Mike Foster Era as County Mayor Over

August 31, 2014
Dwayne Page
Mike Foster

He had hoped to have another term in office starting today, but the 12 year era of County Mayor Mike Foster has come to an end.

"I'm going to take a week off," Foster jokingly said in an interview with WJLE Friday. "I went to fill out my social security application the other day and I have worked basically for 47 years so I'm going to take some time off," he said.

Foster was first elected County Mayor in 2002 and he was re-elected in 2006 and 2010. He lost his bid for a fourth term when he was defeated for the Democratic nomination by Tim Stribling in May. Stribling went on to win the General Election on August 7. Prior to becoming county mayor, Foster served many years as an employee and supervisor with TWRA.

Looking back on his three terms in office, Foster believes he and the county commissions he has worked with have made a positive difference for the people of DeKalb County. Although neither he nor the county commission were directly responsible for it, Foster cited among the most significant achievements, the construction of the new Sligo Bridge and the renovation of Hurricane Bridge. Foster said had those projects not been funded, DeKalb County might have suffered economically. " We certainly didn't build them but I think the best thing that happened during the last twelve years as far as affecting the most people in the county was getting the bridge (Hurricane) repaired and the new bridge at Sligo. Of course TDOT built those but we were about to be isolated in that we couldn't get industries (trucks) in and out (due to weight limits on the bridges) to the north and east because of the condition of those two bridges and it looked for a while that they (projects) might be postponed indefinitely. Our industries were really concerned about not being able to cross the bridges with loads of their products but working with them we first talked to former Governor Phil Bredesen when he was in office and later to Governor Bill Haslam and they helped make it possible to build a new bridge at Sligo and to repair Hurricane bridge," said Foster.

Among the projects overseen by Foster during his years as county mayor were:

*Developing an Emergency Communications District (911) and establishing a new centralized 911 dispatch headquarters on Mountain Street in Smithville, a move supported by the county as well as Smithville and Alexandria which eliminated police dispatching responsibilities for the sheriff's department and city police departments. The operation has also been updated over the years.

*The County assuming control of the DeKalb EMS operation and establishing a new ambulance service headquarters at the intersection of Mountain Street and Meadowbrook Drive in Smithville. For several years, the county had contracted with Sumner Regional Medical Center to operate the ambulance service but that agreement ended in 2007.

*Expanding the size of Justin Potter Library

*Developing a Solid Waste Transfer Station (not yet completed) so that the county can eventually close its Class I landfill and have all its household garbage collected at one location and shipped out from there to the Smith County Landfill. The county plans to maintain a Class III/IV landfill for the disposal of non-household garbage including things like construction material, etc.

*Establishing a new Farmers Market beside DeKalb Ace Hardware in Smithville.

Perhaps the endeavor for which Foster will be best remembered is the county's purchase and renovation of the old Town and Country Shopping Center, which was developed into what is now called the County Complex. In fact, the county commission honored Foster just last week by naming a portion of the building the "Mike Foster Multipurpose Center". The complex has meetings rooms, a gym, game room, exercise center, auditorium, and is home to the county extension office, Motlow College classes, senior citizens center, and local UCHRA operations. Part of the building also serves as offices for four county officials, the Trustee, Register of Deeds, Assessor of Property, and County Clerk.

Although there continues to be naysayers about the complex, Foster said he believes time has proven it to have been a good investment because more and more people are making use of it. "At first I had people criticizing it, especially farmers. But later when more people started seeing it and utilizing it, I was at a meeting one day with some farmers there and they looked at me and said what did we do before we had this. We now have an exercise facility that 1,900 people (including families) are utilizing. That's a lot of people over a year's time coming and going out of there. But it's done at a cost that everybody can afford. There is something there for everybody at the complex and that's the way it should be," he said.

With the support of the county commission, Foster said the financial condition of the county has improved over the years resulting in a better bond credit rating ( going from Baa to A1) and DeKalb has one of the lowest property tax rates in the state. "Right now we have a really low per capita debt load but that was deliberate in planning for some things we knew would be coming. Over the last two years we've had school repairs, the new building at the west school, and the (school) energy efficiency project that have been done at a little over nine million dollars and those are on fifteen year notes. Take that off and the county is only in debt by about four or five million dollars. We (county) still owe five years on the Northside Elementary School. That will be paid off in 2019. The note on the complex will be paid off in nine years," he said.

Foster is also proud that DeKalb County has been able to obtain its share of grants for a variety of services from local bridge projects, to fire protection, and extension of water lines. "Nearly everything we did in some form or fashion, grants were involved. Altogether we've probably gotten approaching $20 million in grants in the last twelve years. We've gotten two million dollars in grants for the fire department to upgrade to where we have an ISO rating of 6 pretty well in the entire county. We have a really good fire department, one of the better ones in Tennessee. Of course the fire department is responsible for that. But we helped them to get the money to get the grants."

"We've received at least three million dollars in water line grants (on behalf of DUD) to serve various places across the county. One of the big pushes was to go from Liberty to Dismal, up Dismal over Tramel Branch to Lower Helton and we have done that. We've applied for another grant to come back from Tramel Branch to Highway 70 and to go up Givans Hollow and to go down Oakley Road. That whole area of the county there didn't have water. The short term goal is to get those people down there who don't have water a source of water. The long term goal is to be able to supply water to Alexandria if they ever want it and now we've got it to where they (Alexandria) could tie on if they wanted to today," he said.

"One of the projects that really helped people is the bridge on Smith Fork at Dismal. That bridge was over a million dollars and the county had to kick in a little bit for that (grant match) to help the local road department. There was another bridge project at Tramel Branch and Upper Helton and a couple on Dry Creek. These projects were several million dollars but funded mostly through grants. And we just got a quarter of a million dollar Safer Roads grant to help improve the safety of several local roads," Foster said.

Asked if he had the opportunity would he do anything differently during his years as county mayor. Foster replied, " I would have missed a meeting in Cookeville one day". Foster was referring to a UCDD board meeting in 2012 which resulted in a federal indictment charging him almost a year ago with a single count of making false statements involving the use of federal money regarding the Living the Dream project.

The controversy stemmed from Foster's tenure as the chairman of the Upper Cumberland Development District, at the same time that longtime UCDD boss Wendy Askins was allegedly diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars of agency money into that million-dollar Living the Dream facility in rural Putnam County. What was supposed to become a home for needy seniors also became Askins' home.

Federal prosecutors indicted Foster for a moment caught on television cameras where Askins gave him language asking the UCDD board to retroactively approve a bogus set of minutes in an attempt to justify a $300,000 transfer. Foster's attorney, Hal Hardin, argued that he should never have been charged with making false statements because the video showed he was being manipulated by Askins and because he had expressed some uncertainty about whether the minutes were really accurate. Faced with a motion to dismiss, federal prosecutors agreed to drop the charge against Foster in February and the federal judge signed the order to make it official.

"It's one of those things that devastates your life and you've done nothing," Foster told WJLE Friday. "I know the average person may say, well you have to have done something. Well, I didn't."

Foster said the whole ordeal hurt him politically and may have cost him re-election. "It planted a seed of doubt with people and to many perception is reality. It doesn't matter that they (prosecutors) come back later and say we couldn't find where you violated any criminal act. You accuse somebody of something and you've destroyed their life and then you say Uh Oh I'm sorry, I made a mistake. But it's too late," he said.

While he has his detractors, Foster said he has tried to do what he believes has been in the best interest of the county. "If you are in an elected office you can make friends and you can make enemies. You can't be everything to everybody. You have to do what you think is right and I have tried to do that. It's like the Farmer's Market. There are people who criticized that. But you go out there on Saturday now and it's packed. If you go to the county complex, you have to wait sometimes on certain nights to use the exercise equipment. And then you look next door and there's three hundred people at a meeting or at a play or something. And then you look on down and there's a wedding reception or something. You can't argue with that," he said.

Now that his days as county mayor are over, Foster said he will find other ways to serve the community. But don't expect him to seek public office again. "I hope I've never been a politician. I hope I've been a public servant. I want to do things to help the community that I can do. I still want to help people and volunteer my time to do things. My family has been here forever and I just feel like it's the place to be. I don't know why anybody would want to be anywhere else," he said.

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