HUNTSVILLE —Scott County will join a class action lawsuit that seeks money owed to the local community by the U.S. government on federal lands that make up the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.
By unanimous vote at Monday’s meeting, Scott County Commission ratified a decision by County Mayor Jeff Tibbals to join the class action lawsuit, along with 23 other Tennessee counties.
While the federal government does not pay taxes on the lands it owns, it does make payments in lieu of taxes to the counties in which those lands are located. According to the county’s attorney, John Beaty, the federal government did not fully fund those payments in the fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017, amounting to just over $145,000 in federal funds due Scott County.
“We’re not asking for damages,” Beaty said. “You cannot get punitive damages from the federal government. However, if they owe this money, we have to file this in order to recover it.”
Beaty said he was not notified of the situation until the 11th hour, resulting in Tibbals make the necessary filing for Scott County to join the lawsuit on Friday, conditional upon the commission’s vote on Monday.
The lawsuit is being filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Beaty said there should not be backlash from the federal government related to Scott County’s decision to join the lawsuit.
“I did reach out to the law firm and to other sources to make sure they didn’t feel like there would be any backlash from us joining this lawsuit,” he said. “This money is money that is owed to us anyway. We’re not asking the federal government to pay money that isn’t owed.”
Scott County will not have to pay any court fees upfront. If the county is successful in recouping its money, one-third of the court’s award will be retained by attorneys to cover their fees and the court costs.
“If we hadn’t filed this form there’s no way we’d have ever recovered the money,” Tibbals said, pointing out that the 34 percent attorney premium is not a reason to not join the class action lawsuit.
The Big South Fork NRRA is the fifth-largest national park unit in the eastern United States, encompassing nearly 125,000 acres in five counties — Scott, Fentress, Morgan and Pickett counties in Tennessee, and McCreary County, Ky.