Unless a settlement is reached soon, attorneys representing Loudon County Mayor Buddy Bradshaw and General Session and Circuit Court Clerk Lisa Niles will square off in Chancellor Frank Williams' court next week to argue a case that could end up forcing a tax increase.
"I don't think there will be any further negotiations," Bradshaw said this week.
Niles, who could not be reached for comment, filed the lawsuit 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 appearances before the county commission Niles has blamed staff shortages for backlogs in the court system. The total cost to the county to fund her request was about $210,000 per year.
The county commission initially approved two additional clerks but Niles declined to accept the offer. In May the county discussed but declined to approve a counter-offer that included two more additional clerks.
It's not the first time Niles has threatened to sue the county for additional resources. In 2006 she threatened to sue the county for additional staff but the issue was settled when then-mayor Doyle Arp and commission approved two additional employees.
Bradshaw said he and the commission have worked hard to settle the case out of court but at this stage it's unlikely a settlement will be reached without trial. The county will have to pay legal costs for both sides, win or lose, he said.
"The worst-case basis is that this could be very expensive for the county," he said.
Commissioner Van Shaver said that if the county loses it should only be required to pay "reasonable" legal fees. Some estimates on the legal costs have reached $100,000, he said.
The big cost to the county could be in the long-term recurring expenses if the judge decides to give Niles all the new employees and raises for staff that she has requested, he said.
"That's a tax increase for sure if she wins," Shaver said.
Bradshaw said it was too early to start predicting tax increases, noting the judge might choose from a number of options including giving Niles less than everything she has requested in the suit.
Even more problematic, if Niles is granted raises for all her staff, would be dealing with other county office heads who might demand raises for their staff, Shaver said. "She wants to pay her people more than any of the people working in other offices. What do we do about that?"
Shaver said he has a big problem with elected officials using such tactics.
"It's nothing but legal extortion," he said.
Attorney Joe Ford, who is representing Mayor Bradshaw, said legal costs might end up being a wash with the money the county saves in salary for the new clerks that the county offered to provide Niles.
"The county has not had to pay for the new employees who were approved but who were never hired over the last year and a half," he said.
Niles' attorney, Zachary Tenry, could not be reached for comment.