Perry Lamb

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LaFAYETTE, Ga. — The threat came through the mail, a letter that changed Perry Lamb's life.

A lawyer for the mortgage firm was coming, after months of waiting for money. Other companies wanted their payments, too. Lamb was overextended, he says now, and unlucky — he had pursued his dream at the wrong time.

It was spring 2009, about a year after the recession hit and three years after Lamb bought a couple of acres on Bradley Avenue in LaFayette, hoping to build a house. He had taken out a construction loan, and then the lender got stingy with money, he said. And then he took out some lines of credit. And then he fell behind on payments, and then more payments.

And then he was $230,000 in debt. And the mortgage firm threatened foreclosure. Lamb filed for Chapter 13 protection.

More than seven years later, with his bankruptcy case closed, Lamb is running for Walker County commissioner. He said the threat of foreclosure was the result of mistakes he made. But he also believes the period prepared him to run a county with a $22.5 million budget.

He knows how to operate without resources. He knows what it's like to be the poorest of the county's taxpayers.

"Ninety percent of the people in this county were not born with a silver spoon in their mouths," he said last week. "They go to work every day. They have to do their job to the best of their ability to make sure there isn't somebody behind them that can take it from them."

At least one of Lamb's opponents thinks the bankruptcy is disqualifying. Shannon Whitfield, the Republican candidate and CFO of his family's oil company, pointed out that not all Lamb's debts were satisfied when his bankruptcy case closed.

Lamb did not have to pay about $30,000 in unsecured claims, according to bankruptcy filings.

"That's going to create barriers and some tension, working with local business leaders," Whitfield said.

Lamb's other opponent, incumbent Commissioner Bebe Heiskell, did not return calls or an email for this story.

Lamb moved to Walker County from Ringgold after buying about 3 acres in LaFayette in 2006. He wanted to build his two-story house with a back porch, wooden fence, garden and a stone fireplace himself.

Soon after buying the land, he took out a $135,000 construction loan from Taylor, Bean & Whitaker.

Lamb said he borrowed materials from local suppliers, thinking he could pay them back when the next phase of the loan kicked in. But around March 2008, a Taylor, Bean & Whitaker representative explained he wouldn't get the full amount of money he expected.

To make up for the shortfall, he said, he took out about $50,000 worth of lines of credit from suppliers. When the house was built, he tried to refinance his loan, getting more money up front to satisfy his added debt. He planned to pay that back over time.

"Taylor, Bean & Whitaker would not do anything to help," he said. "Which was just about the time the bubble busted."

Once one of the largest privately held mortgage companies in the nation, Taylor, Bean & Whitaker no longer exists. A jury convicted its president, Lee Farkas, of bank fraud, wire fraud and securities fraud, saying he misappropriated $38.5 million.

In addition to the problems with his loan, Lamb owed the IRS about $20,000, bankruptcy records show. He said he over-reported deductions on his income taxes, trying to free up some money as he built his house.

It was not the first time Lamb fell into financial trouble. In April 2000, Hillsborough County, Fla., court records show, a judge ruled Lamb owed $37,000 to Contimortgage Corp. Lamb said he bought a condo in Tampa when he was 21 years old and eventually stopped making payments until the company foreclosed.

"I was young and stupid," he said, 16 years later. "There is no explanation."

After filing for bankruptcy in 2009, Lamb said he learned to live off less than $1,000 a month. He took a Dave Ramsey course, vowed to never use credit again. For food, he grew his own broccoli, tomatoes and okra. He raised rabbits for meat, he said, and chicken for eggs.

He did plumbing work on his days off from Erlanger Health System, where he worked as a surgical first assistant. He accepted wood as payment and used the fireplace instead of his heating system.

"I had nothing," he said. "I learned to budget. It was the worst lesson in life and the best lesson in life. I learned you can survive on a whole lot less than you think."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.