An unexpected $300,000 request by the Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk's Office sparked surprise and frustration from county commissioners Wednesday.
Criminal Court Clerk Vince Dean told commissioners he needs the money to offset a shortfall in his current personnel budget. What commissioners wanted to know is why Dean brought the request so late in the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
"Why do the numbers all of a sudden come to light?" asked finance committee chairman Tim Boyd. "This didn't just happen yesterday. So, how come we are just now being told about this?"
When Dean said his office has been working with the county finance department since fall, Boyd asked why commissioners hadn't been briefed between September and December.
"Quite simply, if we had come to you in November, I think we would have been asking for $500,000 rather than $300,000," said Dean. "If we had come to you in December or January, we may have been asking for $400,000. Things have gotten a lot better than they were."
He's asking now so the office could "get what it actually needed instead of getting more than it needed," Dean said.
Boyd said the commission should have been told earlier.
"If we have trends that have six-figure deficits this commission deserves to be a part of that conversation early on to understand what we're doing to combat these unbudgeted things," he said.
Commissioner Joe Graham also expressed dismay over the late notice.
"We're getting hit in the face with a $300,000 deficit," Graham said. "We were not aware of it in any way, shape or form — no heads-up about it whatsoever — until we get our [meeting agenda] packet."
Graham told Dean he was willing to help out his office on a one-time basis, but would not support a recurring shortfall, calling for sustainable financial planning going forward.
This is not the first time in recent history the Criminal Court Clerk's office has approached the county commission for supplemental funds to cover its expenses.
Gwen Tidwell, Dean's predecessor, requested a similar amount of money to offset a budget shortfall three years ago, Boyd said.
Dean said the main factor in the shortfall is that the state's felony fee reimbursement rate has not increased since 2006. The Criminal Court Clerk's office is funded by a percentage of the fees it collects and remits to the state.
The office collected $3.5 million out of $9 million in court-ordered fines in 2015 and is expected to receive about $170,000 — about 5 percent — of the collected amount back, Dean said. But the state is about $300,000 behind on reimbursements and is just now sending payment for fees collected in August, he said.
He said he has tried to cut expenses and raise revenues in the clerk's office, including saving $100,00 in the personnel budget by leaving one position unfilled and eliminating or reallocating part-time positions.
Right now he estimates the operating budget will come in about $80,000 below its original projection, but state law prohibits him from using operating money for personnel costs.
The Hamilton County Criminal Court has collected $200,000 more in the last 18 months than in the previous 18 months, Dean said. This equates to about a $10,000 increase in state reimbursements based on rates cited by Dean. More than half of the fees collected in 2015 were overdue balances, he said.
Despite the increased collection activity, it is not an easy process, Dean said.
"Most of the time our clientele is not going to be truthful," he said. "After all, we're not dealing with people on their way home from Bible study. We're dealing with people involved in criminal activity."
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or firstname.lastname@example.org.