Knox County Fees Offices Not Following Charter Budgetary Provisions

County clerk, register of deeds, and trustee offices should have their budgets approved by County Commission and the county mayor

It's been more than four years since the state Supreme Court ruled that Knox County's fee offices (county clerk, register of deeds, and trustee) are creatures of and governed by the Knox County Charter.

Indeed, it was the original 1990 charter's failure to provide for these offices that led the court to rule that the charter was invalid. Charter amendments adopted in the fall of 2006 corrected this deficiency by creating these and other positions heretofore known as constitutional officers. But the court made it very clear that they are no longer governed by state constitutional and statutory provisions applicable to all other Tennessee counties except the two (Knox and Shelby) that have a charter form of government.

Yet the local officials involved still don't seem to get it, and charter provisions requiring that their budgets be approved by the county mayor and County Commission have been disregarded—an issue which arose at a contentious County Commission workshop on Monday. The websites of County Clerk Foster Arnett, Register of Deeds Sherry Witt, and Trustee John Duncan all state erroneously that they hold "constitutional offices" established by the state, and none of them are submitting budgets to the mayor as Section 3.07 of the charter requires.

Indeed, most of their expenditures totaling upwards of $10 million are nowhere to be found in county budget documents. Nor is the number of people they employ included in what's labeled "County Budgeted Position Count."

The only way to find them is to go to each of the fee offices or to the Chancery Court and ask for a copy of what's known as the "salary suit" that they file each year to get court approval of their personnel expenses.

Under this archaic proceeding, which is a relic of state law that's no longer believed to be applicable to Knox County, the mayor can contest the suit. But no one around the courthouse is aware of any such contest ever having been made, and according to officials the burden of proof would be on the mayor to show that the salaries or the number of employees sought are excessive.

County Mayor Tim Burchett is clear "it would make sense" to make the fee offices subject to the same budget approval process as other county offices and departments. "Anything we do to have transparency is a good move forward," Burchett says.

Two years ago, County Commissioner Richard Briggs pressed for adoption of a resolution "to require the submission of full and complete information concerning all revenues and expenses of each Charter Officer as part of the budget process for the 2009-10 fiscal year." But subsequently ousted County Law Director Bill Lockett then opined that he didn't believe Commission had the authority to do so. He claimed that the committee that drafted the 2006 charter amendments intended to "retain" the fee offices as previously constituted under state law. But the Supreme Court in 2007 clearly stated that "the offices must first be ‘created' under the charter."

Most commissioners purported to support Briggs' objectives, but a majority acceded to Lockett's opinion and the resolution failed. Briggs intends to renew his effort at next week's Commission meeting and reports that current Law Director Joe Jarret has concluded that not only the fee offices, but also county court clerks, are subject to Commission budgetary control.

All of this is not to say that I believe the current fee officers—Arnett, Witt, and Duncan—are guilty of padding their payrolls with patronage positions as was widely perceived to be the case in prior regimes. In the 1990s, then-News Sentinel reporter David Keim found that staffing levels and expenses of fee offices in Knox County exceeded those in Davidson and Shelby counties despite their much larger populations, but not much resulted from his findings.

Since Arnett took office as county clerk in 2008, he says, "We've reduced the staff from 103 to 84 and we're going to get lower than that because this office just can't operate the way it used to." With the economic slump, the county clerk's revenues—mainly from motor vehicle titles and registrations—have declined more than personnel expenses, dropping from just over $6 million in 2008 to $4.93 million, while personnel expenses fell from just under $5 million to $4.39 million. Nonetheless, Arnett has managed to maintain remittances of "excess" fees to the county general fund of $1 million a year by drawing down his office's reserve fund.

The register of deeds' revenues have predictably dropped steeply from $3.64 million in 2008 to $2.47 million in 2010. Yet Witt's personnel expenses have increased over this same span from $1.88 million to $1.99 million, and her remittances to the county have fallen from $1.4 million to less than $500,000. Witt says she has cut her staff from 29 to 23 but that these savings have been offset by increased health insurance and pension costs.

Trustee John Duncan is the only one of the county's three fee officers who says without qualification that he "wouldn't have a problem" with mayoral and Commission approval of his budget. Personnel expenses for his first year in office are expected to approximate the $2.83 million incurred by his predecessor Fred Sisk in fiscal year 2010. But savings of $200,000 or more could result from his hiring of a staff attorney for delinquent property tax collections rather than outsourcing them as Sisk did. Trustee fees for collecting these and other taxes yield the county about $5 million in excess revenue remittances.

Burchett says he has made "suggested" expense reductions to the fee offices and that "in some instances they took them and in some instances they didn't." It's high time for a directive that the mayor and commission have the authority to require them.