The NAACP and the state comptroller’s office said an agreement has been reached with the Town of Mason which lowers the monthly repayment to the utility fund and sets a date in which the state’s fiscal oversight will end.
The move is the latest in a three-month saga over the small town’s finances.
What’s the scenario?
Following two decades of financial issues and what they argued was concern after the town lost its largest utility customer, the state comptroller’s office traveled to Mason in early February and encouraged the town to give up its charter or fall under the department’s strict financial oversight.
The comptroller said the move was made after continued mismanagement of funds, including illegal transfers from the utility fund to the general fund to supplement daily operations.
What began as a $17,000 deficiency a decade ago became an estimated $700,000 deficiency by the end of fiscal year 2021.
The town voted against giving up its charter, instead launching an offensive against the comptroller’s office where it claimed the comptroller was choosing to prey on a small, Black-run town after Ford announced it would build its Blue Oval City campus several miles east of Mason.
The comptroller’s office requested the town repay its debt through a $22,000 per month payment. Further the town was required to seek approval for any expense over $100 and submit weekly expense statements.
Payback and the new deal
In the meantime, the town has used $227,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to help reduce the money it owes its utility fund and made a $9,400 payment on April 4, said town attorney Terry Clayton at a board of mayor and aldermen meeting on April 25.
Clayton said the $22,000 requirement was reduced by more than half initially and then was reduced more. The deficit is expected to be repaid within 48 months at that rate.
“We negotiated that down, now it’s $5,180 per month,” he said. “And then the comptroller had the demand that we get approval for everything over $100. We negotiated to have that increased to $750. And they also wanted us to submit a weekly financial statement as well for what the expenditures would be for the upcoming week. That has been taken off the board and now it is every month.”
The deal inked Wednesday actually increases the approval limit to $1,000.
The town will also be required to have a certified professional accountant on staff for daily accounting activities. They’re also considering changing their auditors.
“They’ve been basically slowing us down, not being responsive to our needs,” Clayton said. “So we’re gonna have to get another auditor who’s going to be responsive to our needs, make us a priority rather than an afterthought.”
The FY21 audit, he said, has been completed and once that is accepted the town will be caught up.
FY22 ends on June 30 and its audit is due on Dec. 31.
Further, Clayton said the town is working on its FY23 budget proposal. The first reading is scheduled for June 16 and the second is scheduled for June 20. Both readings are open to the public.
“When we have accomplished all of that, we’re going to look to sit down with the comptroller and have another negotiation. If we have completed all of those requirements we’re home free, the only thing left would be to pay the money off. And once we pay the money off we can get back to business as usual and focus on growing Mason and enhancing the quality of life for the citizens of Mason and take advantage of the potential that is right here at the doorstep.”
The deal, which the NAACP is calling a settlement, also puts into place Aug. 31 as the final day for the comptroller’s oversight should the budget and audit be passed.
Donations coming in
Clayton said a GoFundMe has raised more than $17,000 of a $600,000 goal for the town and a private donor has expressed interest in paying off the debt in its entirety.
This received a round of applause from the board members and visitors.
“We’d be free,” Clayton said.
The mayor’s response
During an interview with Dr. Deborah Jenkins, founder of the God’s Daughter Movement, and The Freedmen’s Party, Mayor Emmit “Wayne” Gooden said he was very pleased with the outcome.
Of the requirement for non-payroll expenditures over $1,000, Gooden said the town is still going to be able to operate but that it’s going to be difficult.
“It’s still going to be a challenge for us but at this time we feel that, because of the fact that … a CPA firm has to look over it and approve upon sending it to the comptroller’s office we’re going to be able to actually survive and operate and make the daily operation.”
He said the town was making plans to “be out from under that shotgun” in August.
Of the debt, which has resulted from illegal transfers of taxpayer money from the utility fund to the general fund, he said it would have helped the city to erase it.
“It would help us tremendously if we could have had that that resolved and to dissolve it. They gave us a big excuse why they could help Jellico and they couldn’t help us. They gave us this wide open space they said because Jellico didn’t owe their water fund, they owed the federal government. And my question was what’s the difference? We owe someone else – we owe ourselves – but what’s the difference in us owing the IRS and us owing our own?”
Gooden said the fundraiser being hosted by the hosts was going to be used to repay the debt and repay the debt only.
“It’s going to help us tremendously on us getting this debt paid off so we can move along with what’s happening now, with this Blue Oval City that’s coming and we’re looking for growth.”
The new plant, he said, will bring prosperity and growth to Mason.
“It’s going to bring more people to the city. It’s going to have more people (wanting) to live there. And me, personally, I’m looking for a game changer. It’s not going to be this little bitty quiet city anymore. It’s going to be more people there and I feel people are gonna wanna live in the Town of Mason …”
Gooden also discussed infrastructure improvements, which are badly needed in the town, and the communication he’s had with Ford about the issues with the comptroller.
The Town of Mason is hosting a town hall meeting on Monday, May 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Cedar Grove M.B. Church.