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Deal struck to free Mason, TN from takeover threat

NASHVILLE – After alleging that Tennessee’s top leaders were placing unfair scrutiny over a predominantly Black town’s finances, the small town of Mason announced Wednesday it had reached a deal halting the threat of a state takeover of its finances.

The agreement, which the NAACP described as a settlement, marks a victory for town officials who had argued the state was treating Mason’s majority-Black leaders differently than they have white administrators who also struggled with finances.

“This settlement agreement is a good thing for the citizens of the town and it’s a good thing for African Americans across the country,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson.

The issue began when Comptroller Jason Mumpower asked Mason’s town leaders to surrender their charter, pointing to ongoing years of financial mismanagement. After Mason voters refused to do so, Mumpower later said the state would take over its financial supervision.

The news of the pending takeover quickly sparked national attention as many pointed out that Mason is located near the site of a future $5.6 billion Ford electric pickup truck factory, which is expected to employ about 5,600 workers at the plant, and construction of the factory will create thousands more jobs.

The 2020 Census shows Mason’s population at about 1,330. But that fell to less than 800 after a private prison closed recently.

“For far too long, we’ve seen highways going through our cities in our community, or hostile takeover by states,” Johnson said. ”Here’s an opportunity for the citizens to retain their charter, implement best practices and participate in the opportunities that the economic development we’re bringing for this community.”

Town leaders quickly filed a lawsuit — with the help of the NAACP — hoping to stop the takeover, alleging the pending Ford plant has sparked extra scrutiny. In particular, the suit sought to challenge the state’s edict that Mason get approval to spend more than $100 — a strict requirement that town leaders said would make it impossible to do business.

“They set up Mason to fail,” said attorney Van Turner Jr., president of the NAACP Memphis branch who represented Mason’s town leaders.

Last month, Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Anne Martin denied Mason’s initial request to temporarily halt the takeover while the lawsuit moved through court, which Turner called a “blow” but said being able to keep the case alive and come to an agreement is a “significant victory.”

Under the deal, Mason officials will notify the state of any non-payroll expenditures over $1,000. Mason officials will also have to file monthly reports to the state and not weekly reports, as initially required. Notably, the deal will slash the monthly payment Mason had been paying on what it owed to its water and sewer funds from $10,000 to approximately $5,100.

The agreement, which was submitted to the court Wednesday, must still be approved by Martin.

“Mason’s agreement to a new corrective action plan is a significant step in restoring the town’s financial health,” Mumpower said in a statement. “Most importantly, if Mason follows this plan, taxpayers can know their leaders are being good stewards of their money.”

According to the comptroller’s office, Mason has not submitted its annual audit on time since the 2001 fiscal year and financial statements from 2004 to 2016 “were essentially un-auditable.” Budget deficits have mounted, from $126,659 in the 2016 fiscal year to $481,620 in 2020.

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