Owens out as Claiborne finance director

Claiborne county is looking for a new finance director after Sam Owens was dismissed during the November meeting of the Claiborne Commission, with a tight 11 to 9 majority vote.

The full commission was handed the task by the newly reformed Claiborne Finance Committee, who decided during a special-called meeting a couple weeks ago to move forward with the process to oust Owens. That decision was accomplished with a vote of six to one. County road superintendent Ronnie Pittman was the lone ‘no’ vote.

Owens asked to speak during the full commission meeting. He said the 81 Act, under which the county operates, was initially adopted by the commission because of “financial problems.” The finance department, he said, acts as the eyes and ears of the commission when talking money and expenditures.

“I’ve saved (the county) over $2 million from managerial decisions in the county beyond doing my job, just by keeping up with appropriate information. That’s in seven years. You run a risk of having improper numbers to make decisions on. I can furnish you those appropriate numbers,” said Owens.

County mayor Joe Brooks said that he was attempting to remove the ‘shadow of a doubt’ associated with the current finance director.

Brooks ticked a few items off his grievance list. He said he was concerned that Owens was not clear on the specifics of the Trane energy savings project, which carries a $5.7 million loan in effect until 2024.

“We don’t have any data to show that we’ve been saving money. This is something that the finance director should be in charge of.

“The finance director has been a very political position in the last two years, especially in regard to the jail. He was not neutral. He was not objective,” said Brooks, referring to the defunct project to expand the Claiborne County Jail.

He pointed to Owens’ previous position as a school board member.

“Let’s not forget that there is actually a lawsuit against Sam Owens and the school board, right now,” said Brooks, referring to a civil suit brought by a former principal.

He also referred to the State Comptroller’s findings of irregularity with the sale of e-cigarettes to inmates inside the county jail. Brooks said the problem should have been caught and corrected by Owens before it was found by the comptroller.

“For more than seven years, the money was being deposited at the Trustee’s Office,” said Owens. “It grew, and it got to be such a large contract, that the auditor wanted it run through the county court (commission). And, we changed it. It was that way, when I came there. It had been audited four or five times.

“It was simply the change of the procedure for placing the money. There was not a time that the money was missing,” said Owens.

According to a handout distributed by Owens, the county has enjoyed reductions over the last seven years in debt, insurance costs, and other savings to the tune of nearly $2.1 million.

In debt management alone, the county saved a total $1,249,828 by refinancing the B-B-A and School Series 2007 bonds.

From fiscal year 2013 to fiscal year 2018, the county saved $725,115 in total insurance costs.

Five FEMA projects were open in fiscal year 2016-17 which, according to the handout, presented a financial liability to the county. Owens recognized a change in direction with the new federal government administration and closed all five projects, without the need for a ‘pay back.’ The last project to be closed could have cost the county $180,000 in pay back. Instead, the county received a payment of $120,000, according to the handout.

Owens says he never received a personal finding from the State Comptroller, during his time as county finance director.

Prior to the vote, 6th district commissioner Carolyn Brooks said she felt compelled to make an incident public knowledge. Brooks said she had received a phone call from the county mayor, shortly before 5 a.m. on the morning of the meeting.

“I don’t know if people are aware that we don’t have water, over there (the 6th district). I was told that, if I wanted help with getting my water, that he (the county mayor) would like to have help with his vote, tonight (to oust Owens)…As a commissioner, I’m not going to be threatened. That is my district, that put me in, for that purpose,” said Brooks.

Mayor Brooks responded to the allegation, saying he had previously spoken on two occasions with the director of the Claiborne Utilities District about the water issue.

He admitted that the phone conversation eventually turned to the vote to dismiss Owens.

“I told her that I could use her help. I, in no way, said ‘Carolyn, I would like you to vote for this and I’ll get your water.’ That’s just the most absurd thing I have ever heard in my entire life,” said Brooks.

A brief verbal argument broke out, between the two. When the dust settled, commissioner Brooks reiterated that she did not appreciate being threatened.

Mayor Brooks said he was ‘sorry’ the commissioner had taken the conversation as a threat. He said that, during the phone call, he had made it clear that getting water to the 6th district would not depend on her vote.

The commissioner agreed that the mayor had, indeed, said as much.

“Why did you even bring up the vote situation? If you were calling me about the water, why didn’t you just talk to me about the water,” said Brooks.

The waterline project, she said, will take at least two years to accomplish.

It’s not like we can get water in the next month, she said.

Assistant finance director Angela Tucker will act as the interim director while the county goes through the process of interviewing and hiring a replacement for Owens.

Those who voted in favor of ousting Owens were commissioners Brent Clark, Whitt Shuford, Charlton Vass, Nathan Epperson, Kim Large, Mike Campbell, Zach Mullins, Anthony Rowe, Mitchell Cosby, Steve Brogan and Steve Murphy.

Those voting against the dismissal were commissioners Brooks, Juanita Honeycutt, Nicholas Epperson, Rosemary Barnett, Steve Mason, Sherry McCreary, Shawn Peters, David Mundy and James Hatmaker.

Commissioner Stacey Crawford was absent from the meeting.