Loudon County Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles will be allowed to hire four new clerks in her office after a ruling this week by Chancellor Frank Williams that settles a dispute with County Mayor Buddy Bradshaw.
Niles runs Circuit Court, Probate Court, Criminal Court, General Sessions Court and Juvenile Court. She sued in September 2014 demanding six additional deputy clerks, each at a $31,000 salary per year, and pay increases for all 17 full- and part-time employees in her office.
In negotiations with county commissioners that lasted more than a year, Niles blamed staff shortages for backlogs in the court system. The total yearly cost to the county to fund her original request was about $210,000.
During the trial, Niles' attorney, Zachary Tenry, called as a witness Monroe County Circuit Court Clerk Marty Cook, president of the Tennessee Court Clerks Association. Cook testified to the "impossible task of getting caught up in a work environment substantially similar" to that faced by Niles.
Williams said he found Cook's testimony to be particularly persuasive and entirely consistent with Niles' testimony.
The chancellor ruled Niles can hire one clerk at a salary of $32,000 per year and three deputy clerks at $25,000 per year. The actual starting salary of the clerks may be less if Niles chooses to make graduated increases based on performance, Williams said.
Clerks already working in the office will be retroactively given 2 percent raises all county employees have received over the past two budget cycles. The additional yearly cost to the county has been estimated at $168,000.
Williams also decided to put the burden of legal expenses, not yet fully calculated, on the county. Previous estimates of the combined legal costs have reached the six-figure range.
Neither Niles nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
Bradshaw said the ruling, which could be appealed by either side, was in line with his expectations.
"I think Chancellor Williams was fair and very thorough," he said.
The county is now awaiting the attorneys for both sides to submit paperwork to the chancellor, he said. Once approved it will go before county commissioners, who must approve a salary agreement with Niles. "I'm ready to get it behind us and move forward," Bradshaw said.
County Commissioner Van Shaver said he wished the county had not gone into litigation to settle the issue. The commission had already agreed to provide two new clerks and had seriously considered providing a total of four new clerks.
"She could have gotten pretty much the same thing without dragging the taxpayers to court and wasting tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees," Shaver said.
Shaver said he was glad the judge stopped short of providing Niles with her full request, including raises for all the clerks in her department.
"I am hopeful the county will be able to absorb the additional cost caused by Ms. Niles without a property tax increase," he said. "We'll just have to see how the numbers all shake out."