The Town of Mason has a big decision to make. Should its voluntarily give up its charter or will the state have to step in and take over?
Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Jason Mumpower and members of the local government auditing and utilities oversight teams held a public meetings with the town’s elected officials and gave it to them straight.
“Government is not working in Mason, Tennessee. In fact, I would say you are among the worst, if not the worst shape, of any town in the state of Tennessee.”
Mumpower told the crowd that he has only had three of these types of meetings in the last 12 years he’s been with the comptroller’s office.
His message came wrapped in the offering of help – from the governor, the departments of energy and conservation and economic development, the general legislature and more.
He told the mayor, aldermen, and municipal employees he wanted to help them but, most of all, he wanted to help the citizens.
He questioned mayor Emmitt Gooden, who first learned of the gravity of the situation with everyone else in attendance at Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church, about his vision for the town.
“If you’re gonna operate as a city certainly there needs to be some discernible benefits for the citizens. And if you’re gonna pay another round of taxes because you’re a city, you need to be able to articulate … what benefits you’re getting for that check you’re writing.”
At $1.46 per $100 of valuation, the Town of Mason has the highest property taxes of any municipality in Tipton County. (Covington comes in second at $1.24 and nine times the population.)
And, according to the meeting minutes published on its own website, in November the board of mayor and aldermen voted unanimously to raise property taxes by a quarter to $1.71 beginning July 1.
Both of those facts were disputed by Mason officials.
There is no planned increase in city services for the raise in taxes.
What, exactly, is the issue?
Mumpower said citizens not having any city services beyond public works and police, “robbing” the water fund for the general fund, and late audits were longstanding issues in the town.
“You’ve been using money from the utility to prop up the operation of the city for many year,” he said.
By law, the town is required to repay the money and it has struggled.
The town has submitted late audits every year since 2001, which is as far back as the database goes. The town has repeatedly shown financial weaknesses and that has resulted in criminal investigations in some cases. Three employees have been indicted for misusing funds over the last decade and the comptroller’s office said auditors were unable to express an opinion on the financial statements from fiscal year 2004-2016, when then-mayor David Smith was employing his wife as the town recorder and office manager.
“In layman’s terms, this means that the books were essentially unauditable.”
That trend continued with its most current audit dated fiscal year 2019. In October 2021, the comptroller’s office sent a letter to town officials showing financial distress due to deficits, a negative change in the budget, shortfalls for budgeted revenue, and material weaknesses in 11 different areas.
The FY2020 audit, which finance officials said is nearly done, is 14 months late and the FY2021 audit is two months late.
“Including yesterday and today, there has not been any responsible financial management in the past 10 years at least,” Mumpower told vice mayor Virginia Rivers when she asked why Tipton County wouldn’t help them financially so they could remain incorporated.
The financial issues contribute to larger problems, he said, such as preventing the town from being awarded grant funding and the probability that other companies coming in alongside Blue Oval City would invest in Mason.
Though the town recently received a community development block grant, he said they would surely be bypassed by investors, which was robbing the citizens of the benefits that come with the opportunity because their affairs are not in order.
“The truth of the matter is that we’re at a very unique point in history. You know, the way Mason’s been operating has not been okay. But, while you have been on the edge of a big, open field, you’ve been able to get by. But you’re not on the edge of a big, open field anymore; you’re on the edge of one of the greatest economic development opportunities to ever come to this state or to any state in this nation.”
Two options to consider
According to Mumpower, Mason two options: voluntarily relinquish its charter or be controlled by the comptroller’s office.
“We’re here because we want to help you,” he repeated through the hour-long meeting.
If they give up the charter, Mason would become an unincorporated community within Tipton County. There would be no more city property taxes. Public safety would fall under the responsibility of the sheriff’s office and county fire department. Utilities would be tied in nearby.
Mumpower said the community could still gather, hold parades, and celebrate itself as it always has, it just wouldn’t be an incorporated town any longer.
This would be beneficial as the county has had several clean audits recently, its budget is balanced, and it is debt free.
Should the town come under the control of the comptroller’s office, it would retain its incorporation but every penny would be managed by the comptroller. They would begin with compensating the water fund by cutting expenses.
“But that’s not how we like to do things,” Mumpower said. “That’s not what I want to do and I know that’s not what you want to do. I know you, as elected officials, want to do the best for the people in this town.”
Several elected officials and contract employees spoke up, pleading for other ways they could receive help because the options offered didn’t seem like help at all. Several of them wanted acknowledgment that the problems were inherited, which Mumpower agreed with.
“Your statement was you’re here to help us and I haven’t see that yet!” said Rivers. “Now, the only reason you’re here is Blue Oval. If you’re here to help us, help us!”
Mumpower he cannot allow it to continue any longer. It will take hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get back on level ground.
“The best way to get out of the hole you’ve dug is to stop digging.”
He encouraged the town officials to have the tough decisions and act responsibly.
It was suggested by Reva Marshall, who handles the town’s finances, the ultimatum was part of a handshake deal with county executive Jeff Huffman. Mumpower said that was a foolish assertion.
“I know this can be very emotional, but that often yields the greatest benefits,” he said. “We are here to make sure you’re poised to receive the opportunity that is on your doorstep.”
There was no deadline set for the decision to be made, however Mumpower said “soon.”
Fighting for Mason
Afterward, the mayor and his assistant spoke with the residents who remained in attendance.
Tensions, and emotions, ran high as town officials vowed to do what they could to stop the process.
The town attorney, Terry Clayton, said they were all ambushed.
“I’m gonna fight for my town,” mayor Emmitt Gooden told residents after a heated public meeting with state comptroller Jason Mumpower. “I’ve been here all my life. Why would I let someone like Ford come in and think they’re the bully? That’s who it is, it’s Ford and Blue Oval [City]. They’re the bully. They’re coming in and want to take over our town. No! We’re gonna fight for what’s right …
“I don’t appreciate the way they came into us. They came into us like just stepping in your front door and asking what you’re going to do. No!”
Gooden also said the county doesn’t provide for the residents as the town could and some people have also said they wished Mason were in Fayette County.
“They want to pick on us,” he said. “We’re not going down without a fight. They don’t want to see that happen.”
And while many people to get a plan in place to right the ship, former alderwoman Dr. Keneko Clayborn said the ship had essentially sailed.
“We should have had that meeting five years ago. We needed a plan in place five years ago. We can’t ask for $10 million without a plan in place.”
“If you ain’t got no plan, these folks will run smack over you,” Michael Harris said.
Many of Mason’s officials and residents said keeping the town going was a matter of pride.
Claybon said if they were going to fight they needed to have something worth fighting for.
“I don’t want to look like a little shanty town because they went around us. So if you’re trying to fight for a charter but you’re not fixin’ to do nothin’, then let it go … I’m not trying to be the devil’s advocate, but I want the same as Covington, Atoka, Collierville got. And if you can’t do that, let it go. What are y’all holdin’ onto? Y’all know we got a lot of room for improvement in this city … if we’re not going to do that and deliver, then think about it and just let it go, let it go so they can come in and dump some money in it.”
The town is set to meet again on Feb. 22.