Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson said given the lengthy nature of the lawsuit, which included requests for additional employees and salary increases in Niles’ department, the budget committee recommended the county provide a cost of living adjustment to workers impacted by the litigation.
Employees in other county departments have received a 2 percent raise each year over the course of the lawsuit.
“It’s not fair to those folks that they’re being hurt financially because of this pending litigation that’s out there,” Harrelson said, noting that he spoke with Finance Director Tracy Blair about the possibility of doling out the raises.
The county has previously withheld the pay increases because Niles has not signed a department head salary agreement and the county has yet to get a definitive ruling from a judge on the lawsuit, Blair said.
“Standard practice (is) for the mayor and the department heads to sign a salary agreement after each budget is passed, but it is not mandatory by state law,” Harrelson said. “It says they ‘may’ enter into an agreement.”
“… I would like to see us as commission go ahead and show these employees that we’re in good faith going to do what we think is right and go ahead and give their increases that we’ve promised in the budgets,” he added.
Commissioners Kelly Littleton-Brewster, Van Shaver and others seemed supportive of the measure.
“What Lisa Niles has done to Loudon County and done to her employees is despicable,” Shaver said. “It’s despicable what this woman has done, and it just runs up one side of me and down the other. … For the third budget cycle in a row because of what Lisa Niles has done not a one of them has gotten their raises.”
Shaver said while a 2 percent increase was not a significant amount of money from the county’s perspective, he agreed with the decision based on the message that it would send to court clerk employees.
“It’s the principle of the thing that Lisa’s been able to hold this over us and hold this over them, so were going to at least eliminate part of this extortion she’s got on us by giving her employees their raises,” he said. “I hope we can. I’m certainly going to support this.”
Littleton-Brewster said Niles has received “state-mandated” increases from the state as the lawsuit has unfolded.
“In Lisa’s case, she has gotten her state-mandated raise and these employees have not in all these years that we have been going on with this,” Littleton-Brewster said. “She has been getting her raise but these employees have not.”
Earlier this year, Chancellor Frank V. Williams III voided a judgment he made in March and ordered a retrial in the lawsuit. A docket sounding is set for Aug. 19, and a hearing could take place in either December or March. Niles planned to amend her request to include the 2016-17 budget.
The starting salary for court clerk employees if $20,800, and Niles said four staff members are currently making that amount. As of this week, the department included 14 full-time employees and three part-timers.
“Hearing that causes me to be hopeful that maybe we’re moving in a direction that could benefit everyone,” Niles said Tuesday about the county’s plan to offer cost of living raises.
She would not comment further and deferred to her attorney Zach Tenry, who could not be reached for comment.
Using some of the strongest language by a county commissioner in recent memory, Shaver said Niles’ employees will receive the raises regardless of whether the court clerk signs the salary agreement.
“We’re asking — not asking — we’re demanding that Ms. Niles sign a supplemental salary agreement acknowledging that we’ve given her employees the raises they were supposed (to get),” he said. “Don’t misunderstand it. If she refuses to sign it, they’re still going to get the raises. She’s not going to stop the raises. She’s lost this part of the battle, but I want her name on the dotted line that she understands we’re trying to take care of her employees.”
Harrelson said the issue will be placed on the commission’s Aug. 1 agenda for a vote.
He said the county was in “unchartered waters” in delaying employee raises for this long in the middle of an ongoing lawsuit.
“No county’s really dealt with this to where employees are going two to three years without getting cost of living adjustments like all the other employees because there’s this lawsuit that keeps dragging on and on,” Harrelson said. “So that’s why I think we have to step up and do something different than whatever’s been done before because nobody has really had to address this situation as far as another county in the state that I know of.”