can steady stock markets, so instead of boom and bust there is steady growth (although computer algorithm trading is a looming mega-disaster)

Austerity accomplishes nothing in the short run for fixing any of the deficit problem and causes pretty much the opposite of the intended result in the long run.

Fairmon, you are confusing issues, no one is against slashing waste, but cutting to the bone in the name of austerity only leaves a dead skeleton, and from the data we are being shown, there is no massive waste at the Circuit Court offices. Austerites are at the point of federal and state power now where we are seeing the bones rot, the infrastructure start to collapse. And where doe the cuts go? Back into the pockets of the uber wealthy (see: Haslam tax cuts in TN).

June 20, 2013 at 11:32 a.m.
fairmon said...

Diskotopia...Obviously we totally disagree on what economic actions are needed and what impact they will have. Also, we apparently would not agree on where government should have a role or how large a role in peoples lives and where government should not be involved or intervene. Perhaps the legal community and government should look at the disease instead of the symptoms that generate so much activity in those offices.

Government employee numbers are misleading due to the major increase in contracted work. Contracting can be a good thing but not the lazy and expensive way our governments do it without a skilled and responsible contract administrator.

The so called sequester is so small it is hardly measurable but the governments pp implementation is no surprise. Most people that wind up in managing positions for political reasons couldn't manage to make water run down hill. Some are skilled litigators but terrible managers others greatest skill is a gift of gab.

I agree it is time to have everyone at all levels paying more taxes with the uber wealthy as you call them having the larger increase. The cruelest tax at the lower income range is gas, utility cost and property taxes. That money would create jobs with much more demand for goods and services. No one will invest and create jobs until there is a demand for a service or product. The current unknowns and uncertainty coming out of D.C. stunts growth. Obama creates his share of confusion and lack of direction.

June 20, 2013 at 2:15 p.m.
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