The early voting period for the Knox County general election is coming up soon (July 18), and voting day is Aug. 7. After a rough couple of years for the office of the Knox County trustee, voters will have a chance to elect either Republican Knox County Commissioner Ed Shouse or Jim Berrier, a Democrat and regulatory supervisor of financial advisors. Meanwhile, voters will also have to decide between re-electing Republican Foster Arnett as the Knox County clerk, or Democrat Mike Padgett, who was elected Knox County clerk six times (from 1986 to 2007) before he had to leave office due to term limits.
Knox County Clerk
When Foster Arnett took office in September 2008, he says the county clerk's office was in disarray. Employees were granted a Christmas shopping day off, and a paid birthday holiday, he says. Employees who didn't travel for business were granted travel allowances. Several employees were not trained to Arnett's standards.
Now, Arnett says, he's cut the budget, created a one-day retreat annually to go over training practices, remodeled the five satellite offices, and cross-trained employees so that people who come in aren't forced to wait if the person who normally issues marriage licenses isn't immediately available.
"We've opened things up. We've been honest. We've been absolutely scandal-free," Arnett says. "I want to continue what we've done."
Mike Padgett, however, not only sees a cut budget in the clerk's office, but also a reduction in services.
"I'm all about service, and you can't put a price on service. You've got to accommodate the community, the constituency," he says.
While in office, Padgett opened a satellite office in Five Points and extended normal business hours at the (former) Knoxville Center/East Towne Mall location until 9 p.m. He says those hours allowed people who normally work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day to get their business taken care of more conveniently.
"That's where people would hit the expressway and be at East Towne in no time at all. Everybody was happy. The [car] dealers like to drop off things after their work day and pick it up the next day. One-day service, no problem. We had people there to do the job," Padgett says.
Padgett also says there's a significant amount of people in Knox County who are going to other counties to get their tags renewed at a lower cost. He maintains that if the satellite offices continue to make it easier for people to get their licenses renewed, the office would see more business.
"If we can keep those people in Knox County, then more revenues will be generated. I feel that people want to do the proper thing. But if there's long lines, and it's the end of the month, they're going to go somewhere else to get those tags at a lesser price. The wheel tax is not invoked in Loudoun County, Union County, [or] Sevier County. So it's a 10-minute drive, and you save $40. I don't think it's widespread, but it's the truth," Padgett says. "If people got the message, and the lines were smaller, and I could tell them ‘stay in the county to get those tags,' then I feel Knox Countians will want to do the right thing."
But Arnett says he disagrees "vehemently" with Padgett that the county clerk's office is making it harder to get things like car tags and driver's licenses renewed.
"If you wait till the very last minute, you're going to stand in line. When you get the renewal slip from the state, you can mail it in for $2. How much is gasoline?" Arnett says. And, he adds, Knox Countians can take care of things like driver's license and car tag renewals online. Several forms are also available to print online.
"It's no big deal," Arnett says.
Arnett says the Five Points location, which he closed, was "hemorrhaging money." It was only responsible for 3 percent of the clerk's business, and it just made fiscal sense to close it, he says. Arnett also moved the Knoxville Center Mall location out of the mall and just across the street. The current facility has a drive-through window. The East Knoxville location is also open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Padgett was recently in the news when he challenged reporters to verify his claims that his office brought in millions of dollars for the county every year, that the Knox County Clerk contracted with the state to handle car titles in every single Tennessee county, and that he could bring more similar contracts to Knox County if elected.
WBIR reporter Mike Donila did look into those claims and found that although he brought in $3 million from 2002 to 2008, Arnett actually brought in $5 million between 2009 to 2012.
Padgett points out that higher wheel taxes weren't implemented in Knox County until 2003, and that he only added $36 to every tag renewal starting in 2005.
"Yes, I did turn over millions of dollars over a longer time. Those car tags are the biggest resource. I don't know how many cars are in Knox County right now. There are more than there were in 2007," he says.
WBIR only found records indicating Knox County printed car titles for 10 Tennessee counties, and that it's not a simple matter of going to Nashville to ask for the contracts to take on those duties again, since most counties print their own titles now.
"All these counties, every county in the state—and I stand by what I say—whoever he talked to at the state was not there when I was clerk. [Titles] were in the Department of Safety, now they're in the Department of Revenue. People I worked with at that time in Safety, are no longer associated with car registration," Padgett says. "I still think there's plenty of work that's not being done there. It's just going to take a trip down there to see what I can do. If I can help somebody make money for Knox County, I'm going to do it."
If he's re-elected, Arnett says he'll continue finding ways to cut costs and increase the office's efficiency.
"I think that we've done an outstanding job. … We have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars," Arnett says.
He says he hopes, in deeply red Knox County, that people don't vote for him just because he's a Republican.
"I hope that I get re-elected on the merit of the work I've done. It doesn't matter what persuasion you are," he says.
Padgett says being a Democrat never hindered his campaigns and says he's not worried about it now.
"I think that people in Knox County—Democrat, Republican, and Independent—stand in the same line, spend the same money," he says.
Knox County Trustee
Current Knox County Commissioner and Republican candidate Ed Shouse is giving up his seat to run for county trustee, and he says he think his small-business background is the reason he's the best person for the job. Shouse, as we wrote in March during the Republican primary, became a corporate trust officer for First Tennessee Bank. After 10 years in that position, Shouse went on to become a shortline railroad executive starting in 1990. He retired in 2007.
"I know what it's like to not make payroll, and have to choose which bills to skip till next month. I know what it is to work through tough times as well as good times, like business people do," Shouse says.
Shouse has also been, as he describes it, a part-time, elected government employee for several years. He was previously an at-large Knoxville City Council member and was elected as an at-large County Commission member in 2008. (He also has a street named for him, which connects Middlebrook Pike and Western Avenue.) Though he says his government experience will be helpful as far as knowing who to talk to about what, Shouse maintains it's his business background that's his biggest asset.
Jim Berrier, on the other hand, has never run for political office. The Knoxville native got his MBA at the University of Tennessee in 2002, and then became a financial advisor and stock broker. But he came to a point in his life where he felt pulled to serve the community in which he was raised, and where he's made his living, he says.
"I think the financial services side isn't just about crunching numbers. It's about figuring out how the numbers affect people. When you're helping people retire, it's very emotional," Berrier says. "Moving to the regulatory side, especially, is determining ‘Is this best for the client?' I'm sure we both have the skills for [the trustee's office], but I think the attitude of client first is deep."
And, if Knox County voters are wary of the "D" next to his name, Berrier is quick to clarify that he does hold conservative fiscal principles.
"There are a lot of us [Democrats] out there that are fiscally conservative, including myself. I want to see the county's debt continue to go down. … I want to be a part of getting that bond rating up, not just for its [own] sake, but to attract that business, to make sure our debt's low. Are Democrats sometimes seen as fiscally liberal? Yeah, maybe. But the truth is, we're mostly governed here by our East Tennessee values, not our Democrat or Republican values. And that's what I want to bring in there—the East Tennessee values," he says.
Both candidates say they'd like to restore the public's trust in the office after previous trustees were caught giving themselves unearned bonuses, charged with felony theft, and found to have made multi-million-dollar accounting errors. Shouse says his track record in office shows he's a person worth trusting with tax dollars, which he says he'd maintain if elected.
"I would work to just restore the public's confidence. I would have an open-door policy, and I'd return phone calls. As a commissioner, I get lots of phone calls. Now, it's more e-mails, but I do get phone calls and I do my best to return those," he says.
And, he points out, he prevailed in a close primary election against the incumbent trustee Craig Leuthold and former trustee's office employee Barry Hawkins.
"I had a tough primary, and I'm very happy the other two gentlemen who ran in the primary have endorsed me. I was pleased to hear that from them," Shouse says.
Berrier says he's not focused on politics at all, and says he doesn't necessarily see Shouse's political history as an advantage in the office of the trustee.
Both candidates say they'd like to have more regular audits to keep tabs on the money flowing through. Shouse says it's important to have unscheduled audits and to also have a team of internal auditors.
"We shouldn't know when auditors are coming in. Internal and external auditors would be welcome in the trustee's office at any time if I'm elected," Shouse says.
Berrier is also in favor of internal audits, and says he'd like to start his term with an in-depth audit, if there's room in the budget for it.
"We need an internal audit. We also need an outside audit. I'd like to do one up front that looks at everything, maybe even a deep, forensics-style audit," Berrier says. "The trustee's office is a dangerous place if it's not watched. I think we need more direction, we need more of these audits."
As for the money that Metro Pulse columnist Joe Sullivan says the county owes Knox County Schools, Shouse says he's willing to work with lawyers to resolve the issues, though he can't take an official position on the matter.
"I'd like to hear [auditors'] opinion, but I believe it's more a legal matter," he says.
Berrier says the county needs to start budgeting the payments to the school system.
"It shows how critical the trustee doing their job right is. I don't know what to say, other than the tax has to be handle right going forward, and it needs to be made up going forward. But it needs to be made up in a common-sense way," Berrier says.
Ultimately, both candidates say they're not relying on political affiliations in the election.
"I think the voters will look at the backgrounds of the candidates and vote for the one who's most qualified, has the most experience. I think people look at the candidates individually," Shouse says.