Mason, Tenn. City Hall. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Elected leaders from Mason, Tenn. will meet with Comptroller Jason Mumpower next Tuesday to discuss the town’s financial future — a meeting made at the request of town officials, who still hope to stave off a financial takeover by the state.
But Mumpower made clear Thursday he will be moving forward to take control of the day-to-day financial affairs in Mason, a 153-year-old, predominantly Black west Tennessee town surrounded by agricultural fields and limited development.
In the coming months and years, that landscape is likely to undergo a dramatic change with the arrival of a $5.6 billion investment from Ford Motor Company. Blue Oval City, Ford’s future campus for electric truck and battery plants, is located fewer than five miles from Mason’s town center. An estimated 26,000 people, many of them newcomers to the area, will be needed once the plant opens in 2025, and city and county officials across the region are feverishly working to develop plans for housing, infrastructure, small business and schools to come.
People try to tap-dance around it but the truth is this is happening because of who we are.
– Virginia Rivers, vice-mayor, Mason, Tenn.
Mason’s elected leaders — all but one is African American — have questioned why the Comptroller is seeking to exert control of their town now after years of fraud and mismanagement during prior administrations run almost entirely by white officials.
Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers has called Mumpower’s actions “akin to a hostile takeover’ — an attempt to wrest control of a majority black town within close proximity to the new Ford plant just as new investment and growth opportunities are within reach.
“People try to tap-dance around it but the truth is this is happening because of who we are,” Rivers said in an interview this week. In a letter sent to Mumpower on Wednesday requesting a meeting, she wrote that, since 2015, Mason’s financial staff and elected leaders “have given immediate attention to rectifying the Town’s management deficiencies inherited from past corrupt administrations.”
Neither the state nor the county have offered assistance before now, she said. “There has been a hands off culture that continually plagues the Town of Mason.”
Mumpower’s preferred option was not for state financial oversight. It was for the town to give up its charter entirely, subsuming the predominantly Black, majority Democrat community into Tipton County, which is 75% white and voted 71% Republican in the last presidential election. Mumpower also included that request in a letter sent directly to Mason’s residents on March 3 — a direct appeal to community residents from the Comptroller that is without precedent, his spokesman said.
Mumford’s actions have not sat well with the Mayor, Vice Mayor or Board of Alderman, who voted unanimously this week to retain their charter.
Mumpower has denied race has played any role in his treatment of Mason’s elected leaders. And in a Thursday press release, accompanied by a fact sheet on Mason’s financial history, the Comptroller’s office laid out its the case for financial oversight.
“For at least 20 years, Mason has been poorly managed regardless of who was leading the town,” the release said. “Comptroller Jason Mumpower believes Mason’s citizens and taxpayers deserve an accountable government that is capable of providing services and improvements to the community.”
In practical terms, any non-payroll expenditures of $100 or more Mason officials decide to make must first receive approval from the Comptroller. His office may require a cutting of expenses or “making additional tax levies if necessary.” Local officials will be accountable for submitting weekly financial records and bank statements.
Any grants the city wants to apply for must receive prior approval the Comptroller’s office. And over the next 27 months, town officials will be responsible for paying a balance of $584,000 owed to its water and sewer utility — funds that were improperly transferred into Mason’s general fund to pay the town’s bills for years.
The current administration has continued the practice of covering its bills with water and sewer fund, contrary to law, according to Mumpower. Mason officials owed their water utility $226,000 in the 2017 fiscal year, according to the factsheet provided. By 2019, the amount rose to $649,000.
Mumpower has said before that a cut to employee benefits is likely. A reduction in Mason’s 26 public employees may also come.
Mason’s population — and tax base — of about 1,500 people has dwindled in recent months to fewer than 800, according to the Comptroller. It’s a result of the emptying of the privately-operated West Tennessee Detention Facility, which closed down following a Biden Administration move barring private companies from housing federal prisoners.
Rivers, the vice mayor, said this week that town officials have tried to work with the Comptroller’s office. Over the past year, the town’s financial team, mayor, vice mayor and board of aldermen have attended training at the direction of the Comptroller – classes for local government finance, debt management and utility management, according to a January 2021 corrective action plan submitted to the Comptroller.
Fund transfers from the utility district are currently being used only for payroll expenses and certain supplies, the letter said. The town’s revenues took an unexpected dip in the 2019 fiscal year after Mason’s only liquor store closed down. Fortunately, the action plan said, the liquor store reopened in the 2020 fiscal year and the town’s revenues exceeded its proposed budget, the action plan said.
The Comptroller’s office has yet to respond to the January 2021 action plan, Rivers said.
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