KNOXVILLE - The Knox County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office has again failed to turn over any money to the county’s coffers – for the fourth year in a row and the fifth time in the past six years.
In fact, the county – as it closes its financial books on the recently wrapped-up fiscal year – even had to underwrite the overall operation for 2016 to the tune of almost $80,000.
That’s because the juvenile court, which is under the Circuit Court clerk’s purview, spent more than the office brought in.
Now, top county leaders say they are troubled about the office’s lack of finances, but question whether they can step in.
“There’s always a concern, absolutely,” said Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett. “If they don’t collect it, then the deficit is going to come from somewhere else. Either you raise taxes or you raise the base. We’re kind of limited in local government. At some point it’s going to come from the taxpayers . . . it’s not going to magically appear.”
Knox County Commission Vice Chairman Randy Smith agreed, saying he, too, is “very concerned.”
“They need to look at aligning their staffing with the revenue streams,” Smith told WBIR 10News. “This is supposed to be at least a break-even entity.”
The Circuit Court Clerk’s Office is one of five county fee offices. These departments are run by elected leaders and are supposed to be self-funded from the fees they collect. But, they also are expected to contribute to the county’s overall bottom line.
For example, whenever someone files a lawsuit in the circuit court, the plaintiff has to pay an upfront fee of $186.50. An adoption carries a $252 fee and name change runs $186.50.
Those monies first go to covering the salaries in the office and any excess revenue is turned over to the county.
That doesn’t happen often in the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.
But, the office’s spokesman, Randy Kenner, said officials in the department are doing everything they can.
“I think the office is pretty well run,” he said. “I don’t think we have a lot of collections out there. We’re collecting the fees we’re supposed to collect . . . (but) there’s just not as much money as there once was.”
WHERE THE MONEY GOES
The county during the past six years combined has expected the circuit court to turn $447,200 in excess fees, according to budget reports.
But, during those six years, the Circuit Court has given the county only $30,000 and that was in 2012.
The circuit court system is run by Cathy Shanks, who has overseen it since 1998. She won re-election in 2014 and has another two years on her term.
Shanks currently employs 41 people, including 10 in juvenile court, for a combined $1.63 million payroll annually. The average salary in her office is about $40,000 a year.
She earns $131,800 and also receives an $800 per month auto allowance.
As it stands, Shanks’ office collects only enough money to pay the Circuit Court employees, Kenner said.
The county, however, floats the bill for the juvenile court employees, who are also under her purview and considered part of the circuit court system.
This year, the juvenile court exceeded revenues by $78,150. The county covered the difference.
Kenner said the offices in the past four years have eliminated jobs but at this point officials can’t cut any further.
Kenner said state leaders changed a number of laws in the past several years, so that court cases tied to workers' compensation or mental health are no longer filed in the Circuit Court. He said those cases brought in additional fees “in the low six figures.”
“I think it’s just that we don’t have those two areas that we used to have and we always ran close to the bone anyway . . . and once those went away it got even closer,” he said.
Additionally, Kenner said, many of the defendants in juvenile court are indigent and state law requires the county to waive the fees for them.
Burchett said his office has held some discussions with Shanks about letting his finance team have more input and “overseeing some things to make sure collections go about the way they should.”
He declined to go into details. But, the mayor said his office – because Shanks is an elected official – is limited in what it can do.
“We can make suggestions but it’s really up to them to do that. I can’t force their hands,” he said. “The ball is in their court, what they want to do with it. We can suggest and continue to have meetings but it’s really up to them.”
Shanks declined to comment for this story.
The mayor said he hasn’t had any problems with the county’s other fee offices.
Those four departments – the criminal court clerk, the trustee, the register of deeds and the county clerk – raised $450,000 to $6.35 million in excess fees last fiscal year, which wrapped up June 30.
Overall, the Trustee’s Office, which is in charge of property and sales tax collections, turns over the most excess fees annually.
It’s followed by the County Clerk’s Office ($1.65 million in 2016) and the register of deeds ($703,600).
The Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond – Shanks’ counterpart – turned over $450,000 in excess fees and then another $855,000 in monies he discovered in a lost bank account set up by his predecessors prior to him taking office in 2014.
When asked about collections in the Circuit Court, Kenner said he doesn’t “know if there are a lot . . . that we’re not getting.”
“There are some, sure,” he said. “But some people we’re never going to get the money from. But I think we’re pretty good on collections.”
Kenner also said Circuit Court clerk officials aren’t opposed to meeting with the mayor.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” he added. “We’re always willing to talk to Burchett or anyone else who wants to talk about it, but I don’t know of anything offhand that’s going to make a lot of change.”
(© 2016 WBIR)