Finance award casts further doubt on corruption claims in Haywood

Finance award casts further doubt on corruption claims in Haywood

Haywood County’s Finance Department has a long history of stellar performance, but a national award for excellence in financial reporting bestowed on the department late last year calls into further question claims of fiscal irregularities allegedly made by a Haywood County commissioner and one of his closest allies. 

The Certificate of Achievement, from the Government Finance Officers Association, was presented to the county finance department and Director Kristian Owen in October 2023 and is the “highest form of recognition in governmental accounting,” according to an attached letter.

Founded in 1945, the GFOA award program recognizes state and local governments that “go beyond the minimum requirements” to prepare financial statements that “evidence the spirit of transparency and full disclosure.”

“Every year, we submit our financials to be scrutinized by an independent third-party examiner that looks through them for clarity, transparency and following the guidelines,” Owen said. “We have actually won this award — I looked back — every year since the late 90s.” 

The award was noted by Haywood County commissioners during their regular meeting on Jan. 2, just after the county received another clean bill of fiscal health from its auditing firm, Gould Killian, for its financial statements ending June 30, 2023.

Notably, the total assessed value of all property in the county surged from $7.4 billion in 2014 to $9.9 billion in 2023.

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Over that same period, total primary government debt decreased dramatically, from $61.4 million to $29.7 million, producing a net debt-to-assessed-value ratio of 0.3%, or about $472 per person.

“Some places are like $2,000 to $3,000 a person,” said Dan Mullinix, a partner with Gould Killian who presented the June 30, 2023, audited financial statements.

“Your opening statement said our reputation basically precedes us,” Commissioner Tommy Long told Mullinix during the meeting. “You come in Haywood County and our finance department has a lot of this stuff already laid out in good order, so I appreciate that.”

Commission Vice Chair Brandon Rogers followed up on Long’s statement.

“It’s one thing we don’t have to worry about is our finance department. It seems year after year we get these reports, and it’s always good,” Rogers said.

Commissioner Terry Ramey didn’t comment on the award or the audit report from Gould Killian during the meeting — a departure from statements he allegedly made while running for office.

In June 2022, the county finally received an offer on a troublesome parcel of land originally intended for recreational use. Purchased in 2007, the parcel languished through the Great Recession. Commissioners went on to spend more than $460,000 to enhance the parcel’s market attractiveness, including site work to bring some of it out of flood-prone areas.

The agreed-upon sales price was $1.8 million, which basically allowed the county to break even on the deal, but Monroe Miller, a close friend of Ramey and self-appointed “government watchdog” claimed without evidence that the county had actually spent more than $6 million on the parcel, which would have resulted in a huge loss.

Ramey parroted these claims during his campaign, and according to Miller brought up “multiple instances of expenses” that he said Rogers could not explain.

During an Oct. 3, 2022, commission meeting, before Ramey was elected, Rogers said it was all a waste of staff time.

“We’ve asked for the evidence to be brought forward,” Rogers said at the time. “No evidence has been brought forward as of yet. I would like to see that evidence if you’ve got it, Mr. Miller. Before I waste a lot more of our county staff’s time, if he can bring the evidence forward, we’ll set up a meeting.”

Haywood County’s Community and Economic Development Director David Francis subsequently proved all of Miller’s claims to be false, except for a $17,000 expenditure that had been misclassified. The final cost to the county for the parcel ended up around $1.6 million.

“I’ve seen you struggle with accounting and legal issues for over a decade,” Francis told Miller in a 2022 email itemizing the county’s spending on the parcel.

The award for transparency, as well as the county’s most recent audit, both seem incongruent with claims of financial irregularities allegedly made by Miller and Ramey during meetings at the Buttered Biscuit restaurant in 2022.

Ramey did not respond to a scheduling request for a phone interview but did provide a statement denying the allegations and asking for proof.

Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) confirmed to The Smoky Mountain News on Jan. 8 that both Miller and Ramey approached him after one of the restaurant meetings, alleging without evidence that the county was somehow concealing an additional $4.4 million in spending on the parcel.

“Terry Ramey was the one telling us,” said Pless, who as a former Haywood County commissioner was familiar with the issue.

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