And commissioners also took issue with the way POA officials have framed the dispute.
After a judge in Roane County ruled in the county’s favor to leave the lots out of the sale, Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw said he was continuing talks with POA General Manager Winston Blazer, whom he met with about a week ago.
If the lots were left in the sale, unsold properties would revert back to the county, effectively putting the county on the hook for POA assessments. About 405 lots were held out of the sale. Thirty-nine of 42 lots were sold in the auction.
Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson said he was disappointed with some comments from the POA that appeared in a recent article about the assessments.
“It was just disheartening, I thought, the other day in the newspaper to hear them quote that it seems like the POA is trying to turn this into a Loudon County versus Tellico Village residents issue, and it’s not,” Harrelson said. “This issue we’re dealing with is coming from the Tellico Village POA, and they’re the ones that are trying to force our hands and do some things that we don’t think is right for the taxpayers of Loudon County.”
During a previous interview, John Cherry, POA public relations manager, said he hoped the recent dispute has not undermined the relationship between the county and the association.
“I would like to think that the county government realizes that the 5,800-plus Villagers who live in the Loudon County portion of the Village are also Loudon County taxpayers,” Cherry said previously. “I mean some of the comments that I have seen, it makes me question whether that fact is understood. They talk about Villagers like they don’t live here. Well, they live in Loudon County. They pay Loudon County taxes. They support Loudon County businesses.”
Commissioner Van Shaver said during Monday’s meeting that the county could resolve the dispute if the POA would take back any unsold lots.
“If they want to sign the document, we’ll hold a sale,” Shaver said. “What doesn’t sell, they can have them back. They don’t hold us to any POA fees, and they can get their dollar back, then we’re all done. That could have been done at any given time, and they are the ones who have chosen not to do that.”
POA assessments on 400 lots would cost an estimated $512,400 per year based on the monthly assessment fee of $106.75 per lot.
For the county’s benefit, Bradshaw said he would like to see the lots go through the auction process.
“Ultimately, I think it would benefit the county in the long run to get them back on the market and let them sell,” Bradshaw said.
Henry Cullen, who represents the 7th District in Tellico Village, said he spoke with Blazer the same day as Bradshaw. Cullen said the dispute could be a potential “PR disaster” for the POA.
“I told him I said, ‘You know, I’m not going to support a big push. It’s going to be a disaster’,” Cullen said. “‘I can read the headlines now, and if you think the person in Lenoir City that ended up on FOX News because their yard got overgrown, wait until this one hits.’ I said, ‘This’ll get ABC, ‘60 Minutes,’ ‘20-20,’ the whole bunch of them,’ and I said, ‘After that happens, you won’t sell a lot or a house in Tellico Village, period’.”
Also during the meeting, Tellico Village resident Richard Anklin provided the commission with background on the POA’s previous involvement with CS Paradiso Holdings LLC, a subsidiary of Capital Source and one of the three entities with the most lots on the delinquent tax list. In its third quarter board report from October 2013, Anklin said the POA reported that it negotiated a cash settlement with Capital Source for an unspecified amount after three years of litigation.
Anklin said he and the more than 100 residents with whom he had spoken were against the county being responsible for paying POA assessments on delinquent lots that might be sold in an auction.
“I don’t see morally or ethically the POA having the right to come to this county, commission, mayor or any taxpayer in this county to pay those damn assessments,” Anklin said. “It’s legal because of the stupid court case over in the middle of the state that granted (a) POA the right to collect from a county, but our county commission should never bargain with these guys under a gun, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s ridiculous; it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
The association has “never insisted or even asked” Loudon County to pay any assessments for properties that would revert back to Loudon County after a sale, according to a press release issued last week by the POA.
“The lots are almost impossible to sell because they have tax and other bank liens against them, so they must go through the tax sale to clear the title,” the release said. “The court records show that the county petitioned the court in order to remove the lots from the sale without offering any basis to do so.”
Harrelson said the county now has a “little breathing room” to work out the best path forward.
“Now we need to sit back and evaluate, see where we’re at, don’t be forced like they were trying to force our hand and trying to force us to do things that we didn’t need to do,” Harrelson said. “I think we’ve got a little bit of room now to sit back ... let’s discuss this a little bit further and not be in a big hurry over it.”
Bradshaw said he was concerned about the perception of a “rift” between the Loudon County and the Village.
“It’s not Villagers (themselves); it is the POA,” Bradshaw said.
‘Hard to prove’
On Oct. 1, Loudon County Commission, delinquent tax attorney Terry Vann and County Attorney Bob Bowman met in closed session before a Budget Committee meeting to consider a negotiated deal with the POA. Loudon County Property Assessor Mike Campbell also attended the meeting.
Shaver said in a previous interview that during that meeting the county considered a settlement deal from the POA in which the county would pay $1.4 million to offset construction debt at The Public Library at Tellico Village and make an unspecified contribution to the POA’s marketing program.
Commission did not convene in open session after the closed meeting to take action. Members of the full commission dispersed, while the Budget Committee met on an unrelated topic.
A couple weeks later, the county filed a motion in chancery court to remove the lots from the public auction that was set for Oct. 20. The POA swiftly answered with its own motion to dismiss the county’s request. Chancellor Frank V. Williams decided in the county’s favor hours before the sale was scheduled to take place.
During an interview this past week, Harrelson said no decisions or votes were made during the closed session.
“Executive session, we don’t make any determination or vote or final decision or anything like that,” Harrelson said. “Like any other executive session, it’s set up just for our attorney to update us on potential legal issues. That’s all it was. There was no vote taken or consensus or anything like that.”
Deborah Fisher, executive director with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that in general terms, a decision or directive by a public board to file a motion in court should take place in an open meeting.
“If the county commission agreed in private for the county to take a particular action I would question why was that not put to a public vote,” Fisher said, noting that commissions are on firm legal footing when they discuss “potential” or “contemplated” litigation. She said having Vann sit in on the closed meeting to offer any advice “makes a lot of sense.”
“What often gets abused in the closed sessions is that they will go in there, and they will discuss between themselves what they want to do,” Fisher said. “So, instead of just getting advice from the attorney and asking questions of the attorney, it turns into a discussion where they are weighing the pros and cons of what to do amongst themselves.
“That is what’s supposed to be done in a public meeting and not in a closed meeting,” she added. “That’s what often happens and that part would be a violation, but it’s hard to prove unless you have someone in the meeting who says it’s a violation. How are you going to know?”
She said the county attorney is supposed to monitor whether a meeting should be opened up to the public or not.
“A lot of times I think these things, it’s just too alluring to have a robust discussion about what to do in a private meeting when that part of the discussion is supposed to be in the public meeting,” Fisher said.
In other business Monday, the board:
l Voted 6-4 against supplying the Loudon County Economic Development Agency with an additional $32,500 for maintenance at Centre 75. Commission members requested a line item request for funding needs with estimated costs for the industrial complex. Harrelson, Cullen, Commissioner David Meers and Commissioner Leo Bradshaw voted for allocating the additional funds, while Shaver and Commissioners Earlena Maples, Matthew Tinker, Bill Satterfield, Harold Duff and Kelly Littleton-Brewster voted “no.”