Adhering to state law, Hamilton County commissioners reluctantly approved to move $192,000 in previously unbudgeted funds to the office of Circuit Court Clerk Paula Thompson.
The funds, which accounted for a total of remitted excess fees during Thompson's tenure, were requested by the clerk to meet a shortfall and cover salaries and expenses within her office. Appearing before the commission, Thompson said she knew her office was in danger of not being able to meet payroll obligations but had hoped additional revenues would arise—which didn't happen.
"I'm not here because I want to be," she said.
Several commissioners questioned Thompson before eventually voting to approve the transfer of funds—which was required by a provision in Tennessee Code, which states that the county's general fund refund previously remitted excess fees upon request to cover periods in which revenues were not sufficient to pay for officers' salaries and other expenses in the office.
Commissioner Tim Boyd said he was "very upset" to have to allot the funds, especially when signs had become apparent that revenues for the clerk's office were not going to adequately cover the expense. Boyd questioned why Thompson had not right-sized her staff to address the issue and pointed out that several in her office reap high salaries.
"I'm looking at the salaries in your department, and as reported to me, five employees are costing in your collected fees $475,000," Boyd said. "That's a lot of money to anybody."
Boyd compared Thompson's situations to times in his past where he was forced to cut positions in his construction business in order to adjust to a lower amount of revenue than expected.
"I'm not questioning your people being good … but when our revenues don't meet payroll, we have to lay off good people," he said. "Nobody likes doing that. But that's just business."
Commissioner Fred Skillern offered a similar take, saying he had reduced the staff of his business by 45 percent in recent years because of the lagging economy.
"I might not have been giving the same service I had given, but I'm still in business," he said.
Thompson replied by saying she thought the quality of services offered by the court would suffer if she cut the size of staff. At one point, Thompson said she would be able to make her office more efficient if she had more staff to process items such as orders of protection.
"I tried to do everything I could before I had to stand before you here today," she said.
Before approving the funds, several commissioners challenged Thompson to make changes to her office before coming before the group with her budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year. Commissioner Joe Graham said he would not be interested in approving a budget increase for the Circuit Court Clerk's office if wasn't obvious that Thompson had sought to address the issue.
"I will not support increasing your budget without you doing something about it," Graham said. "This is really a management issue. I know there's some tough choices ahead for you."