HUNTSVILLE — A state private act that would levy an additional $25 fee on most court cases in Scott County as a means of funding the county’s newly-established family justice center is on hold, and perhaps in jeopardy, after two county commissioners raised objections to it on Monday.
Second District Commissioner Jerried Jeffers and 6th District Commissioner Patti Brown were able to put the brakes on the proposal — at least temporarily — even though it’s already been passed by both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly at the behest of State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, and State Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown.
In its first test before the county’s legislative body, the private act — which must be approved by a two-thirds majority vote of the 14-member County Commission before it can be signed by Governor Bill Lee — failed to clear the Intergovernmental Committee on Monday.
With committee chairman Kenny Chadwell and member Mike Slaven both absent, the nay votes of Jeffers and Brown were enough to prevent the measure from garnering the needed four-vote majority to get to the full commission.
Commissioners David “Blue” Day, Paul Strunk and Kenny Morrow voted in favor of the proposal, but their voices of support were one short of a majority vote.
Monday’s vote stemmed from a successful, 11th hour effort by Yager and Keisling to send a private act to the governor’s desk for the Scott County Family Justice Center. The FJC, which opened in July 2018 as a comprehensive support center for victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and elder abuse, is set to lose $80,000 in crucial grant funding this summer, and sought the additional court fee — in essence, a tax on court filings — as a way to make up most of that shortfall.
Christy Harness, executive director of the FJC, called the resulting fee a “litigation tax.” The $25 fee would be tacked on to all cases filed in Scott County’s general sessions, juvenile and circuit courts, excluding traffic citations. She said all three of the judges whose courts would be impacted had voiced support for the measure.
Harness said that Scott County Circuit Court Clerk Donnie Phillips had estimated that the litigation tax would generate between $50,000 and $62,000 each year for the FJC. That money would be used for a combination of travel expenses, training materials and salary dollars, she said.
Jeffers expressed admiration for Yager and Keisling, but said he was “highly disappointed” that the legislators carried the private act to the General Assembly before it was approved at the county level.
Ordinarily, proposals for private acts are requested by a two-thirds vote of the county legislative body, then carried to Nashville by the county’s delegation.
“Everything is done quick, done on a whim, done on a knee-jerk reaction,” Jeffers said. “Sometimes I wonder, when you work quick, I wonder is it done just to have a blatant disregard for the county legislative body or is it done to say, ‘Well, they’ll just do whatever we tell them to do,’” Jeffers said.
Brown also objected to the legislators’ decision to introduce the private act before County Commission acted.
However, county attorney John Beaty said he was the one responsible for asking the question that prompted the private act. During a meeting on Good Friday, Beaty asked Yager and Keisling if it was too late to file a private act, since the legislature was nearing the end of its session and preparing to adjourn for the year. Beaty said he believed it was, in fact, too late to file the bill. But Yager and Keisling said there was time remaining — just barely. With the next meeting of County Commission nearly a month away, and time of the essence, they decided to move forward with the legislation, Beaty said.
Beaty said the fact that the state legislature has already passed the private act does nothing to circumvent County Commission.
“This still has to go through the legislative body,” Beaty said. “You still have control. It still has to pass by a two-thirds vote. I don’t want anybody to have the misapprehension that it has already passed.”
Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals also defended the legislators’ decision to carry the private bill to Nashville without County Commission’s approval, saying that not doing so would have caused funding for the FJC to be delayed for another fiscal year. While Tibbals didn’t say so, that would have required the $80,000 to come from other sources — including, potentially, the county’s tax coffers — or run the risk of the FJC closing due to a lack of funding.
Harness made an impassioned argument on behalf of the FJC, telling commissioners that the center has represented 143 victims since it opened on July 1, ranging in age from 17 to 71.
“It’s not because of me that I’m standing here,” Harness said. “Is it my salary? Sure. But I can go get another job. These victims, they don’t have another door to knock on. It’s because of them that I’m standing here.”
On the other hand, Jeffers argued that he had spoken to a number of attorneys who were against the litigation tax due to the extra burden it would put on their clients.
“The attorneys say our fees are excessively high,” Jeffers said. “Most don’t like the fact that an additional $25 could be added to them.”
However, when Jeffers insinuated that the public defender — Leif Jeffers represents the 8th Judicial District — was opposed to the measure, Beaty pointedly questioned that assertion, saying that defendants in court cases — who would be represented by the public defender’s office — would not generally be responsible for the fee.
Both Jeffers and Brown indicated a desire to see the money from a litigation tax go to other purposes — Jeffers to maintenance and future expansion costs at the Scott County Justice Center and Brown directly to victims.
“I’ve always stood behind the fact that the victims need the majority of the money,” said Brown, a former director of the county’s women’s shelter. “I am an advocate of the victim. I would rather the money go directly to the victim.”
Later in the discussion, Shonda Duncan — the current executive director of the women’s shelter — stood up to advocate on the FJC’s behalf, saying the center allows the shelter to reach more victims and to help them in ways that would not otherwise be possible.
While the measure failed on Monday, it is likely to resurface next month — and even Jeffers conceded that it might pass if the full committee is present for the June work session. But Beaty said the one-month delay could prove costly, saying the General Assembly will be adjourned by next month and there’s no guarantee that Lee will sign the bill if the legislature isn’t still in session.
In the meantime, 2nd District Commissioner Sam Lyles cautioned against throwing Yager and Keisling under the bus for carrying the private act to Nashville.
“We have two representatives who went to the state to try to do something on our behalf,” Lyles said. “What kind of future do we have with those two representatives if we turn around and say, ‘We’re not going to support you on this?’”