Loudon County to ask state to allow second judge
Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
LOUDON — Loudon County commissioners Monday passed a resolution to ask the state Legislature to permit the creation of a second judge in the county's General Sessions Court.
The commission declined to vote on part of the resolution that would have increased the current county litigation tax from about $17 per case to about $68 to pay for the second judge.
General Sessions Judge Rex Dale told commissioners the existing General Sessions Court was created by Chapter 57 of the Private Acts of 1959. Since that time, the Loudon County population has more than doubled and it is among the top 10 fastest growing in the state.
Dale said he is working 70 hours per week to try to keep up with the caseload that often has him handling more than 50 cases per day. The second judge position would be created by naming current Magistrate Hank Sledge a judge and adding as many as two new magistrates.
Before Loudon can add the judge however, a private act must be passed and taken to Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City. Dale said he was not sure the legislation could be introduced during the current legislative session.
Commissioner David Meers suggested the resolution be written so that it would be valid for next year's legislative session if it could not pass this year.
Commissioner Van Shaver questioned the cost and the collection rate on the litigation tax. Criminals might not pay bills and in fact many inmates in the jail are there because they haven't pay court ordered costs. Also, civil cases such as child custody would also see increased costs.
"Let's stick it to the bad people sounds good, but bad people don't pay their bills," he said.
Dale responded that collections were actually at about 70 percent to 75 percent on the criminal side and about 98 percent on the civil side. He also argued that the cost, even at $68, only amounted to one-third of an average attorney's hourly billing. He also said he thought the litigation tax was fairer than an increase in property tax.
"Property tax is set in stone, everybody has to pay it," he said.
The litigation tax is only paid by those who use the courts. There are also waivers that can relieve indigent people of the burden of court costs, he said.
A similar sized county, Roane County, already has two judges and one special judge, Dale said.
The judge also argued that the county has not raised the litigation tax since 2005. With all the increases in county budget, the commission has a fiscal duty to consider raising the tax.
Commissioner Earlena Maples said she was concerned, not just about the cost of the second judge but all the other big budget items facing the county, including a new jail, a current lawsuit by the clerk of courts asking for more funding, teacher pay raises, highways and other offices.
"Were talking about big bucks," she said.
An increase in property taxes to pay for all these items is going to hit the average resident pretty hard, Maples said. As a Lenoir City Utilities Board employee, she said she is aware that people are struggling to pay increased bills.
After agreeing to remove the increased litigation task from the resolution commissioners voted 8-2 to pass the resolution, with Shaver and Maples voting no.