When County Commission takes up its next month’s business with committee meetings on June 3, debate will begin again over whether to authorize a $25 fee on many court filings as a means of funding the Scott County Family Justice Center.
The matter, which must ultimately pass County Commission by a two-thirds majority vote — requiring “yes” votes from 10 of 14 commissioners, failed to clear the Intergovernmental Committee last month, where it required a simple majority vote, or “yes” votes from four of seven members. The final vote tally was 3-2 in favor of the proposal, one short of the number of votes needed. Two members of the committee were absent.
Specifically, commissioners are voting on whether to retroactively approve a private act that has already cleared the Tennessee General Assembly. The measure is generally expected to clear committee next month, but a subsequent vote before the full commission could prove to be a close one, with only five “no” votes needed to defeat it.
The question, though, really extends beyond a simple “yes” or “no” vote on whether Scott County should implement a $25 litigation tax (which would be paid by plaintiffs in most court filings; defendants in court cases would not be responsible for the tax). The first question that should be asked is simply this: “Does Scott County need a family justice center?”
Family justice centers, which specialize in services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse, were long a luxury of urban areas like Nashville and Knoxville. But, just as victims of child abuse in rural areas deserved a better approach to justice and services before the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands was established nearly two decades ago, a revolutionized approach to domestic violence in rural areas is an idea whose time has come. Scott County should take pride in itself for being at the forefront of changes to better serve these victims and survivors, but it is not alone. Campbell County is in the process of establishing its own family justice center. Other rural counties will follow.
The Scott County Family Justice Center opened its doors on July 1, 2018. Through April, or 10 months of operation, the center served 143 victims — an average of more than 14 a month, or just about one new case every other day — ranging in age from 17 to 71. In total, 299 referrals for service were made by FJC staff, including 99 referrals to the Scott County Shelter Society for safe emergency shelter, where abusive partners or spouses couldn’t reach them.
One of those victims had this to say about the FJC: “From the first day I walked in I felt a sense of comfort that I was no longer on the journey alone — from being there by your side at court to an unlimited amount of phone calls and messages to check on how everything is going. Sometimes we don’t always feel like we are strong enough to make the changes we need in our lives so it helps to have such an amazing place that gives you the encouragement you need.”
Another of the victims, after being assisted with an order of protection by the FJC, said simply: “It’s good to know now that we have something like that.”
Do you agree that Scott County should find a way to fund its family justice center to provide services for victims of domestic violence?
- Yes (56%, 104 Votes)
- No (44%, 81 Votes)
Total Voters: 185
Still another victim spoke of how she “felt like a hostage in my own home waiting for someone to save me” before the FJC was able to work with law enforcement to bring about an arrest of her abuser.
Those comments were solicited. But others haven’t been. In the 10 months since the FJC opened, the Independent Herald has twice published stories that were completely coincidental to the new center, in which victims spoke voluntarily about the way they were assisted by the FJC.
In one, a high school student who was sexually assaulted by her date, identified by the Independent Herald as “Alyssa,” said of FJC director Christy Harness: “In the short time I have known her, Christy has made me feel like I am more than just a victim — that I am a survivor, and that I am strong, which is something I struggled with. I think if I would’ve gotten in contact with her right after this happened, things would have played out differently.”
Is the Scott County Family Justice Center making a different for victims? Through 10 months of operations, the answer seems to be, clearly, that it is.
Even if that wasn’t enough, there is also the fact that this new approach to domestic violence has created 11 new jobs in Scott County — from the FJC itself to the indirect jobs at the sheriff’s department, D.A.’s office, court clerk’s office and Scott Appalachian Industries. Eleven jobs may not seem like much, but in a rural community, every job opportunity is important.
So the answer seems to be yes. Yes, Scott County needs a family justice center.
And if that answer is yes, the question isn’t whether to fund it, but how. If a litigation tax isn’t the answer, it could wind up going on our property taxes. The $60,000 per year that the litigation tax could potentially generate is equivalent to about two cents on the property tax rate. Property owners in Scott County have long urged county leaders to find new solutions for alternative taxes that alleviate their burden, which is how a wheel tax for school construction debt came about almost a decade ago. It’s safe to say that County Commission’s Budget Committee likely isn’t ready to commit an additional $60,000, in addition to the funds that have already been requested, to sustain the FJC through the county’s general fund. That leaves the proposed litigation tax as the only viable option that is currently on the table.
One way or another, the Scott County Family Justice Center deserves funding.