Budgetary buffoonery at the Hamilton County clerk's office

Budgetary buffoonery at the Hamilton County clerk's office

June 18th, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

Hamilton County Circuit Court revenues and expenditures

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

Excuses are like belly buttons, as the saying goes. Everyone has one. Few people, however, have excuses as ridiculous and exasperating as one offered by Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson.

When asked why she mismanaged the clerk's office budget, leaving it with a $156,000 deficit and a projected $336,000 shortfall next year, Thompson replied, "I've never been a numbers person."

You can say that again, Paula.

Thompson's ham-handed management of the clerk's office budget was uncovered in Sunday's Times Free Press by reporters Louie Brogdon and Todd South. They discovered that Thompson bungled the budget by lavishing her staff with substantial pay hikes, even at a time in which many county employees' salaries were frozen due to the tumultuous economy.

For a period encompassing five fiscal years from 2007-2012, Thompson's budget built-in $18,000 a year -- $90,000 total -- for employee raises. Thompson, however, showered Circuit Court workers with more than $200,000 in pay hikes during that time. It turns out that when one of Thompson's higher-paid employees left the clerk's office and was replaced with an employee with a lower salary, she would take the windfall and use it for raises, rather than saving the difference. If Thompson had simply refrained from that unusual and irresponsible practice, her office would be in fine financial shape.

Instead, Thompson now faces the reality of having to trim expenses by slashing the payroll or firing several of the employees she unreasonably coddled. In order to cover the $156,000 deficit she created through her bad bookkeeping and exorbitant raises, Thompson will need to either levy an 8.2 percent across-the-board pay cut or showing about four workers the door.

With the Circuit Court Clerk's office salary expenses skyrocketing more than 25 percent since 2006 and revenue collections remaining fairly constant, Thompson's fiscal disaster shouldn't have come as a surprise. But it did.

Hamilton County Auditor Bill McGriff never raised red flags to warn Thompson of the mess she was creating for her agency. To make matters worse, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and his predecessor, Claude Ramsey, apparently rubber-stamped the clerk's office budget request without inspecting the particulars.

Thompson, for her part, is apparently a good clerk and a fine person, but she comes across as utterly incompetent when it comes to managing public funds.

The facts seem to back up Thompson's pathetic defense of not being "a numbers person." When asked for payroll and budget numbers by the Times Free Press, she could not come up with numbers for two weeks -- and when she finally did, they didn't add up. Thompson also did not have a plan for preparing a budget and failed to have a method for projecting revenue amounts the court expected to bring in each year.

Her budgeting system of hoping for the best is unacceptable, especially since she manages a $2 million agency. The fact that Thompson is a 48-year veteran of Hamilton County government and has served as court clerk for a decade makes her ineptitude even more bewildering.

Thompson, and to a lesser degree Coppinger, McGriff, Ramsey and the Hamilton County commissioners, deserve their share of the blame for the budget troubles at the Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk's Office. Ultimately, however, it was Hamilton County voters who voted in, and later re-elected, someone to manage a major county agency who is clearly in way over her head.

Hamilton County residents can fix the problem in 2014 when Thompson is next up for re-election. In the meantime, Hamilton County leaders must pull together to ensure that Thompson's budget blunders don't get worse and end up leaving county taxpayers paying to clean up the mess.