Sullivan County trustee closes Kingsport, Bristol offices

J. H. Osborne • Apr 29, 2019 at 9:22 AM

KINGSPORT — You can’t pay your Sullivan County property taxes in Kingsport or Bristol anymore. Satellite offices for the county trustee in each city closed “until further notice” at noon Friday. Trustee Susan Ramsey made the decision to close the locations and terminate the employees who manned them.

The employees were notified in writing two weeks ago, in letters hand-delivered by County Attorney Dan Street.

Ramsey said the move is a cost-saving measure. She confirmed, however, that her budget request for the budget cycle that begins July 1 includes funding for the positions held by the terminated employees. Ramsey said she won’t be able to estimate any actual cost savings until she gets through the coming budget year. That will give her some idea of what adjustments will need to be made in funding to somehow offer city residents a convenient way to pay their tax bills, Ramsey said.

Options she mentioned include contracting with a bank for a “lockbox” service (taxpayers would mail their payments to a post office box managed by the bank), contracting with a bank to allow actual walk-in payments, and placing temporary personnel in a county office in the cities during peak tax season (roughly October to March).

Asked how the lockbox option would be any more convenient for taxpayers than simply mailing the payment directly to her Blountville office, Ramsey said the main benefit would be for her office because the bank, rather than her remaining staff, would process the payments.

The Blountville office, she said, already is kept busy year-round. The Kingsport and Bristol offices, Ramsey said, are busy only during tax season, and it doesn’t make sense to keep them staffed during the rest of the year.

When asked how many residents are served by each of the three offices, Ramsey had no answers for the Times News. She said her software doesn’t record that information.

On Friday afternoon and evening, Ramsey sent two text messages to the Times News.

In those, she said she had decided to share one more “important deciding factor” in her decision to close the Model City location: “ ... Walking into my Kingsport office last summer and finding a TV on and the employee with nothing to do. I didn’t want to say that because county employees are scrutinized enough as it is. I found out today that the employee ... has called commissioners and other people to give me a hard time about this decision. She took this closing as a personal attack toward her. It was a business decision, that was all.”

Ramsey also said she had “thought this decision to death and put unnecessary stress on myself. At the end of the day it’s all about doing what my conscience told me was the right thing to do.”

When the Times News visited the Kingsport office one day last week, the clerk served at least three customers in about 15 minutes. She said she would miss working for county residents and that she was disappointed Ramsey chose to end it by sending the county attorney with a letter rather than coming and talking with her in person. She said she had already found other opportunities. 

“God closed a door and opened a window,” she said.

On that day a sign was outside the office announcing the upcoming closure. When the Times-News visited again at about 11:10 a.m. Friday, there were no signs and the office’s door already was closed. An employee from the Blountville office was inside tallying up and making sure everything was in order before the terminated employee left. When asked about the sign, the terminated employee said she had been told to take it down. The Blountville employee then said she’d brought one to put up once the office closed. The Blountville employee indicated she wasn’t sure what should be in the office in the way of files, nor was she sure what needed to go with her back to Blountville.

Just before noon the Times News encountered a man outside the office door with a tax bill in his hand. He said he came to pay, but the office was already closed.

County Mayor Richard Venable, interviewed by the Times News on Thursday, said the county’s overhead costs aren’t likely to decrease dramatically from the closures in Kingsport and Bristol because the county owns a percentage of the buildings and pays each city a maintenance fee each year for upkeep and utilities.

Venable also said Kingsport’s plans to move its governmental offices from the current city hall to the Regions Bank building on Church Circle played no role in the decision to close the trustee’s office in Kingsport. Venable said he has been talking with city officials about that move, and the city has offered to incorporate county offices into the bank building, which it the city purchased, if that’s what the county wants.

Ramsey has repeatedly stressed the closings will be “until further notice” and said she might need to at least partially staff a Kingsport office during peak season.

Venable, however, questioned where Ramsey, having given up the current location, would be able to offer service in Kingsport.

Ramsey told the Times News “we” are looking at options that could include perhaps sharing space in another county office.

As for Ramsey including funding for the two eliminated positions in her budget request, Venable pointed out, “We haven’t approved her budget yet.”

Venable is chairman of the Budget Committee. Some members of that panel already have asked how much will be cut from the budget due to the closures.

Ramsey said she has no estimates on the costs of replacing the terminated employees with other options (lockbox, bank drop-offs, or partial staffing in peak season), and that’s the figure she’ll need to know before it will be clear how much savings the closures will bring.

Street said he delivered the termination letters because Ramsey seemed so stressed about the situation. The Times News asked Street if it is unusual for the county attorney to do that, and he said he’s never done it before for an elected officeholder. The employees who were terminated were not fired for cause, Street said, but were terminated because their jobs were eliminated — and they are eligible for unemployment.

Asked how jobs can be eliminated but the number of positions and funding for personnel remain the same in an office’s budget, Street told the Times News he didn’t know Ramsey had planned on keeping the positions in her budget.

When asked the same question, Ramsey told the Times News that every year each officeholder meets with the county mayor, and it is determined how many positions they can have in their budget.

Venable seemed surprised to hear that when asked about it by the Times News.

For the upcoming budget year, Ramsey has requested $720,104 for her office. That’s up from this year’s appropriation of $705,104. The additional $15,000 is to cover postage cost increases. The office’s appropriation was $678,175 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018. According to the state’s audit of county finances during that fiscal year, the trustee’s office spent $646,895. 

Street also confirmed he had telephoned Paul Harr, who has served as Sullivan County’s delinquent tax attorney for more than 30 years, to tell him that Ramsey has decided to terminate him and appoint someone new to the job. Street said state law requires the position and that the holder be chosen by the trustee, approved by the mayor, and the amount the person is paid must be approved by the Sullivan County Commission. Ramsey said the delinquent tax attorney, by law, can earn up to 10 percent of the amount of back taxes he or she collects for the county.

As for terminating Harr, Ramsey said it is time for a “fresh start.”

Harr was appointed by former trustee Frances Harrell, a Democrat. Harrell did not seek re-election last year and no other Democrats ran.

Ramsey won the Republican primary in May and had no opposition on the August general election ballot. When Harrell retired, Ramsey was appointed to the position in July 2018.