A rainy night in Knoxville

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

Knox County will save some $1.73 million by furloughing 366 employees for eight weeks, Mayor Glenn Jacobs said Thursday.

This a bold move, unique to Knox County, to shift payroll from local taxpayers to state and newly available federal funds.

It’s also a harsh act that disrespects 366 individuals and destabilizes the balance of the county’s workforce that will be required to take up the slack.

The employees have been notified and will work and be paid through Friday, May 8, Jacobs said. Each can receive up to $275 from the state and $600 from the feds – up to $875 per week total – while unemployed. They will continue to receive health coverage and other benefits from Knox County.

Jacobs’ full statement, including a list of departments affected, is here: Jacobs_Furlough Details

The city of Knoxville is not furloughing anyone, and Farragut Mayor Ron Williams said his town is actually hiring for four positions. One source said $1.73 million could be found “in the cushions of Knox County.”

The math: Divide $1.73 million by 366 people by 8 weeks by 40 hours per week and you arrive at an average hourly wage of $14.77. Recently, we wrote about 115 Knox County employees (excluding schools) who earn over $100,000 per year. Doubtful any of them are on the furlough list.

An aside: Making over $100K are 13 judicial magistrates (eight in juvenile court). Magistrates were introduced here prior to the 1982 World’s Fair – as a backstop for sessions court judges in anticipation of an influx of shady ladies and saloons. The Wild West came and went, but the magistrates are here to stay.

The equity: The courts have been virtually closed since a Tennessee Court Order restricting in-person proceedings on March 13. It was extended through May 7. This period surely gave lawyers and support staff in the district attorney and public defender offices time to catch up on paperwork. We didn’t hear of layoffs or furloughs.

And the DA and public defender opted out of Jacobs’ requested furloughs.

Sheriff Tom Spangler opted out as well, saying if the courts reopen in May he would just have to recall furloughed court officers.

Knox County Schools, with over 6,000 staff, was not included in the furlough request and, in fact, has opted to pay KCS employees even though school has been closed since spring break and won’t reopen until fall.

Jacobs said the county waited as long as possible to enact his plan since it was going to have a very real impact on employee livelihoods, but at this difficult economic time the county must watch its spending.

“This was the hardest decision I’ve had to make since taking office,” said Jacobs. “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.”

Conclusion: Knox County’s fund balance – the rainy-day fund – stands at $75 million, of which $69 million is uncommitted. It’s tempting to say, it’s raining people. Spend it.

The county furloughs are not fair, but nothing about this COVID-19 mess has been fair. Some businesses and individuals are suffering while others are so far unscathed. It’s certainly no time to raise taxes, yet revenues are down. Glenn Jacobs is a tough guy in a tough job who made a tough call. This writer is standing with him (on this, today).

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of KnoxTNToday.com


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