It looks as though the county financial situation has gotten those overseeing the numbers a bit hot under the collective collar. The August meeting of the Claiborne Commission, already contentious, exploded into an outright dogfight as the state of the county finances was updated by commissioner Dan Longworth.
At one point, the walls of the large courtroom of the Claiborne Courthouse reverberated with feedback from the sound system as both sides attempted to get their individual points across the divide.
What started as a mundane financial report turned nasty when Longworth placed the blame for the future state of the county economy on Circuit Court Judge John McAfee and county resident Joe Brooks. Longworth apparently blames the two men for the recent landslide vote during the general election that stopped the bond issue for the Claiborne Jail expansion project.
Longworth said he could afford a property tax increase, but thousands of residents in the county could not.
“They have to make the decision, ‘am I going to pay my taxes or buy my medicine? Am I going to pay my taxes or go to the doctor? Am I going to pay my taxes or buy food?’
“I put every bit of this on Joe Brooks and John McAfee. This will be your tax increase,” said Longworth.
The overwhelming defeat of the bond issue referendum, Longworth said, was due to the fact that “people have been deceived by Satan ever since the Garden of Eden.”
“Why should today be any different,” he added.
Brooks began by saying the numbers presented by Longworth were “skewed” in that county officials should be comparing only those counties with a population falling between 30,000 and 40,000.
He then pointed to another list that shows Claiborne with the highest tax rate of any other county, within the same general population.
Brooks said he opposed the jail expansion because the county planned to pay back the bond issue with revenues generated from discretionary prisoners — something the Tennessee Comptroller has previously stated will not work.
“The state comptroller’s office says ‘you are going to have a tax increase’,” said Brooks.
When the existing Claiborne Justice Center was first planned, Brooks said the certification of the jail and subsequent housing of discretionary inmates was touted as the way to pay off the structure in ten years.
“You still owe over $8 million on it, after ten years,” said Brooks.
Commissioner James Hatmaker disagreed with Brooks, saying he never heard Sheriff David Ray promise that the Justice Center would be paid in ten years.
After more discussion, County Mayor Jack Daniels turned to the county debt figures in the fact sheet handed out by Longworth.
“This almost $57 million in 2011, down to $41,351,000 (in fiscal year 2015) – I call that good management,” said Daniels.
The Longworth fact sheet shows Claiborne County with a population of 32,213 and a debt per capita of $1,284. According to the fact sheet, the closest county in population to Claiborne is Cocke, with a debt per capita of $839.
During his presentation, Longworth said Claiborne County debt per capita has decreased by well over 27 percent within the last five years. In that same period, the county has reduced expenses by 10.5 percent, he said.
“The last time we looked at it, a few months ago, we had saved the taxpayers in excess of $1.5 million in interest, alone, for our debt,” said Longworth.
Information from the Longworth fact sheet can be obtained by logging onto www.comptroller.tn.gov/TAG/tag.aspx.
Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.