Tennessee Comptroller scales back financial oversight plans for Town of Mason

City Hall in Mason, Tenn., is pictured. / Photo by John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout

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 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.

(READ MORE: Tennessee comptroller takes over majority-Black town Mason ahead of Ford investment)

"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 Democratic 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, Mason officials said.

(READ MORE: Ford Motor expresses concern about Mason, Tennessee, takeover by state)

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 located less than 5 miles from Mason. Ford Motor Company officials weighed in, too, saying they had reached out to state and local officials to express concern.

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, 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 incurred by 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 to financial statements Mason officials shared with the comptroller. Mason officials have been making $10,100 monthly payments toward that debt for about the past two years, Rivers said.

(READ MORE: Tennessee officials ask residents of town near new Ford site to forfeit charter)

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 their 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 town records.

"It's a tall order," Mumpower said. "I'm very very happy and excited. We want to do everything we can to make Mason succeed."

Mason's leaders have contended 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."

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.