With a lawsuit between General Sessions and Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles and Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw looming on the horizon, the Loudon County Budget Committee on Monday recommended the current level of funding in the court clerk offices, even though Niles requested $252,000 more for the upcoming year for salary increases and additional employees.
Bradshaw indicated he was advised by the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service to approach this year’s budget as he would any other budget cycle.
“CTAS said to treat it just like last year had been adopted,” Bradshaw said.
In a lawsuit against the county filed eight months ago that essentially rejected the county’s approved funding plan for her office, which provided a total of about $888,000 for the two court offices, Niles asked for six additional deputy clerks to assist in the court system, along with raises for all 17 full- and part-time staff members in her employ at the time of the suit.
This past fall, Niles and the committee attempted to broker a deal to avoid litigation, but the committee in early October rejected a compromise agreement that would have provided two new staff members with a starting salary of $27,000 and raises amounting to $98,500.
As part of legal proceedings, committee members Kelly Littleton-Brewster, Henry Cullen, Van Shaver and Steve Harrelson, all of whom sit on Loudon County Commission, have depositions set for next week.
City of Loudon attorney Joe Ford, who is representing Bradshaw in the case, and Niles’ attorney, Zach Tenry, could not be reached for comment.
In her funding request for 2015-16, Niles wanted $427,000 for Circuit Court, up $52,000 from the current fiscal year, and $725,000 for General Sessions Court, an increase of $199,000 from 2014-15.
Shaver said given the time span between now and when the lawsuit was initially filed, he didn’t see the urgency in Niles’ request for more staff.
“She refused to sign the salary agreement because she knew she was going into this legal battle, and exactly how she could be in such a hurry — this whole lawsuit thing is set up to be, ‘You know, my office is struggling. I don’t have enough help. They’re (employees) not paid enough money. We can’t get our work done.’ This is nine months after she filed the lawsuit. ... It’s hard to come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of problems there if they’ve still been able to operate.”
Shaver made a motion to approve the 2014-15 budget for Circuit Court with no changes. Littleton-Brewster seconded.
Cullen asked whether the county stands to lose the full $250,000 if the lawsuit against the county moves forward.
“We don’t know,” Shaver said, noting the county was in a “no-win” situation.
“Whatever move we make is going to become a part of the discussion in the legal action. Whatever we do,” Shaver said. “If we offer her more now, well, that’s a clear indication that we’re admitting she doesn’t have enough help. If we don’t give her enough help, that’s a clear indication we’re not even trying to help her resolve” the issue.
Bradshaw considered offering at least one additional employee for Niles’ department as a way to try to avoid further litigation. “I just think the lawyers are getting rich,” he said. “I don’t want to throw the white flag up either.”
“What would even the white flag be?” Shaver responded. “Short of offering her everything she asked for in the lawsuit, we’ve got to assume she wouldn’t take it.”
The budget committee voted 4-0 to adopt the 2014-15 Circuit Court budget, with Bradshaw abstaining.
Bradshaw made a motion to provide Niles’ office with two employees that were allocated as part of the 2014-15 General Sessions funding plan plus an additional employee. The vote failed 3-2, with Littleton-Brewster, Shaver and Harrelson voting against.
A measure to approve funding for General Sessions as outlined in the 2014-15 budget was also approved 4-0, with Bradshaw abstaining.