Reform for Knox County Government, Finally?

At what point does County Commission bring fee offices under control?

The reform movement in Knox County lurches along in fits and starts. Just when county officeholders think the public’s attention has begun to wane and things can get back to “normal,” someone else does something stupid.

Perhaps the prospect of the county mayoral election in 2010 has inspired some County Commissioners to show some leadership. Counting county Tahoes. Counting county employees. A lean budget focuses the mind.

Term limits blew up the entrenched machine that was county government, but the fallout continues to settle over the City County Building like a dirty fog. For years on end you heard stories about ghost employees, salary discrepancies, nepotism, and budget excesses. But the political power of entrenched incumbents kept a lid on any wholesale examination of the system. Timid entrenched County Commissioners looked the other way.

Now former Trustee Mike Lowe has hired an attorney and the TBI is investigating the office he recently vacated. An employee getting paid two or three times his stated salary doesn’t sound like good internal financial controls.

Last year the voters decided they didn’t want to abolish the elected fee officers and turn over all power to the county mayor. That doesn’t mean they want the offices to continue as personal fiefdoms where the officeholder might pay people who do not work or pay people a rate based on their ability to deliver votes.

It’s not like this is any big surprise. The much-maligned accounting firm (re: Mike Ragsdale scandals) of Roederfer Moss raised questions about comp time and vacation pay in the trustee’s office in 2007. County Commission ignored the results.

Interim County Commissioners Elaine Davis and Victoria DeFreese proposed that fee-office employees be brought under the county merit system with job descriptions, prescribed salaries, and protection from political hiring and firing. Their proposals died in the waning days before the 2008 election and the public shrugged. So did most of their commission colleagues.

Knox County Commission needs to decide how much money these offices need for payroll and tell them what they get. The officeholder can hire whomever they like or as many people as they like with the available funds. But they have to have job descriptions and salary schedules, like any other government department, private business, or even non-profits. They shouldn’t be able to pay a political stooge a lot of money to sit on his ass (if he comes to work at all) and then pay kids a less than living wage to actually do the work.

The current crop of fee officeholders inherited offices that have been virtual fiefdoms, answerable to no one. Trustee Fred Sisk raised questions about the payroll and brought it to public attention. But we have to remember he was standing at Lowe’s right hand, as his deputy, when all this was going on. A charitable view is that he couldn’t do anything about it while he worked for Lowe.

The root cause of the problems in county government is patronage.

As long as department heads can hire and fire at will, pay whatever they please, and assign work willy-nilly, it is an open invitation to abuse. As the county legislative body, the County Commission has to begin a process to turn all county offices into professional operations. The officeholders should be free to write the job descriptions and set the salaries—for each position. But it has to be reviewed, approved, and complied with year in and year out.

County government has a merit system. County government has a payroll and accounting department. It’s time the fee officeholders join up. They have demonstrated they cannot be trusted to manage employees and payrolls on their own.

As the legislative body for the county and the final arbiter of the budget, County Commission can spend the time between now and the 2010 election getting the house in order. They should be able to get it done by ordinance. If they can’t, then 2010 is the place for charter changes to get it done—in conjunction with a mayoral election with candidates looking for issues. And fee officeholders up for election.

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