Gloria Sweetlove, at right, president of the Tennessee Conference NAACP. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A Nashville judge has denied a request by elected leaders of the Town of Mason to temporarily halt a financial takeover by Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower, noting his office has “broad authority” over local government operations.
The Comptroller formally took control of Mason’s finances on April 4, citing a long history of financial mismanagement, and imposed a corrective action plan (CAP) requiring town officials to seek approval for any expenditure of $100 or more. The corrective action plan includes a repayment schedule to pay down debt that town officials said they feared could cripple day-to-day operations.
‘The Court recognizes the harsh realities of the 2022 CAP imposed upon an administration that did not contribute to the financial burden of the Town and the strain it places on leadership to govern, but the Court must also take into account the state’s interest in moving the Town towards financial stability and a balanced budget,” Davidson County Chancellor Anne Martin wrote in a 23-page decision issued late Thursday.
Martin did not rule on allegations made by Mason’s leaders that the Comptroller’s actions were discriminatory and differed from the state’s approach to other, majority white local governments that have experienced financial problems.
The Town of Mason is majority Black, as are its elected leaders. In its lawsuit against the Comptroller, Mason officials claim they inherited high debt loads from previous administrations, which were predominantly White. Court records show the Town’s debt has grown in recent years, from a total of about $290,000 in the 2018 fiscal year to about $700,000 by 2021. That debt now stands at about $260,000, according to a preliminary estimate pending completed financial audits.
“The allegations are significant and raise serious concerns about the Comptroller’s equitable exercise of his broad authority,” Martin wrote. “The Court does not have enough information, however, to determine if the circumstances of the other municipalities Mason cites as receiving different treatment are sufficiently similar to support these claims.”
The decision clears the way for ongoing financial oversight by the Comptroller.
“I appreciate the judge’s decision that denies the motion for a temporary injunction,” Mumpower said in an emailed statement.
“Our office’s interest has always been the restoration of the town’s financial health and improved financial management,” the statement said. “We will continue to work with Mason so that it can pay back its debts, operate on a balanced budget, and deliver timely financial statements. The citizens and taxpayers of Mason deserve a financially sound government that is set up for success.”
Attorneys for the Town of Mason did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Martin also addressed the state’s legal arguments that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear Mason’s claims, because the Comptroller is precluded from being sued for lawfully exercising his authority. Mason’s attorneys argued that the Comptroller was exceeding his authority. Martin did not issue a decision on the dispute, but noted the state is likely to prevail in its arguments.
State attorneys also argued that political subdivisions — cities and towns, for example — lack constitutional standing to sue the state under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as Mason’s lawyers argued. Martin did not rule on that point, but noted the state is likely to succeed in that argument, too.
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