Clark will end 20 years as county executive

By Thomas Wilson


   Truman Clark plans to take a vacation this week.
   The holiday will be the fifth time the outgoing county executive has taken a full week's vacation -- in 20 years as Carter County's top executive.
   "It's just a way of life that you get into," said Clark. "I've never had much time off and I haven't taken much time off."
   After that, Clark will be taking a much longer vacation.
   The Truman Show will officially end September 1 when a new county executive will be sworn into office. Seven candidates are vying to become the next county executive.
   A Happy Valley native, Clark served as a county commissioner from 1972 to 1974 after he was elected in a special election to replace Conley Simerly after his death.
   "One of the first things we did was build the landfill. That was one of the first projects we had when I was a county commissioner," recalled Clark. "That was one of the most satisfying things we had accomplished for the county."
   He was elected to a four-year term in 1978 to 1982 as a county commissioner. He won his first term as County Executive in 1982, succeeding former county executive Don Lewis.
   A time when the county was experiencing financial tumult, particularly in the general fund.
   "There were financial problems when I came into office at the time," Clark said. "The county's financial shape was really a concern at that time. When I came in we had about $2,500 in the undesignated fund balance. Today, we have about $658,000.
   "People see that and think you have got a lot of money but what they don't understand is, that is gone in two payrolls."
   When asked about his toughest assignment as county executive, Clark doesn't hesitate to recall the devastating weather conditions.
   "The flood of 1998 and the blizzard of 1998 were the worst times of all that I went through," said Clark. "Three and four days without sleep, calling everyone to get help and money to rebuild the infrastructure. I don't know of any tougher times we've seen come through the county than that."
   The state's four-year tax debate had its genesis in the early 1990s when Clark was on the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR).
   "We were studying the tax structure and about that deficit that was coming in the early 1990s," said Clark.
   Clark cited drawing the Workforce and Development Center into the former Great Lakes industrial building, constructing two new schools and remodeling several others as other notable accomplishments made by the county in recent years.
   He said he was also excited about the creation of the Watauga Regional Authority to establish a long-term water source for the city and county's rural utility districts.
   "The Authority is going to be one of the greatest things we could've done," said Clark.
   The county's modest tax base and lack of major revenue engines in terms of sales tax or a wheel tax force the county departments to operate frugally, he said.
   "There is a limited amount of money available in the county. That has to be utilized the best way," Clark added. "A county the size of Carter County can't fund what a county the size of Sullivan County can fund. There just isn't the tax base there."
   The next executive along with the soon-to-be selected county finance director will have daunting challenges ahead, said Clark.
   Along the way, Clark said he'd heard his share of praise and criticism.
   "There are a lot of people sad to see you go and a lot of people happy to see you go," he laughed.
   He has pulled the county out of financial trouble, won two Republican county primaries and another county election by an eyelash, and worked to keep the county's property tax rate among the area's lowest.
   This despite battling the loss of industrial citizens such as North American Rayon and Jarl, who departed Carter County and took hundreds of jobs with them.
   "It is a perception by some that things aren't divided equally among the county's districts," said Clark. "People said because I was from Happy Valley that Happy Valley got the most. Well, a lot of times, they got the least."
   The son of William and Juanita Clark, the county executive was born and raised in the Happy Valley community.
   Clark earned an Industrial Arts degree and minor in Mathematics at East Tennessee State University (ETSU). An educational experience that gave him a strong appreciation for algebra.
   "I would love to teach algebra," he said. "I guess because I loved to work with it and could work with it."
   He spent three years in the U.S. Army after graduating as the top Reserve Officer Training Candidate program's top student at ETSU.
   "We had about 1,500 people in the ROTC. At that time, everybody at the college took ROTC for at least two years," said Clark.
   He went on to spend 20 years working in the family's lumber business before entering the world of politics.
   He and his wife, Katrina, who passed away after a long bout with cancer in 2000, raised four children: Larry Dale, Kenneth, Connie and Michael.
   Clark said he didn't expect to seek a new political office in the immediate future. Instead, he has thought about spending time at home and overseeing some capital projects on his Milligan Highway residence.
   "I'm going to do some projects around my house, and we'll see how bored I get," he chuckled. "But, I think I'll enjoy retirement, frankly."