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366 Knox Co. employees will be temporarily furloughed because of COVID-19 pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Knox and surrounding counties, revenues for these and other county budget funds have fallen below previous projections

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — More than 360 Knox Co. employees will be temporarily furloughed as the county deals with budget shortfalls from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cities and counties across the state are beginning to assess how the loss of tax revenue from widespread shutdowns is affecting their current budgets. The city of Knoxville thinks, for example, it's looking at a $4.4 million shortfall in its current budget, but it is not enacting furloughs currently.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs announced the temporary eight-week furlough for county government employees Friday, but didn't have the details about which employees would be impacted.

The county library system is taking a particularly hard hit with 169 employees being furloughed, with 115 considered to be full time. Libraries have been shut down this month.

“This was the hardest decision I’ve had to make since taking office,” said Jacobs in a statement Thursday. “I am hopeful that by beginning to bring businesses back online things will turn around quickly. It is my intent to bring everyone back to work as soon as possible.”

Jacobs said the county waited as long as possible to enact the plan, but many of the jobs impacted are funded through property and sales tax revenues. Businesses promoting tourism and economic activity in Knox County also fund the hotel/motel tax. 

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"Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Knox and surrounding counties, revenues for these and other county budget funds have fallen below previous projections," according to a press release.

Jacobs hopes the furloughs will help the county avoid permanent layoffs and stay mindful of budget limitations.

The furlough will affect 366 county employees in the fee offices and every executive branch department and may save Knox County up to an estimated $1.73 million in payroll costs.

Knox County still will have to pay unemployment to the state for those workers.

The mayor's office sent out a general email Friday that furloughs were coming. Managers then notified workers this week they faced the furloughs.

Some 25 library staff workers will remain on the job, a fraction of the total staff that's now being told to stop working.

26 of those being furloughed are employees with the Knox County Health Department. KCHD Director Martha Buchanan said the furloughs will not affect the department's ability to perform case management and contact tracing, saying KCHD has roughly 260 people on staff and a 100 of those are specifically assigned to COVID-19.

"It was a really difficult decision," Buchanan said.

Here are the impacted departments and numbers of employees: 

Executive Branch Departments: 264

  • Libraries: 169
  • Health Department: 26
  • Engineering and Public Works: 22
  • Veterans and Senior Services: 17
  • Finance: 7
  • Information Technology: 7
  • Parks and Recreation: 7
  • Procurement: 5
  • Mayor’s Office: 2
  • Probation and Pretrial Release: 1
  • Risk Management: 1
  • Benefits: 0
  • Regional Forensic Center: 0
  • Human Resources: 0

County offices: 102

  • Clerk: 20
  • Criminal Court Clerk: 19
  • Trustee: 19
  • Circuit Court Clerk :16
  • Property Assessor: 13
  • Register of Deeds: 11
  • Law Director: 3
  • Chancery Court: 1

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Jacobs can bring employees back before eight weeks. He can also extend the furloughs if revenues don’t improve.

Employees will continue working and be paid through May 8. Furloughs will officially begin May 9. Those employees will retain their health coverage and other benefits from Knox County. They will also be eligible for up to $275 per week from the State of Tennessee and $600 from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relieve and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for a total of up $875 per week while unemployed.

Knox County Schools employees were not impacted by the furloughs.

Those from the Human Resources and Benefits department and the Regional Forensic Center were also exempted due to high demand on already overwhelmed staff.

Jacobs requested that all elected fee offices participate as well, however the District Attorney General's Office, Public Defender's Office and Knox County sheriff each opted out.

KCSO spokesman Kimberly Glenn said Sheriff Tom Spangler thought it better not to furlough anyone if courts reopen later next week.

"His thoughts were if they resume courts on May 1, he would immediately have to recall those he would have furloughed," Glenn said.

Sean McDermott, spokesman for District Attorney General Charme Allen, said her staff are considered essential.

"The constitutional role of the district attorney is to administer justice and uphold the rights of both victims of crime and criminal defendants. All members of the office are essential to achieving this necessary government function," her statement reads.

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WIDESPREAD IMPACT

Cities and counties will feel not only the loss of sales tax, hotel/motel and business tax monies, but also expects to see a loss in upcoming property taxes because some property owners may not be able to pay their full tax bill.

At the moment, in looking at sales tax revenue, municipalities expect to take a hit for lower income for April, if not March.

Knoxville is planning for a loss of $4.4 million in the 2019/2020 budget as another $4.4 million for the upcoming 2020/2021 budget, which is now being prepared. Communications Director Kristin Farley said Mayor Indya Kincannon will provide more details Friday on her projected budget.

Sevier County, which relies heavily on visitor dollars to operate, also expects to feel the crunch. It is a leading spot for tourism in Tennessee.

County spokesman Perrin Anderson told 10News that officials are keeping an eye on forecasts.

"Real time data for the lodging tax will be available May 1 for our April activity for us to begin to see the impact," he said. "Sales tax numbers for activity in April will not be available until June; however, a significant decrease is expected due to the large reduction in tourism activity across the cities and county."

Gov. Bill Lee warned Wednesday afternoon in his daily briefing that the numbers could be bad.

The state has money set aside in various funds including its "rainy day" fund for emergencies, he said. But he said it's "difficult" to know what's going to happen in the coming year to 18 months.

The extent of the damage is unknown.

"Much depends on what happens with the virus," he said, "over the next year and how quickly it's mitigated either through a cure or a vaccine."

"Certainly we  know that there will be a real strain on the state’s budget because of the downturn in revenues," he said. "We're trying to collect data right now that will give us some indication of what that might look like and what our capacity to meet those shortfalls is with the current reserves that we have in place."