Election 2022: Knox County Trustee

Dave Cazalet and Justin Biggs

Election 2022: Knox County Trustee

A well-connected Republican faces a challenge from a Democratic outsider for an open office.

by jesse fox mayshark • June 20, 2022
Image
Dave Cazalet and Justin Biggs

Democrat Dave "Caz" Cazalet, left, is running against Republican Justin Biggs.

(Editor’s Note: Portions of this article previously appeared in our coverage of the Republican primary.)

For such a seemingly humdrum operation, the Knox County Trustee’s Office has generated its share of drama. Current Trustee Ed Shouse is completing his second and final term this year, and he is poised to be the first trustee this century to serve a full term without a felony conviction.

A Marine veteran and newspaper man versus a county commissioner with experience in the Trustee's Office.

Former Trustee Mike Lowe, who served in the office for 13 years before county term limits took effect, pleaded guilty to paying “ghost employees” and personally collecting a share of their salaries, defrauding the county of hundreds of thousands of dollars. District Attorney General Charme Allen called it “the most significant public corruption case in Knox County history.”

Lowe’s successor, John Duncan III — the son of former Congressman John J. Duncan Jr. — served less than three years before pleading guilty to a felony charge of official misconduct over the payment of unearned bonuses to office employees.

Shouse, a former member of both City Council and County Commission, managed to keep the office out of the headlines for his first seven years in office, until problems with a new software installation created headaches for this year’s property tax collections. Shouse has apologized profusely for the difficulties, and there is no allegation of any wrongdoing on the part of the office itself.

Still, it creates a somewhat bumpy terrain for the next trustee to navigate — they will take office this September, just weeks before bills are due to go out for 2022 property taxes. Getting those notices mailed on time will be the next trustee’s first big test.

To the degree that local residents are aware of the Trustee’s Office, most probably associate it with paying taxes. The office collects property taxes for residential and commercial properties across the county, as well as personal property taxes from businesses liable for them.

It receives local sales taxes from the state before distributing them to local governments, including the City of Knoxville. It is also responsible for tracking unpaid taxes and for selling off delinquent properties seized for nonpayment. And the office deposits money collected and holds it until needed by the various branches of county government, effectively serving as the county’s banker.

The office is overseen by the county trustee, an elected position. The trustee manages the office’s staff — currently 37 positions in the City County Building and at five satellite locations — and must pay for its operations out of fees and commissions it collects on all funds. Any unspent fees are returned to the county general fund.

Two candidates are vying for the post in the Aug. 4 county general election: Republican Justin Biggs, who has worked in the office for more than a dozen years and also has served as an at-large county commissioner for the past four years; and Democrat Dave “Caz” Cazalet, a retired newspaper publisher and grant manager making his first run for office.

Biggs has the advantage of running as a Republican in a county with a strong GOP lean, along with a significant campaign finance edge: As of the end of April, he reported $12,896 on hand, compared to $2,039 for Cazalet.

Justin Biggs

Biggs can fairly be called a Knox County insider, although he is at pains to say that he has earned his way to that distinction.

He grew up as the son of law enforcement officer Eddie Biggs, who worked for both the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s Office before eventually ending up as Chief Deputy to former Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones.

But Biggs said his combined 15 years of experience in the Trustee’s Office is what should count most, not his family ties or his service since 2018 on County Commission. He currently serves as the office’s collections administrator.

“I've got a really good proven track record when it comes to delinquencies and tax sales and surplus sales, and everything that I deal with throughout the community,” Biggs said. “I feel like that speaks for itself — our work and our work ethic and in our team that we have there.”

In the May 3 Republican primary, he beat retired business executive Richard Jacobs by a 57-43 percent margin. Jacobs ran on his substantial record of private business leadership, but it wasn’t enough to counter Biggs’ name recognition.

The results helped Biggs counter the impression that his political fortunes rested on his family association with Jones — in the same primary, the former sheriff fell flat in his attempted comeback, losing to incumbent Sheriff Tom Spangler by a 71-29 percent margin.

Biggs, whose family traces its roots in Knox County back to 1786, grew up in various parts of the county and graduated from Karns High School in 2001. Now 38, he is married and lives in Halls with a 5-year-old daughter. He does not have a postsecondary degree — which is not required to serve as trustee — and instead spent his years after high school working.

He applied to be a Knoxville fireman and passed tests to join the department’s academy, but he said a budget cut that year led to the class size being constrained and he didn’t get in. He first worked in the Trustee’s Office from 2005-08, and then returned to it for good in 2010. Biggs said he started at the office’s lowest level and worked his way up.

“I've worked in all the satellite offices, I've done the phone operator, front counter, I've done tax relief — I mean, I've done a lot of it,” he said. “At first it was a job, and then I fell in love with it.”

Having worked in the office under both Lowe and Duncan, Biggs said he had learned a lot by observation about the importance of integrity and preserving the trust inherent in the job’s title. 

“I’ve learned what not to do in the Trustee’s Office,” he said. “That will probably sound bad on paper, but it’s the truth. I’ve seen firsthand, ‘Hey, do not do that.’”

In contrast, he praised Shouse’s management of the office, which he promised to continue — including keeping the existing office staff in place.

“The only thing that’s going to change is the name,” Biggs said. “I think Ed’s done a great job, and I’m going to keep doing it.”

As for the software troubles of the past year, Biggs said he expects them to be resolved by the time the next trustee takes office — most of the office’s systems are already up and running again. But if they’re not, he said, he would hold the private contractors accountable.

“If they're not doing what they were supposed to be doing with the contract, I'll terminate and go back to what we had with the Knox County system,” Biggs said.

He said he has ideas for improving some of the office’s services. He wants to create private spaces in each office for people who have to provide personal information to qualify for tax relief, disabled military veterans among them. 

Biggs also wants to do more community outreach to let people know about tax relief they may qualify for, and targeted efforts to remind homeowners who have just finished paying off their mortgages that they are now responsible for paying property taxes. (Mortgage lenders typically make tax payments for the duration of a loan.)

“I want to do an educational pamphlet for people that are getting ready to come through their final years of payment, and kind of let people know, hey, don't let this lapse, don't fall into delinquency,” Biggs said. “Because there's a portion of our delinquency, that's what that is.”

During his time on Commission, Biggs said he is happiest about supporting new elementary school buildings in Halls (Adrian Burnett) and Lonsdale, and the advancement of the Schaad Road extension project.

On the other hand, he points to the political divisiveness over the county’s response to COVID-19 as his most difficult period on Commission. Biggs was a leading voice for dissolving the county’s Board of Health and placing authority over the local pandemic response with the county mayor. He said the backlash he received was unnerving, including threats and people coming to his house.

“People started throwing stuff in my yard,” he said. “I had to get an alarm system and a camera system in my house because it was so bad.”

If he is successful in his bid for trustee, Biggs said he hopes for a lower profile.

“If you see me on the front of the newspaper, it's hopefully going to be to remind you of your property taxes that are due,” he said.

Dave “Caz” Cazalet

Cazalet knows a thing or two about the front page. In a long career as a publisher, the Marine Corps veteran operated several local newspapers in Kansas, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Now retired from both print media and a subsequent stint as a grant manager for community colleges, Cazalet at age 74 said he is able to do something he had long considered — running for office.

“As a newspaper publisher, I didn’t feel it was right to be in county government and also be reporting on it,” he said. 

Although he was born in Brooklyn and mostly grew up in Texas, Cazalet has a long history with Tennessee. After high school, he briefly entered a Catholic seminary and then joined the Marines when he decided ecclesiastic life was not for him.

During that period he also met his wife, a Tennessee native, in Atlanta. They have four children, including two sons who have also served in the military.

“My oldest son won two Bronze Stars during his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a bomb-disposal expert,” Cazalet said.

After leaving the Marines, Cazalet used his GI Bill benefits to earn a bachelor’s degree in science from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. He started on a master’s degree, but a local newspaper where he had been working as advertising manager offered him the chance to be publisher at a paper the company owned in Hiawatha, Kan. 

During his time there, the paper covered stories including murders committed by a member of the anti-government extremist group Posse Comitatus.

Later, while running a paper in Russell County, Ky., Cazalet was sued for libel over editorials it published, by a county executive who had lost a reelection bid. After a seven-year battle through multiple courts, Cazalet said, he and the paper were completely vindicated.

“By the time it was over, it was 1997, and I had had enough of the newspaper business,” Cazalet said. (Between the Kansas and Kentucky papers, he ran the Monroe County Advocate in Tennessee, just south of Blount County, for five years.)

He shifted to a job in community development and then public relations with Somerset Community College in Kentucky. In 2012, his wife retired from teaching school and wanted to move back to East Tennessee. Cazalet found a job in grant writing and management with Pellissippi State Community College, from which he retired in 2017.

Since then, he’s had time to contemplate the local and national political landscapes, and he’s concerned about both. A former Republican who once served as a county chairman for former Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, Cazalet said he left the party over its evolution during the past decade.

“The reason I'm running is I'm so upset about what's going on in Tennessee as far as the Republicans,” he said, “and the laws that the Republican state Legislature with their supermajority is passing, which are taking away people's rights.”

Cazalet said he recognizes that the position of county trustee is not inherently political or ideological, which he said is all the more reason for it to go to someone with a track record of holding public officials accountable and responsibly tracking public funds.

“I don't think it matters whether it's a Democrat or Republican who's in that office,” Cazalet said. “What matters is the competency and efficiency and integrity of the trustee counts above everything. And I think that I've proven throughout my life (that) I do not give in to pressure. When I know something is right, I go and I do it.”

He accused Biggs of being an “opportunist” looking for a comfortable perch in the City County Building. He was also critical of Biggs’ role in disbanding the county Board of Health at the height of the pandemic, noting that Biggs defended his position by saying he was trying to help local businesses.

“My opinion is he chose money over the lives of people,” Cazalet said.

At the same time, he was complimentary of Shouse’s tenure as trustee, saying, “He has really done a pretty good job over there.” If he is elected, Cazalet said he would listen to Shouse’s counsel on the strengths and weaknesses of the office staff.

Because of his age, Cazalet said he would only be looking to serve one term, with the goal of building a strong staff of people who could succeed him.

“I’m not going to be a lifetime politician,” he said. “But I hope I'll be able to train people in the office to be ready to take over. It would be my goal to find people who are capable of running that office after I leave.”