County council members on Tuesday punted on a request from Denise Swink, director of the Knox County Court-Appointed Special Advocates program, to expand her staff.
Swink, who took on the post a year ago, told the council she wants to bring more stability to her office by moving away from having so many part-time positions; the turnover in recent weeks, she told the council, has been almost too much to bear.
And she has open part-time positions yet to fill.
Currently, CASA's annual budget allows her to have three part-time positions and three full-time positions, but she's willing to give up some of that part-time help, she said, for the reliability of an additional full-time case worker.
Right now, she said, one full-time case worker is handling the logistics for more than 60 volunteers.
To make matters worse, she lost two long-time staff members in recent weeks to more lucrative offers elsewhere.
Council members, however, said it would be out-of-sequence to consider the addition of a full-time person to any county department in the middle of the year.
Typically, as councilman Tim Crowley pointed out, those requests come in the fall, when the council begins holding budget hearings and drafting its spending plan for the following year.
But the need, Swink said, is now.
“I wouldn't have come to you had I not lost (vital staff members) at this time of year,” she said, adding that she would even be willing to lower the proposed pay for the additional full-time staff member by $2,000, from $34,000 down to $32,000 per year, if it made a difference.
“That's how badly I need to have (another) full-time staff member in my office,” she said.
Swink also told the council that some people have expressed interest in coming to work for CASA, but only if it's a full-time position.
To get around the timing issue, councilman David Culp suggested finding the money somewhere in CASA's budget; a transfer could be approved by the council with less fanfare.
Swink only needs $10,000 to add the position, she said, and she could draw from private donations made to CASA.
But as the council discussed it, the addition of a full-time staff member would require more careful consideration, especially since benefits would have to be extended.
“I don't want to offer a false impression to the person you're hiring,” Culp said. “They wouldn't be guaranteed a 2020 position.”
Council president Bob Lechner, too, said with a mind on fiscal responsibility, the council wants to be consulted before any full-time position is filled by a department head in case there's an opportunity for more efficiency.
Overall, he said, they've “discouraged” those requests, especially outside of budget-drafting season.
“My preference would be to wait until budget time,” Lechner said, “and review not only this request but also how CASA is doing nine months into this new set up.
“It's a brand new department,” he said.
Last fall, the CASA program moved under the management of Knox County Superior Court I and Judge Gara Lee.
It had operated under the umbrella of Child and Family Services for more than 20 years.
The move was inspired by tightened restrictions on CFS programs, potentially affecting state funding. So CASA employees were moved into John Gregg's former law office at 112 N. Seventh St. alongside the Veterans Affairs program.
In the end, Crowley encouraged Swink to give the makeup of her staff some more consideration in coming weeks and come back in September to present a plan during budget hearings.
“Make your office look like how you want it to look in the future,” Crowley said, gesturing wide with his arms. “Then we'll get down to the nitty gritty and see how it all works out.
“In the meantime, if you need help,” he told her, “fill those part-time positions.”
CASA volunteers serve more than 150 local youngsters in the county's court system; many of them have either been removed from their homes or are at risk of being removed by local officials. The CASA volunteers, who undergo extensive training, serve only to protect the child's interest during court proceedings.
Early this year, they had a wait list of nearly 50 kids.