|Mayor OKs judge pay hike
Author: Staff Report
Source: News-Herald 10/130/03
Despite tight city budgets, Lenoir City Mayor Matt Brookshire personally approved a $15,000 salary increase for City Judge Terry Vann without council approval and without ensuring the necessary funds were available, city officials confirmed.
“We kind of got the cart before the horse,” said Brookshire when asked where or how he expected to acquire the monies necessary to fund the pay increase, which brings the judge's annual salary to $34,603.
When asked why Vann received the increase at a time previously described by council members and the mayor as a tight budget year, the mayor replied, “I'm not real sure for the basis for the $15,000 this year, except that's what Terry requested.”
The mayor also said he wasn't certain if pay increases were always guaranteed to city employees when asked for by those employees.
“Maybe it is accepted practice. I don't know,” he said.
A letter written by Brookshire to City Administrator Dale Hurst authorized the pay increase and did give some reasons.
The letter states: “The increased number of days that court will be held with the addition of Community Livability Court, the intangible benefits to Lenoir City with Judge Vann's efforts, and the increased revenue the city will receive through the assessment of administration costs, the Community Livability Court Judge's annual salary shall be increased by $15,000.”
However, when asked about the increase in duties for Vann compared to those he had while presiding over last year's environment court, the mayor said, “It's the same thing as community livability court.”
Vann said of the increase, “It's not a pay raise as such. It's for additional duties.”
Vann also said he requested “a lot more than that” but couldn't recall how much. “I don't remember,” he said.
Moreover, Vann said his salary should be based on the number and type of cases he hears and is below that of judges with a similar workload to his. He also added the pay increase was a start but was not enough. “The pay raise helped but it's still lower,” he contended.
Loudon City Judge Russell Johnson is paid $500 per month for a total of $6,000 per year to preside over the city's municipal court.
Loudon City Hall officials said Johnson presides over the city's municipal court twice a month with each session lasting no more than three to four hours.
Vann was named as the judge of the Community Livability Court Aug. 25 when council passed two ordinances to create the court and name
Vann as the judge, respectively.
In the same ordinance creating the court, the council and mayor agreed to set the administration cost of the court. The ordinance states, “The administration cost for any case before the Community Livability Court shall be the maximum rate permissible under TCA [Tennessee Code Annotated].”
Brookshire said he was hesitant to support the ordinance because he was unclear about the definition of administration cost used in the ordinance and intends to look into the term's meaning with the city council.
“I was a little reluctant,” he said in regards to supporting the ordinance defining the administration cost of the court but noted he was “reassured by council.”
Community Livability Court was in session for the first time Sept. 5; the next regular session planned Oct. 3 was cancelled, according to Lenoir City Recorder/Treasurer Debbie Cook. Her chief deputy officer, Deanne Bogus, said an employee from that office is normally at court proceedings because Cook is also the city recorder and is responsible for documenting court actions to create an official record.
“We send one person into the court during court times,” Bogus said. She explained the increase in Vann's duties in order to preside over the Community Livability Court is around one hour per month. “Normally, it starts at 9 and it's over by 10,” she said.
Bogus also reported Vann's duties as the city's municipal court judge amounted to about four hours per month, or 48 hours per year, and she noted his salary before the increase was $19,603.
She did note sessions could last longer if there were more cases to be heard than the six on last month's docket. “It just depends on how many people are scheduled to come in,” she said.
Vann said he couldn't give an estimation of the hours he works on average while presiding over the court. However, he didn't agree with
Bogus's estimate of one hour being a typical time for the court to meet. “That's not true,” he said. “The court meets for as long as it takes.
“It varies. If it's a heavy docket and the defendants bring attorneys, it could last longer. I wouldn't want to speculate.”
When asked how much time Vann spent presiding over court Sept. 5, he replied, “I couldn't tell you, I don't remember.”
Currently, the court is only scheduled to meet once a month although Vann said there are plans to expand the court to meeting twice per month.
The mayor said he also expects the court to do more than it currently is, saying, “The raise came from, because I was under the impression, the court was going to do more.”
Concerning the anticipated increase in revenue the city will receive from the court, Bogus said one person had settled with the court to the amount of $232.50.
“If he [Brookshire] thinks he's going to get adequate revenues from livability court, he's not,” she added.
Vann disagreed with Bogus. “I think the court will pay for itself,” he said. He also noted he expects more than 100 cases in the future and said he has a legal pad “filled with cases and cases.”
Bogus said there were six cases on the docket
According to Cook, city funds are in tighter condition now than they were when the new fiscal year began July 1 as a result of the termination of former street department supervisor John R. Johnson and the recent increase given to Vann.
Cook said the city had around a $50,000 budget surplus at the beginning of the year, but now has a $38,956.73 budget shortfall because of the two expenditures, which equal $88,956.73.
To fund the expenditures, Cook said the city was forced to use reserve funds.
“They're not where they need to be at this point,” Cook said of reserve fund levels.
Johnson's termination resulted in an expenditure of $73,956.73 to Johnson, according to Cook, because of a no-cause termination clause in his contract. The clause was applicable to Johnson because the mayor terminated Johnson without cause, according to officials.
The former street superintendent received his annual salary — $48,317 — plus $20,907.36 in accumulated sick pay and vacation pay totaling 69,224.36, Cook reported. In addition, the city — because of its benefit package wherein the city matches Medicare and FICA withdrawals — funded an additional $4,732.37 after Johnson's termination bringing the total to $73,956.73.
“I don't see them as connected,” Brookshire said of the two expenditures and the shortage in the city budget Cook attributed to those expenditures.
Brookshire said the city would have eventually paid Johnson a figure close to the same amount he received if Johnson had not been terminated since his annual salary plus the cost the city would have paid for Johnson's health insurance were equal to the amount he received.
“They would be close. It would be close,” the mayor said.
However, Cook said the cost of Johnson's health insurance to the city would have been $9,186.84 per year, which, when combined with his annual salary of $48,317 equals $57,503.84.
The difference between the amount Johnson received due to his termination and the cost to the city had he not been terminated was $16,452.89, according to figures provided by the treasurer's office.
As for the source of funds to provide for the judge's increase, Brookshire said he hoped the court would fund itself but revenues from the city's general fund could be used to make up any shortfall.
“That was the hope,” the mayor said. “The general fund may have to pick up [the cost] the first couple of years.”
Despite attempts to reach all city council members concerning this issue, only one councilman was available for comment.
Councilman Gene “Blackie” Johnson said he was not aware of the recent pay increase for the judge.
“No. Nobody talked to me about it,” was his response when asked if the mayor contacted him before authorizing the increase.
Cook said the mayor told her he didn't speak with anyone on city council about the pay change, which came with only Brookshire's approval.
“The only thing I know is they have a new court,” Blackie Johnson stressed.
Of the city's ability to fund the increase, the mayor also said, “We probably didn't do all our homework before assuming that.”
Blackie Johnson said council should have been advised before these steps were taken.
“Yeah, they most certainly should. [If] the city council doesn't approve it, well the mayor doesn't have any authority at all,” he contended.
The councilman also had a comment about the amount of the judge's pay increase. “For $1,000 an hour, no, I don't think it's appropriate,” he said.
If the city judge works an additional 12 hours per year presiding in the court, he would receive $1,250 for each of those hours worked.
“I don't think the city's got any business that pressing,” Blackie Johnson continued.
What the city might have, according to Cook, is a recommendation from the city's private auditors to layoff employees in order to balance the budget.
She said the auditors will likely suggest to her and Hurst in their December report to the city that layoffs are the only way to balance the budget as opposed to reducing services.
When asked about those possibilities Brookshire said, “Would layoffs be considered in light of John R. Johnson's termination and judge's salary increase? No.”
When asked about the possibility of cuts in order to balance the budget, Vann responded, “I won't touch that question. It's too hypothetical. That's one of their [city council's] responsibilities, not mine.”
“I think the rest of city employees need justification,” said Brookshire.
In regards to how his involvement in increasing the judge's salary reflects his priorities, the mayor said the Community Livability Court is not a higher priority than other city services such as the police, fire or street departments. “Of course not,” he stressed. “I think strengthening our community and our neighborhoods is important and it takes all departments to do that.
“No, I don't see one being a priority.”
Vann agreed Brookshire did not hold the court as a higher priority.
“Oh no, I wouldn't say that. I would just say it's one of his concerns. And I applaud him for it — it's a politically tough decision.
“I know the mayor is very environmentally active.”
Questions have been raised about the legality of the mayor's actions since Tennessee state law does not allow the salary of an elected official to be changed in the middle of a term in office.
District Attorney General Scott McCluen said he is looking into the matter. He said he had contacted State Attorney General Paul G. Summers and was awaiting an opinion from him on the legality of the pay increase.
City Attorney Shannon Littleton said he and the mayor “looked at that for a long period of time.”
“My opinion is you cannot raise a city judge's salary during his term. What we actually did is create another court,” said Littleton. “In my opinion, that's another job.”
Littleton said he drafted the letter from the mayor to Hurst authorizing the increase.
“Legally, we have not violated the TCA by any means,” the city attorney stressed.
Although additional duties related to the Community Livability Court have been assigned to other city employees, such as those from the recorder's office, they have not reported receiving additional pay.
The tight budget has affected Cook's office, she said, noting, “I've been cut as much as I can be cut. We're just taking it one day at a time.”
Cook said one employee had quit but, “I'm going to hire back for that one.” She added city officials had authorized that move despite a hiring and wage freeze on all city departments.