The letters began arriving Saturday.
“Dear Citizens of Mason,” they read, “In my opinion it’s time for Mason to relinquish its charter.”
It was the same message Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Jason Mumpower had during his visit to the town a month ago, this time it was addressed in a letter mailed to 1,337 property owners.
“I wanted to stress, more than anything, that Mason’s town leaders need to do what’s best for the people, the taxpaying citizens,” Mumpower said in an interview with The Leader Monday. “They have the highest tax rate and, if you’ll recall, when I questioned the mayor about the benefits they received he didn’t say a word. It appears to me the Town of Mason serves as an employment center for 26 people with no describable benefits.”
Will they do it?
If recent meetings are any indication, Mason’s elected officials have no plans to give up the town’s charter.
Potential job loss looms
Minutes from a Feb. 10 meeting – a potentially illegal one which they called “informal” because it was held without notice to the public and entry was initially refused to The Leader until the current city financial officer switched to a new agenda item – show the elected officials discussed ways in which they could make employee cuts.
Vice mayor Virginia Rivers requested the last three months of citations and work shifts for police officers and information about public works employees.
Town planner hired
During the Feb. 28 meeting of the board of mayor and alderman there was considerable discussion about the next steps for the future and Ralph Moore with the Memphis Area Association of Government was hired to be the town’s planner, their town attorney, Terry Clayton, encourage the move even though they have financial issues because he believes Blue Oval City may have funding available for them to pay his salary.
Town attorney calls comptroller’s actions inappropriate
During the same meeting, Clayton was asked to give his professional opinion about the comptroller’s meeting and Mason’s future and Clayton didn’t mince words.
He said it was “totally inappropriate” for the comptroller to speak to constituents without talking to the elected officials first because “it put you, as aldermen, in a bad position.”
“I kinda knew what the subject was,” alderwoman Sha’Te Toliver said. “We know what’s going on in our community.”
Clayton questioned where the comptroller’s office has been for the two decades Mason’s been in a financial mess and suggested they only showed up now to fit an agenda, relating it to the announcement that Ford’s Blue Oval City will be constructed in neighboring Brownsville.
The comptroller’s office has visited, and investigated the town, many times in the last decade. Mumpower said his team has been in Mason, and communicated with the town, several times over the last year. In 2016, the town’s finances were investigated and the comptroller’s office shut city hall down for several days.
Further, Clayton suggested the comptroller’s office doesn’t respect Mason’s elected officials.
More plans for the future
Additionally, on March 3 the town held a meeting with Municipal Technical Advisory Service Consultant Ronnie Neill, who is Somerville’s mayor. The agenda included discussions on preparations for growth, planning for the future, and overcoming perception.
The comptroller cannot take Mason’s charter. The town of Mason’s choices are giving up its charter and having its finances managed by the state.
While no definite decision has been announced, the Town of Mason seems preparing for a battle to retain its independence any way it can.
There will be a special called meeting on Thursday, March 10 at 7 p.m. in which the town’s elected officials are expected to discuss their plans. The meeting will take place at Cedar Grove M.B. Church.
Because of Mason’s long history with financial woes – late audits every year since at least 2001, unapproved budgets, improperly borrowing from the utility fund to supplement the general fund, dozens of findings on audits, indictments related to embezzlement and unauthorized overtime – Mumpower said it’s time for taxpayers to ask their elected officials to do what’s right.
“They need to step back and allow the community to flourish,” he said. “There’s a wonderful history with this community and it can continue to grow as a community with the historic opportunity that comes with the Ford plant. But Mason will be bypassed if its town leaders continue to selfishly cling to false hope.”
If they relinquish
Mumpower said if Mason gives up its charter, Rep. Debra Moody and Senator Paul Rose have agreed to help move the legislative action required through this term of the general assembly.
Mason will then be served by the county’s public safety departments – Tipton County Fire and the Tipton County Sheriff’s Office – and its utilities will merge with a stronger utility service.
The state will work to get Mason’s finances in order so the community can become eligible to receive benefits from the state.
Mason’s taxpayers will no longer have to pay city taxes, just county taxes.
There is not an active parks and recreation department or any other city services beyond trash collection.
If they do not relinquish
If they don’t give up their charter – which seems the likely option – Mason’s finances will be managed by the state.
“Every citizen is effectively not being served with normal services, and they still won’t get those but they’ll get the peace of mind knowing their tax dollars aren’t being spent frivolously.”
The board of mayor and aldermen will still be in place to make legislative and administrative decisions, but every purchase over $100 will have to be approved by the state comptroller.
This will go on “as long as it takes” to get things back in order, Mumpower said. This means every bit of discretionary spending – including employee benefits – could be cut.
What’s the timeline?
Mumpower is hesitant to give a detailed timeline for a potential financial takeover, but said it will be “real soon.”
“It depends upon their actions. The community is in terrible shape. The town is robbing its own utility fund. There aren’t enough utilities to have a grocery store in Mason. It’s laughable that they’re having planning meetings and hiring a planner when they can’t get the most basic things right. They need to be planning for sound management of town finances, not a pie in the sky grant to hopefully pay for a planner.”
He sent the letters to property owners to make sure that message is clear, to help them understand how much they could be missing because their town is as close to bankrupt as you can be.
“Well run towns don’t let that happen.”