Terry Ramey’s first two months as county commissioner haven’t gone like he hoped.
It took Ramey four tries to land a seat behind the commissioner dias, running in every election since 2016. Now that he’s finally made it, however, he’s been hammered repeatedly for some $2,000 in unpaid taxes on old junk vehicles and trailers.
Ramey admits it doesn’t look good for a commissioner to have unpaid taxes, but he also has a lot of reasons — the trailers weren’t actually titled to him, the junk vehicles weren’t running, he was getting taxed for a wrecker business that dissolved years ago.
Ramey regrets not handling it better, however, and letting the unpaid bills rack up over the years.
“That’s probably my fault for letting them go,” said Ramey. “I probably just throwed the bills in the box like I do everything else. I say, ‘Well I’ll get that out and look at it when I get time, and a lot of times I don’t.’”
The unpaid bills totaled around $3,000 as of last fall before he began paying them off under a payment plan. The sum represented about two dozen tax bills, the vast majority in the $50 to $75 range.
Many of the bills were tied to a wrecker business that was no longer operating.
“I’ve not pulled one vehicle since I had a heart attack in 2015,” Ramey said.
Ramey realizes it’s his fault for not telling the county that the business didn’t exist anymore.
Taxes were also assessed on a 1985 Chevrolet truck he used for hauling tractor-trailers from wrecks on I-40.
“It was sitting down there but not tagged or being used in any way,” Ramey said. He never told the county it was decommissioned, however, so he kept getting a tax bill for it.
And then there’s the case of his 1999 Denali.
“The engine blew up and I kept thinking I’d put a new engine in it, but it kept sitting there and sitting there,” Ramey said.
But because he never removed it from the county tax rolls, he kept getting a bill for it, too. In the meantime, the unpaid bills kept accruing interest — which accounts for more than a third of what he owes.
The only substantial bill in the lot dates to 2013 for three mobile homes that he says he didn’t own.
“The mobile homes were sitting on daddy’s property,” Ramey said.
Ramey said the trailers weren’t titled to him and weren’t on his land, but were somehow in his name on the tax rolls. From 2006 to 2012, he paid the bill on the trailers, according to tax documents.
“I guess I paid them along with my other taxes,” Ramey said.
Once he realized he was being taxed for the trailers, he got them removed from his name — but there was a year in between when it didn’t get paid, accounting for about $1,000 of his unpaid bills.
“That’s the only one that amounted to something. The rest of them were little bitty things,” Ramey said.
Armed with a stack of files and print outs on his property tax bills, Ramey sat down with The Mountaineer this week to lay bare everything he’s owed and paid.
“I’m not trying to hide anything,” Ramey said. “That’s the reason I brought all this up here, so you could see everything I had.”
Ramey said he has had a hard time sorting through the various unpaid tax bills.
“That’s one of the problems I had, you didn’t know what these were for,” Ramey said, rifling through the reams of papers. “Some of this stuff I can’t figure out.”
Ramey has gone to County Manager Bryant Morehead for help more than once, and said Tax Assessor Judy Ballard has been as helpful as she could.
“Judy has been as good as gold, don’t get me wrong. She’s tried to explain everything to me,” Ramey said.
In late September, during his commissioner campaign, he began paying the bills down, making his first payment of $300 which cleared out many of the smaller ones.
He says he asked at the time about setting up a payment plan, but the payment plan wasn’t inked until November.
Since then, he’s made the required payments of $300 a month.
“He is following his agreement and paying his payment plan like he is supposed to, so right now, he is in good standing,” said Tax Collector Sebastian Cothran.
When asked if he only began paying the bills off to avoid negative publicity during his campaign, he said no.
“I was going to pay them anyway,” Ramey said. “I had gone in there and talked to them about it before, trying to figure out exactly what taxes I owed.”
Ramey had challenged some of the bills — at least he thinks he did — and thought it would eventually get sorted.
“Why would they let me go 10 years without paying taxes if we weren’t arguing about them?” Ramey said.
When asked why he didn’t just pay the whole kit and caboodle in September to avoid a stain on his commissioner campaign, he said he didn’t want to try to cover it up.
“I’m not going to try to hide something to make myself look like something I’m not. I am not going to do something just because I decided to run,” Ramey said. “If I’ve done something wrong, I am not going to try to make myself look good.”
Besides, Ramey said he didn’t have the money anyway. He’s had hard times financially since his heart attack in 2015 when he gave up his wrecker business.
As a single dad raising three kids at the time, making ends meet wasn’t easy. Ramey, now 68, has been living mostly on his Social Security, but it doesn’t go far with a 13- and 18-year old still living at home.
Taking the heat
Earlier this month, the other four commissioners — all Republicans like Ramey — called out Ramey for his unpaid tax bills.
“Everyone works as hard as they can to pay their taxes and they make sacrifices to do that. As leaders we should be setting an example,” said Commissioner Chairman Kevin Ensley. “Our taxes pay for so many good things, to keep our quality of life where it needs to be.”
Ensley said it is telling that Ramey didn’t start paying them down until campaign season and didn’t set up a payment plan until after he was elected. Ensley said he’s heard from members of the public who are disappointed that an elected commissioner hasn’t paid his taxes.
“I got a call from one man whose daughter owed taxes and he loaned her the money to pay it promptly until she could pay him back,” Ensley said. “He was frustrated that a commissioner wasn’t paying his taxes when people go to extraordinary lengths to pay theirs.”
Ramey was surprised a few weeks ago when the other four commissioners, without his knowledge, issued a statement to The Smoky Mountain News about his unpaid tax bills.
The four commissioners — Ensley, Brandon Rogers, Tommy Long and Jennifer Best — collaborated to respond to an email questionnaire about Ramey.
“I talked to them on the phone about some ideas, put it in writing, and went back and forth with all of them to get it exactly right,” Ensley said. “They all said they were good with it.”
One of the questions posed by SMN to the commissioners was whether Ramey should resign over the tax bills. Here was the commissioners’ answer:
“The voters of Haywood County elected Mr. Ramey and he will have to face them. The county commission has a public comment session at every regular board meeting. If Haywood County voters have lost their trust in him, then they have the opportunity to voice whether or not a resignation is in order,” Ensley wrote.
Ramey said it was disappointing that the commissioners would get together and issue a reply like that without telling him.
“I’m not mad, but I thought they were a little different than that. It made me feel like I can’t ever trust them,” Ramey said.
He also questioned whether it was a violation of the Open Meetings Law for four commissioners to conspire outside of a public meeting.
“I feel like they conducted county business without me,” Ramey said. “We are a board of five, and I felt like they shouldn’t be issuing a statement without me.”
Commissioners said it seemed more expeditious to do it that way.
“We decided to do a unified response because it was such a divisive issue,” said Long.
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