Tennessee Comptroller scales back financial oversight plans for Town of Mason

By: - Wednesday March 23, 2022 6:00 am

Tennessee Comptroller scales back financial oversight plans for Town of Mason

By: - 6:00 am

Mason, Tenn. City Hall. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Mason, Tenn. City Hall. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The town of Mason could be free from state financial oversight as soon as July or August after a “very positive meeting” between state and local officials, Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower said Tuesday.

“We were able to put together a positive plan moving forward,” Mumpower said shortly after a 70-minute meeting with Mason’s Mayor, Vice Mayor and financial staff.  “We can release them from financial oversight sooner rather than later.”

Mason’s Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers said that — while she is hopeful the meeting will lead to restoring autonomy to locally elected leaders — she remains frustrated.  Mason officials presented current financial statements that appeared to satisfy Mumpower and his staff on Tuesday,  including proof they had complied with a repayment plan for longstanding debt. That information has been available all along, she said.

Mason officials have been making monthly payments toward debt for the past two years, Vice-Mayor Virginia Rivers said. Those payments were not accounted for in the Comptroller public statements about Mason’s financial status, she said.

“All of this could have been avoided if Mr. Mumpower had come to us and had a meeting with us like we did today,” Rivers said. “He just came in with a demand.”

The meeting took place after several contentious weeks beginning with the Comptroller’s ultimatum to Mason’s elected leaders in February:

Either give up their town’s charter — subsuming the predominantly Black and Democrat community under the governance of majority white, majority Republican Tipton County — or, Mumpower said, he would take control of the town’s finances for an open-ended period of time, controlling any expenditures of $100 or more.

Mumpower then took the unprecedented step of mailing a letter to every property owner in Mason. “Government is not working in Mason,” the letter said. “In my opinion, it’s time for Mason to relinquish its charter.”

But Mason’s officials refused to cede their charter. Rivers likened the Comptroller’s request to a “hostile takeover.” And Mumpower announced last week he would be taking financial control, imposing tight restrictions that would likely lead to a reduced workforce and cutbacks on other expenses.

The dispute gained national attention, with public criticism over the Comptroller’s efforts to exert control over a financially struggling, majority Black town just as it was poised to reap the benefits from a $5.6 billion Ford Motor Company electric vehicle plant soon to be built less than five miles away. Ford Motor Company officials weighed in, too, saying they had reached out to state and local officials to express concern.

Town of Mason officials meet with Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower and his staff. Photo: Courtesy of Tennessee Comptroller
Town of Mason officials meet with Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower and his staff. Photo: Courtesy of Tennessee Comptroller

The agreement hammered out between Mason and state officials Tuesday appears to put the town on a far different footing than it faced last week.

Mumpower said that result is, in part, due to learning of steps recently taken by the Mason Board of Aldermen.

Mason’s aldermen voted to steer $271,000 in American Rescue Plan funding toward a longstanding debt to its utility district. For years, the town had borrowed from its utility to pay bills. The payment will bring its debt to the utility under $260,000, according financial statements Mason officials shared with the Comptroller. The town has paid back $112,669 since July 1, 2020, according to figures compiled by Mason officials that the Comptroller’s office has yet to verify.

Those payments were not accounted for in the Comptroller public statements about Mason’s financial status, she said.

If town officials’ financial presentations prove to be accurate — and if town leaders pass a balanced budget, complete their audited financials and stick to its repayment plan to pay down debt, financial oversight could be removed “as soon as this July or August,” Mumpower said. Staff from the Comptroller’s office will be in Mason by the end of the week to review their records.

“It’s a tall order,” he said. “I’m very very happy and excited….We want to do everything we can to make Mason succeed.”

Mason’s leaders have contended that they have worked diligently to pare down debt accrued during previous administrations, which were predominantly white. It was during those prior administrations that the town took its biggest financial hits. In 2011, a former Mason town clerk pleaded guilty to embezzling $100,000 in taxpayer funds. In 2016, a former public works superintendent was indicted by a Tipton County Grand Jury after investigators discovered he had paid himself an extra $600,000 between 2007 and 2015.

Van Turner, Jr., an attorney and president of the Memphis NAACP — which has provided support to Mason officials — said he was pleased to learn a resolution was within reach.

“If we can avoid going to court, that’s the best position.”

The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators also met via Zoom Tuesday with Mumpower and Rivers, a news release from the caucus said.

“The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators is monitoring the situation regarding the financial supervision of the town of Mason by the Tennessee Comptroller,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who chairs the caucus.  “It is our goal to ensure transparency and communication between all parties so that they work cooperatively so that the city of Mason is in position to benefit immensely from the addition of Ford Motor Company and Blue Oval City.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a monthly utility repayment figure provided by Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers that did not reflect the documentation of repayments provided to the Comptroller by Mason financial officials. This story has been updated to reflect Mason’s documentation of repayments.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.