County, Niles at impasse

Jeremy Styron

Amid a legal dispute between Loudon County and General Sessions and Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles over additional deputy clerk positions and salary increases in the court system, the Budget Committee earlier this week voted against a compromised deal for two new staff members at a starting salary of $27,000 apiece and raises for a total requested increase of $98,500.

Niles has contended that her added case load in recent years necessitated the addition of new employees in the two departments. The case load in the court system reached a high of 14,492 in 2007 before dropping to 10,745 in 2010 when Lenoir City Municipal Court and Tennessee Highway Patrol picked up some cases from the county. The case load for 2013 was 12,844, according to a report Niles supplied to the Budget Committee.

In her lawsuit against Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw, Niles requested the addition of six new employees with raises for all 17 current employees.

“Looking at this case load and case filings, I don’t think it anywhere near justifies what you’re asking for in your lawsuit,” Budget Committee member Steve Harrelson told Niles in the meeting on Wednesday.

Niles said that she recently identified a new revenue source that would bring an additional $79,000 per year to the county through a justice maintenance tax to help offset salary expenses. The two new clerical positions would require a high school diploma with some legal knowledge preferred, she said.

Budget Committee member Van Shaver said finding a new revenue stream was not his main concern with Niles’ request.

“Maybe more concerns I have is just the continued growth of expenditures in your department,” Shaver said. “If we granted or went along with your request what this does to every department across the county relative to if we increased your pay, your staff, everybody else is going to feel they have the same (claim to higher starting salaries). I’ve heard today, ‘Why should they make more than we do?’”

Harrelson said granting the request for new employees and salary increases after the county budget has already been passed will set a bad precedent.

“Like I mentioned last meeting, you’ve followed the same procedure just like all the other fee holder department heads did,” Harrelson said. “And we were only able to do what we could do with the money we had to do with, and for us to go back after the budget has passed and consider (for) one department head additional raises and additional employees, we’ll just open up a can of worms that I just don’t think is right.”

Shaver said that earlier in the day he had spoken with current county employees who disagreed with Niles’ request.

“I don’t know why you feel like your staff is entitled to that much more than the other staff,” Shaver said. “I will assure you that as of noon today I heard people that work in this county say, ‘No, that’s not correct. We do more here than they do. Look at the line.’ Everybody feels the same about their staff. Everybody’s overworked and underpaid, but nobody else has taken legal action. I think the legal action is really, really unfair.”

Niles and committee members wrangled over potentially adding two new court employees at a lower base salary, but did not come to a resolution. Niles said she thought the $27,000 salary amount was requisite with similar court employees in other counties.

“I feel like I’m negotiating against myself,” Niles said. “I have cut my request drastically. I have gone back and found revenue. I just feel like I’m negotiating against myself.”

“It’s not a revenue source issue,” Harrelson said. “It’s a fair issue for all county employees and all county departments.”

Harrelson then made a motion to revisit court employee needs in the spring 2015 budget season, which was seconded by Shaver. The vote passed.

Niles, who said she would like more time to consider additional options after speaking with the Budget Committee, plans to continue talks with the county.