Commission slams Eagle for Carter coverage

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 9/7/17

The Walker County Commission on Tuesday repeatedly criticized a Daily Mountain Eagle interview and its resulting headline that it said painted too rosy a picture of the county’s financial situation — with the chairman …

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Commission slams Eagle for Carter coverage

Posted

The Walker County Commission on Tuesday repeatedly criticized a Daily Mountain Eagle interview and its resulting headline that it said painted too rosy a picture of the county’s financial situation — with the chairman also saving a few words of criticism for the state official being interviewed.

At its meeting Tuesday, the commission discussed the story, “Carter: County’s finances ‘not as dire’ as once thought.” The story said State Finance Director Clinton Carter said he felt a meeting last week with county officials went very well and that the county’s financial situation is “not as dire” as he first understood.

A story and headline just below that story noted that Carter also said that county officials may also have a number of options to avoid bankruptcy. During an unsuccessful campaign recently to pass a 1-cent sales tax, county officials had said the county would have to look at bankruptcy if the tax failed.

“But I can tell you if (the tax) doesn’t pass on Aug. 15, bankruptcy is on the table,” District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said in a meeting in July. Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop made similar statements and had noted that bankruptcy attorneys had been consulted on what would happen.

Carter said in an interview with the Eagle, after speaking with county officials, “Generally speaking, though, I thought it was not as dire a situation as I was led to believe — at least I had assumed it might have been. Sure, they have a lot of debt for their size anyway,” he said, terming it as a “fairly significant amount of debt — almost $21 million counting the leases and counting their size. That’s a lot, but it seems to be manageable if they make several changes, structurally, financially that they’ve got to overcome if they want to kind of make some headway.” He went on to say the changes would not be pleasant but that one laundry list of suggestions that the commission showed him “had more than enough to cover the shortfall for the current budget.”

Still, he said bankruptcy is not off the table, as all options were still to be looked at.

At Tuesday’s commission meeting, Davis said he had a long phone conversation with Carter on Labor Day Night. Davis quoted Carter as saying he was “not too happy about the headline in the Daily Mountain Eagle on Sunday morning. To say we’re not in a dire situation was not his intent. His intent was after the meeting was to say that there are plans on the table that most businesses and most counties would take to solve or to at least ... have a short-term fix until you could address the long-term problems.” Davis said that some of the solutions, such as a hiring and overtime freeze, as well as layoffs, being looked at that day were “dire decisions.”

He said Carter wanted Davis to relate to the commission that when he left the county with his team last week, he felt work had been done to come up with a plan. “His team felt confident there are some things that can be done that would help keep this county from filing bankruptcy, and that is the number one goal in my opinion,” he said.

Davis would later say the county is going to do good just trying to keep the lights on. “If that is not dire, I don’t know what dire is,” he said, saying that would be his last comment “about that headline in that newspaper.”

Later, abruptly after a vote in the meeting, Chairman Jerry Bishop said he wanted to make a comment.

“You can’t believe everything you read in this paper,” he said, holding up the Sunday edition of the Eagle. “Money. We don’t have plenty.”

Bishop said later in the meeting he doesn’t have a county vehicle.

“They can’t furnish me with furniture for the office, but the paper said we’re not in dire need. Y’all excuse me, I’ve been mad ever since I’ve read this paper.”

District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt said he agreed with Bishop. “I have no idea how that story got pieced together like it did, the frame up, the concept we don’t have any problems. We have plenty of money in the bank and a great tax base. Well, all that is just not true, and there are other words for not true than ‘not true,’” he said. “I’ll let everybody figure that out.”

Davis again returned to the issue again, saying that Carter was meaning was the commission “can make these hard cuts and decisions that have got to be made, but that doesn’t add one penny to paving a new road beside what is in the district funds.” Davis said eventually money has to be found to repair the county’s roads.

“To say not dire was not his intent,” he said.

Toward the end of the formal meeting, Bishop said, “Now, I want to talk about Ed. I read this paper, and I’ve been sick all weekend,” noting he had to go to Princeton Baptist Medical Center later in the week.

“I got my dictionary out and I read dire. You know, it meant about what I thought it did,” he said. “You’re in sort of a desperate need, or it is sort of an emergency. It may be something that has to be done. Well, we do have a dire need in this county, and some of this was brought forward today.”

He said the team that came from Montgomery were good accountants, “but I don’t think any of them every worked for a county.”

Bishop noted Carter pointed out that the county has plenty of assets, a healthy budget and a healthy sales tax.

“The question is, will you be granted bankruptcy,” Carter said, adding the commission can file with a simple vote of commissioners. “That doesn’t mean that you will be granted bankruptcy, and personally, from what I’ve seen, I don’t think Walker County is bankrupt. So there is a difference between filing and actually being bankrupt. They have plenty of assets. They’ve got cash in the banks. They’ve got a healthy budget and a healthy sales tax base.”

Bishop said, “Undoubtedly, they didn’t research Walker County real good. This is what is in this paper.” He asked if people in the room read all of the stories.

“I felt better after I read it, to start with. Then I got over on the other part,” District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams said.

Bishop went back to the paper.

“Then they came back and corrected themselves and actually corrected themselves,” he said. He then read this passage: “‘But I do think they will have to make some pretty substantial structural changes in their operating budget’ to return to a healthy financial state, he said.”

“What did he say the other for? I don’t know,” Bishop said. “We don’t have a sales tax. The money in the bank is for a lawsuit.” He said the money is being held back as the state demanded the county give money back that the county collected for a tax, he said. Bishop said the money had been collected like that since the 1970s.

“People shouldn’t give the press — nothing personal, Ed — shouldn’t give the press what — if they don’t know the answers,” Bishop said. His experience has been to at least give answers while making sure “I was close.”

Bishop pointed to another passage. “This hits us hard. Y’all are going to like this,” he said.

“Asked if there are ways the commission can raise any revenue, such as fees, without having to go through Legislature, Carter replied, ‘There are. I’m going to have to let them get into the specifics of what those options are. They have identified a number of potential initiatives that they could do that could raise revenue potentially without legislation.’ He said they could legally do that.”

Bishop injected, “Here’s the kicker,” and continued to read.

“But you have to remember it is still a tax. It is still an increase. The citizens and the people will wind up paying for it,” Carter said.

Bishop said, “Why did they put over on the front page we have healthy, money in the bank — I don’t know. Maybe y’all know. I just know a poor old businessman doesn’t understand government and I hope that they represent our governor. She understands more than that. Now, that’s my statement. I’ve said it and that’s it.” 

Both of the Carter stories are available online at mountaineagle.com, using the search “Carter.”