The Greene County Commission voted Monday to censure one of its members, Clifford “Doc” Bryant for not paying personal property taxes and other debts.
The commission voted 15-3 in favor of the censure. Bryant abstained from the vote, and two commissioners, Josh Arrowood and Kaleb Powell, were absent.
Those voting against the censure were Brad Peters, Teddy Lawing and Paul Burkey. Peters commented during the discussion that the censure could be considered a criticism of those who voted for Bryant. Burkey questioned whether the allegations were ones for which a censure could be considered according to state statutes. Lawing did not comment.
The Greene County Ethics Committee voted earlier this month to recommend the censure to the full commission based on Bryant’s failure to pay personal property taxes — for equipment in his chiropractic and gun-range businesses — and make student loan payments. As part of action in U.S. District Court, Bryant agreed earlier this year to a payment schedule for the student loans and avoided jail time.
Greene County Attorney Roger Woolsey explained to the commission that a censure is a statement and does not involve any penalties or fines. “A censure is a legislative body expressing its displeasure concerning conduct or misconduct of one of its members,” he said.
The commission’s action followed Bryant’s longest public statement about the allegations made against him to date.
Bryant began by saying that he had not made many remarks about the situation “mainly because it’s not anyone else’s business, and secondarily, that it’s most always a losing proposition” because of how only bits and pieces are reported.
“However, I think it’s high time I addressed these issues, so the voters can understand the truth, and how we got here, and where all these petty politics are coming from,” he said.
Regarding student loans, Bryant said he has been in legal action for some time because he does not agree with the amount he is said to owe.
“So, why I am wrong and unethical if I contest this?” he said.
Moving to questions about nonpayment of personal property taxes, levies on equipment used in a business, Bryant argued he paid taxes on the equipment when he purchased it and should not pay more. “This is an example of an unjust, unconstitutional and, therefore, invalid law,” he said.
In his remarks, he said that the allegations were brought by other commissioners who had a personal vendetta against him and who could, he alleged, be considered to have acted unethically in their actions against him and others.
“You can vote however your particular set of morals lead you, but be assured that the voters and God are watching,” he said. “Whatever the outcome tonight, I’ll still be here tomorrow, and I’m still going to support the Constitution and the rights of the people of Greene County to be heard.”
Commissioners asked questions about any actions by local officials to collect the personal property taxes. Bill Nunnally, who serves as the county’s tax attorney, explained that the Internal Revenue Service has placed a lien of about $15,000 against Bryant’s property and there are also liens related to the student loans.
Under an earlier trustee, Nunnally said he was directed to file a lawsuit against Bryant that resulted in an $11,000 judgment against him to pay the personal property taxes.
However, he said, the county has not pursued any aggressive action to collect the judgment through seizures of Bryant’s assets because they would be battling the federal liens in any litigation and those would take precedence over the local ones, which would not be a practical move.
As tax attorney, Nunnally said he has been threatened with bodily harm by some over property tax issues. While he said he did not know Bryant personally and did not have any previous contact with him before Monday’s meeting, there was concern about what his reaction might be to a seizure of property.
Documentation included with the resolution to censure Bryant that was part of the commission’s meeting packet showed that unpaid personal property taxes owed for Bryant’s chiropractic practice between 2002-2010 total thousands.
Unpaid Greene County personal property taxes total $5,038, and those owed to the Town of Greeneville are $6,043 for that period.
Those documents also accompanied the complaint commissioners Robin Quillen and Lloyd “Hoot” Bowers submitted to the Ethics Committee.
Bryant also owes personal property taxes for TAC 2, a gun range he operates. The total owed for the period of 2005-2018 is $2,120.
Bryant said that when people hear about personal property taxes, many think he has not paid taxes on his house and land. He and his wife have always paid their real estate property taxes, he said.
However, personal property tax is a business tax on equipment, which Bryant said he did not believe in paying year after year on items that have already had taxes levied on them.
“The voters in my district knew my stance on taxes when they elected me,” he said. “In fact, I believe that’s why they elected me. I vowed to never vote to raise property taxes and believe that they should be eliminated. There are better and more equitable ways to generate revenue that is fair to all citizens. If you look at the record, you will see that I have done exactly what I said I would do and will continue to do so.”
Documentation provided to the commission also indicates that the amount that Bryant owes in student loans has increased from an original amount of $54,048 to more than $200,000.
Those documents also included court records regarding litigation over the student loans. Bryant said he was found in contempt of court for failing to appear at a hearing, but he did not have to go to jail after working out an agreement with the court. He also made a payment toward his student loans.
The reason that he missed the hearing was because he did not know he needed to appear, Bryant said.
“During this time, I was closing my practice due to injuries to both of my shoulders. This was a very trying time physically and emotionally, and quite frankly I don’t know if I received that notice or not, and therefore I did not show up for the hearing,” he said.
After addressing the allegations against him, Bryant said that the resolution to censure him came from what he called “petty politics” and a vendetta against him.
Peters said he has received several comments and questions from constituents about Bryant’s unpaid personal property taxes.
Trustee Nathan Holt explained the state Constitution and Tennessee Code Annotated both mandate that personal property taxes be levied on equipment businesses use in operations, so they are constitutional.
In Greene County, 99.5% of personal property taxes were collected for 2018, but other counties do not have that high a collection rate, he said.
Nunnally explained that state law does provide the trustee authority to seize the business equipment for unpaid taxes, but he did not know of a county that has taken this action.
However, several years ago, then-Trustee Dan Walker directed Nunnally to file legal action against Bryant to try to collect the taxes in the hope that it would have some effect and change his behavior, the attorney said.
In discussion, Peters said the vote for censure could be considered criticism of the 810 people who elected Bryant because the personal property tax issues were public knowledge prior to the election.
Commissioner Gary Shelton said he has talked to some people who have commented to him that they voted for Bryant with knowledge about the tax issue but have had second thoughts when they learned about student loan debt.
“It is not the entire 810, but some are changing their minds,” he said. “But, he may run again and still be elected.”
Quillen said that her concern was the unpaid taxes. “The thing that bothers me is that the rest of us pay our taxes,” she said.
Commissioner Paul Burkey asked whether the failure to pay the taxes or loans was a valid reason for action under ethics rules.
Woolsey responded that the legislature has set specific criteria for removing people from office, and many legislative bodies have turned to censure as a way to express their displeasure about an activity that may not qualify for ouster from office under state law.
For example, he said, officials have been censured by legislative bodies for DUI, domestic violence, intimidating county employees and making profane and vulgar remarks in public.
When it comes to good taste, Stan’s Bar-B-Q was the restaurant of choice for decades of hungry customers.
Even a wandering bear made Stan’s its preferred place to dine.
So the reaction Monday from the community over owner Stan Fortner’s decision to close the restaurant at 2620 E. Andrew Johnson Highway was one of shock and sadness.
Fortner, who began cooking barbecue in 1991 with wife Kim, said Monday that he decided over the weekend to shutter the restaurant.
“It’s just time,” Fortner said. He said he had talked with his wife over the past year about possibly closing the restaurant before his decision last weekend.
Stan’s drive-through window will be open from 10:30 a.m. Tuesday until he runs out of food serving discount meals as a way of saying goodbye to the public that has supported the business over the years.
“We’ve had a wonderful 28 years and great customers, and we have had great community support and great employees,” Fortner said.
Fortner, who had some health issues in recent years but said he is feeling well, plans to sell the property. There are no plans for anyone to keep the restaurant, well known for its barbecue pork and many other local favorite menu items, operating under new ownership.
“Everything good comes to an end,” he said.
Public reaction to news that Stan’s was closing was swift.
“The announcement to close Stan’s Bar-B-Q was a total surprise to me, and I hate to see it happen. Stan’s has been around for a long time, and it’s unfortunate to lose an important fixture that means so much to our community,” Greeneville Mayor W.T. Daniels said.
Fortner and his wife Kim also operated a successful catering operation in connection with the restaurant. He has been well-known as a local businessman.
“We want to thank Stan’s Bar-B-Q for over 28 years of exceptional food and service for the community. We’re sad to see them go, but wish them the best in their future endeavors,” said Matt Garland, president and CEO of the Greene County Partnership.
Stan’s Bar-B-Q opened in June 1991 with a “little red castle” drive-thru that eventually expanded into the current building.
Stan’s will remain known for its specialty — hickory-smoked pork, beef, and ribs — but also offered chicken and turkey hand-pulled meats, hamburgers, steaks, salads, homemade chili and other well-regarded sides.
Fortner was well-known to the restaurant’s regulars, often sitting down with diners to exchange a few friendly words.
“We use hickory wood to smoke all our meats. We’re very particular about our food and giving people good value for their money,” Fortner said in a 2001 article in The Greeneville Sun marking the restaurant’s 10th anniversary.
Stan and Kim Fortner plan to remain in Greeneville and stay part of the community. Judging by public response Monday in comments posted on The Greeneville Sun’s Facebook page, their restaurant will be greatly missed.
“This is a shock. This place has amazing food and service. Stan and I would always talk baseball. Going to miss this restaurant for sure! Thank you, Stan and Kim, for all the hospitality and amazing food,” wrote Jonathan Johnson.
Pat Taylor remarked she was “so sad” at the news that Stan’s is closing.
“Sure have eaten a lot of good BBQ and wings. Sorry to see it go,” Taylor wrote.
Phyllis Johnson wrote it was a “shock” to hear the news.
“So sorry to hear this. We love the food at Stan’s. (We) loved having him come to your table and talk for a minute,” Johnson wrote.
“It’s always sad to see a successful locally owned and operated business shut its door, but I’m happy he has a chance to enjoy retirement and spend time with his family,” Sheril Chaffee Whitehouse wrote.
Fortner on Monday thanked the many loyal employees who have worked at the restaurant.
Paulette Bright has been a server for 18 years. Maritess Manuel Villarta worked there for 16 years.
“Well, this is a very sad day for me. I don’t even know how to start,” Villarta wrote Monday in a Facebook post.
She called Fortner a “great leader.”
“Working for Stan Fortner for 16 years is a blessing to me. Somehow, after 28 years of operations, it is so hard to accept that’s he’ s finally closing the door (in) Greeneville,” Villarta wrote. “I’ve learned a lot managing the store for the great man. The customers are very awesome and I hated this long journey to end this way for him.”
Villarta wrote that Greene Countians “will surely miss the great BBQ you have (had) for 28 years.”
The Fortners were more than just employers to Candice Malone.
“Stan has been like a father to me, especially when I didn’t have that role model in my life for so long. I don’t think he’ll ever know how much I appreciate him. Thank y’all for letting me work at your family business for as long as you did,” Malone wrote.
Erin Fortner, daughter of Stan and Kim Fortner, wrote she was “incredibly proud” of her parents “and the wonderful people who were alongside them on this incredible journey of serving their community for (nearly) 29 years.”
Humans were not Stan’s only admirers. An approving repeat customer in the spring of 2012 had four legs and a voracious taste for every item on the menu.
The adolescent male bear made himself at home behind Stan’s for a period of time, foiling attempts to secure a 50-gallon drum full of fat, scraps and bones stored behind the business.
The bear eventually moved on, no doubt having put on several pounds.
With characteristic good humor, Fortner posted a message on the billboard outside the restaurant: “4 out of 5 bears prefer Stan’s barbecue.”
What Fortner told The Greeneville Sun in 2001 still rings true on Tuesday, the last day of business for Stan’s Bar-B-Q.
“Our philosophy hasn’t changed in 10 years — serve great food, give friendly service, and put the customer first.”
Greeneville City Schools is set to implement new rules during afternoon pickup.
In cooperation with the Greeneville Police Department, the system will begin enforcing the new rules on Monday as a way to increase the safety of students and educators, a news release said.
The rules going into effect at all Greeneville City Schools include:
“Greeneville City Schools administrators are confident that parents, grandparents, guardians, and others who pick students up after school will understand the need to control vehicles and people on property where children are present,” the news release said.
Beverly Miller, assistant director of Greeneville City Schools for administration, said no specific incident prompted the new rules.
“However, our partnership with GPD continues to be so very valuable. Things that don’t necessarily jump out to us as safety concerns often do with them,” she said. “One example is the fact that when people line up on school property to pick up students, we have no way to know their backgrounds, their criminal history, or intent. It can also cause traffic issues in already crowded parking lots and streets. GPD help us daily to look for potential safety concerns and to address them as we find them.”
Questions of what will be done with Greene County’s election office building on North Main Street and whether there will be a drive-thru for the county clerk’s office remain.
What is known after Monday’s Greene County Commission meeting is that the North Main Street property will not be donated to Walters State Community College — at least not until efforts have been made to sell it — and a drive-thru for the clerk’s office will not be located on West Summer Street in the near future.
Commissioners rejected a proposed resolution to donate 218 N. Main St., which currently houses the Greene County Election Commission and Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, to Walters State Community College, which owns adjacent property, the updated Niswonger Campus.
The board also rejected a resolution for a county clerk’s office drive-thru in a leased space under construction on West Summer Street.
PROPERTY DONATION PROPOSALThe resolution to consider donating 218 N. Main St. to WSCC failed by a vote of 15 against, 4 in favor. Two commissioners, Josh Arrowood and Kaleb Powell, were absent from the meeting.
Commissioner Jason Cobble began discussion by saying he understood the property was to be sold to help offset expenses of the commission’s August decision to buy the former Consumer Credit Union building on Elk Street, off US Highway 11E. That building will provide space for the election commission and EMA.
Commissioner Brad Peters, one of the resolution’s sponsors, said that considering the condition of the building, the amount needed to repair it and the value of the property, it might not be the county’s best investment to try to sell it.
WSCC has made a multi-million dollar investment in downtown and serves numerous Greene Countians, and the property could benefit the college, he said. Officials have said the building could be used as offices for the college’s campus security, Peters added.
“I feel like it is a good opportunity for us to give back to Walters State,” he said.
When debating purchase of the Elk Street building in August, some commissioners expressed concerns about maintenance issues at the North Main Street site.
Those included needed replacement of the roof, rewiring and bringing the public restroom into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The building also has leaking sewer pipes. Repairs have been estimated around $100,000.
Commissioner Dale Tucker asked if WSCC had approached any county officials about the possible donation of the building. When learning the college had not sought the donation, Tucker said that while he would not be opposed to the donation itself, he was uncomfortable with a donation for which the recipient has not asked.
In further discussion, Commissioner Clifford “Doc” Bryant said that it was also his understanding that the building would be sold to help recoup expenses towards the purchase of the CCU building.
If the county is not successful in selling the property, perhaps then would be a more appropriate time to consider the donation, Bryant said.
Commissioners also rejected a proposal that would have allowed Greene County Clerk Lori Bryant to establish a satellite office with a drive thru by leasing space in a building under construction at the intersection of West Summer Street and the Highway 70 Truck Route.
The proposed lease would be for a 3-year period, with an option to extend, at a cost of $1,200 per month. The vote was 17 against the proposal and two in favor. Voting in favor were Jason Cobble and Lloyd “Hoot” Bowers.
Bryant told the commission she planned to use existing staff and funding in her budget to furnish and equip the office, but she sought an additional appropriation of $16,900 to cover lease payments and utility costs. As a proposed amendment to the current county budget, such lease expenses require the commission’s approval.
The cost of the drive-thru could be covered by new revenues for the clerk’s office from fees that would cover the additional appropriation, Bryant said. The new revenues will be coming from additional funds the office will receive for issuing driver licenses, handgun carry permits and Real ID licenses. The state now pays $4 per each driver’s or Real ID license and gun permit renewal completed at a county clerk office.
Commissioners questioned the clerk about the cost and the new revenues. Bryant asked if his understanding was correct that the drive-thru would not generate new revenue, but was using revenues from services offered at the existing office, in the Courthouse Annex on Hall Street, to create a service that would be convenient for some people.
The county clerk said that was correct.
“I just wanted to take that $4 and give it back to the citizens with a service,” she said. “Whatever you decide, I am okay with it. I just wanted to do something that I feel would be for the good of the citizens.”
The drive-thru would benefit the elderly, those with mobility issues or people who may be on oxygen who have difficulties in entering the clerk’s office at the Annex and also help alleviate parking issues at the building, Lori Bryant said. She said she had been looking at possible locations for more than a year when the construction of the new building started, and she approached its owner, Pat Hankins, former Greene County sheriff, about leasing a section.
Commissioner Robin Quillen said she appreciates the effort, but asked that she give an existing drive-thru at the former CCU building just purchased a chance, because the citizens she is trying to help do use the US 11E Bypass.
Bryant said she is concerned that the elderly and handicapped will not want to travel to the bypass to reach the drive-thru, and it is not as convenient for those working in the satellite office.
The county clerk has stated that she is not interested in using the Elk Street building’s drive-thru.