If the Wilson County Commission approves recent actions by the Judicial and Budget Committees this month, the Wilson County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program will face a reduction in funds from the county, while the 15th Judicial Circuit Child Advocacy Center (CAC) will see in increase.
At issue is the Victims Assistance Assessment of $45 per person convicted of certain criminal offenses collected by all criminal court clerks. Also known as the “litigation tax,” $3 of the fee goes to the courts for processing and handling, while $42 has been given to CASA since 2009.
“There was a (county) resolution that passed in 2008,” Laura Swanson, executive director of CASA, told the committee. “I began working on this in late 2006, but monies were not appropriated until 2009.”
CASA provides trained volunteers who advocate in court for the stability and healthy development of abused and neglected children. Wilson County CASA accepts cases of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, drug exposure, and other cases as the court deems necessary.
In November 2012, Swanson said another county resolution clarified when the money would be allocated, which is twice a year in January and February.
County Finance Director Aaron Maynard said in the last fiscal year, approximately $90,000 was collected in these fees. Prior to the 2008 resolution, CASA received $5,900 per year through the Health & Welfare Committee. When the Victims Assistance Assessment passed, it replaced the $5,900 allocation.
Swanson acknowledged that the state law allowing counties to enact the litigation tax does allow counties to fund more than one program for victims of crimes and that the decision as to which organizations to fund is up to county officials.
“We’ve been in existence for 25 years, and it’s taken us 25 years to get to the point where we are able to serve more than 50 percent of the children who are going through the court system,” Swanson said, noting that last year, CASA served 65 percent of the children in the system.
Swanson said having their funding reduced would have a “domino affect” on other funding sources because they would serve fewer children.
“If we serve less children, then there are other funding sources that would also be reduced and that would set us back anywhere from five to 10 years,” she said.
Jason Lawson, who serves on the board of the Child Advocacy Center, said he commends CASA “for everything they’re doing.”
He noted that the number of children served by both organizations runs parallel. “I think we’re all righting the same problems.”
Lawson added that the 15th Judicial District, which serves Wilson, Trousdale, Smith, Macon and Jackson counties, was one of the last to open a CAC in the state.
The purpose of a CAC is to provide “a child-focused, facility-based program in which representatives from many disciplines, including law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, mental health, medical, victim advocacy and child advocacy, work together to conduct interviews and make team decisions about investigation, treatment, management and prosecution of child abuse cases,” according to the Tennessee Child Advocacy Center website.
“Our intent is not to hurt CASA. I think they’re a wonderful group providing wonderful services,” he said. “What I would hope to see is that over the next few periods, years or whatever it takes is for us to be phased into an equal share for all of the deserving groups, whether it be HomeSafe (a shelter for abused women), CASA or CAC.”
Lawson acknowledged that it would be “tremendously unfair to CASA” to come before the county just after the fiscal year for it, the county and the CAC had begun on July 1 and ask for 50 percent of the funding.
“That’s not what we’re asking,” he said. “We’re viewing this as a long-term relationship with the county that’s going to cover many, many years.”
Deb Daugherty, executive director of the CAC, told The Wilson Post in a separate interview that she was not aware of the litigation tax until she received an email in June from another CAC director in the state.
She said she requested information from a county commissioner, whom she did not name, after receiving the email, but never heard back from him. She then contacted County Mayor Randall Hutto’s office and met with him and Maynard on July 3.
As a result of that meeting, she and Lawson were placed on the Aug. 5 agenda of the Judicial Committee, which they attended. However, Swanson said she was not made aware of that meeting.
After both organizations made their presentations at the Sept. 10 meeting, the Judicial Committee voted unanimously to divide the litigation tax between CASA and the CAC 85 percent/15 percent, respectively, beginning Jan. 1, 2014, which will not affect CASA funding during the current fiscal year, as the payment will be made after July 1 of next year.
Additionally, the committee recommended to the Budget Committee that an appropriation of $15,000 from the General Fund be paid to the CAC. This recommendation passed the Budget Committee at its Sept. 19 meeting.
Correspondent Amelia Morrison Hipps may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.