Hamilton County commissioners had a clear message for Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson during their Wednesday meeting: Cut your staff and get your finances in order before budget time.
Thompson appeared before the commission to answer questions about a late agenda addition. She was asking commissioners to refund $192,194 the clerk's office had previously released to the county in excess fees.
Profits from fees collected by the clerk's office are released to a county excess account that produces interest for the general fund.
But according to Thompson, the days of excess are over.
Thompson needs the money back -- and commissioners are obligated by state law to release it -- so she can cover her payroll until the budget year ends June 30.
The shortfall, according to Thompson, is the result of a 2006 change in the law that forces the clerk's office to charge flat fees for filing lawsuits, divorces and other court actions in Circuit and Sessions courts, instead of charging for each individual filing.
Before 2006, Thompson said, she could charge $25 for each filing in a private lawsuit, which could have dozens of filings. Now she gets one flat fee of $227.
Thompson also blamed indigent clients and unpaid fees for some of the losses.
When indigents file orders of protection with the court, judges waive the $102 clerk fee, Thompson told commissioners.
In 2012, 550 protective orders were filed but only 204 were paid, according to court records. That leaves 346 waived filings, which could have brought in $35,292.
The caseload in Circuit Court also has increased by 9 percent in the last six years, from 3,981 cases in 2006 to 4,339 in 2012. Thompson said it's not a huge increase, but it's still more work for less revenue.
Disturbed by the late request and large figure, commissioners questioned Thompson about why she suddenly needs the money -- and why she didn't start adjusting her $2 million annual payroll when she learned she would be collecting fewer fees.
"As a manager of the department, could you not see the trend that was happening and make adjustments to expenditures -- explicitly payroll?" asked Commissioner Tim Boyd.
Commissioners Boyd, Fred Skillern and Joe Graham said Thompson would have to either cut the pay of her more than 40 employees, or let some of them go.
Boyd also questioned Thompson's pay scale.
"Five of your employees are costing $475,000. That's a lot of money. That's a lot of money for anybody, I think," Boyd said.
According to Thompson's records, her five highest-paid employees are the two chief clerks of Circuit and Sessions courts, who are paid $84,872 per year; their two assistant chief clerks, who are paid $63,271; and the office bookkeeper, who earns $61,471. The lowest-paid employee earns $32,298, she said.
Thompson said 10 of her employees have college degrees, and three have master's degrees. If she lost people, the quality of service would suffer.
"When our revenues don't meet our payroll, you have to lay off good people. That's business," Boyd countered.
Looking toward next year's budget, Skillern urged Thompson to get her fiscal house in order.
"When you come back here in July, I don't think this commission is in any mood to give you more money," Skillern said. "I'm not in the mood to vote for a tax increase just to create more employment."
Thompson has worked in the clerk's office for 48 years and has been clerk of court since she was elected in 2002.
Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...