Hard to justify Susano’s $1.5 million ask

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

Knox County Commission will vote in July whether to allow Circuit Court Clerk Charlie Susano to borrow up to $1.5 million from the county’s fund balance (rainy day fund) to make up for revenue shortfalls from the coronavirus pandemic.

Commissioners should vote no.

Knox County is decentralized. The school system, sheriff, law department, attorney general, public defender, trustee and property assessor do not report to the county mayor. Nor do fee offices – County Clerk Sherry Witt, Register of Deeds Nick McBride, Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond and Susano. They collect fees set by state law and hire staff to handle job functions. Sometimes, they even transfer excess fees to Knox County. Only Susano is asking the county for help to make payroll. At least for now.

Anticipating revenue shortfalls, Mayor Glenn Jacobs devised a plan for 8-week employee furloughs that began May 9, and the county HR department helped furloughed employees file for benefits – up to $275 from state unemployment insurance and $600 from the federal government’s pandemic response CARES Act for a total of up to $875 per week while furloughed. Health insurance benefits were continued.

Jacobs said it was his hardest decision since taking office. He made deep cuts throughout the executive branch and asked the fee offices to participate as well. In all, some 353 employees were furloughed at an estimated savings of $1.69 million in payroll costs.

We wrote about this here and here.

Mayor Jacobs’ furloughs – 266

  • Public libraries – 169
  • Health Department – 28
  • Engineering & Public Works – 22
  • Veterans and Senior Services – 17
  • Finance – 12
  • Information Technology – 7
  • Parks & Rec – 7
  • Mayor’s Office – 2
  • Probation and Pretrial Release – 1
  • Risk Management – 1

Elected Officeholders – 87

  • Sherry Witt – 20
  • Mike Hammond – 20
  • Ed Shouse – 19
  • John Whitehead – 13
  • Nick McBride – 11
  • Bud Armstrong – 3
  • Chancery Court – 1
  • Charlie Susano – 0

Susano told Jacobs he would furlough 16 people, but before May 9, he reneged, saying the courts were expected to reopen in May.

Knox County furloughed 353 people to save an estimated $1.69 million.

Now, Susano wants up to $1.5 million to make his payroll.

Court filings down

In a phone interview Thursday with Susano’s deputy chief, Randy Kenner, we learned:

  • Courts statewide were closed for in-person proceedings March 16-May 11
  • During this time, Susano’s staff worked one week on, one week off “for about a month.” Employees were paid straight through including health benefits, even the “4 or 5” at-risk who were told to stay home the entire time.
  • Susano has 56 employees plus 3 part-time; (his predecessor, Cathy Quist, had 58) to oversee three courts: Civil Sessions (small claims, where the salary shortfall is anticipated), Circuit and Juvenile.

“We had to take care of our people,” said Kenner.

Kelli Sharp, who manages the Civil Sessions area, sat in on the interview. She said evictions and garnishments were suspended (by Executive Order). Even though courts were closed, her staff processed paperwork that was mailed in or left in a dropbox. This document shows her staff and their jobs: Civil Sessions_staffing

Court filings remain low, however, and filing fees generate revenue. This chart shows a drop from almost 7,000 cases filed in Civil Sessions March-June 2018 to 3,230 for the same period in 2020: Civil Sessions new filings

Kenner anticipated a 400-case docket when the courts opened up. Our story here. He’s not seen that, but plans to keep the City County Building’s large assembly room at least until the end of August. That room can hold 87 people maintaining social distancing, while the usual courtroom can hold only 22.

Kenner has worked in the clerk’s office since 2012. He’s never been through a pandemic. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today.

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