OHFA representative apologizes for money owed to county
Monday, July 21, 2014 1:45 PM
A member of the Oneota Historic Future Alliance (OHFA) apologized to the Winneshiek County Board of Supervisors Monday for her organization’s failure to make any progress toward repaying its $9,600 debt to the county for removal of the county caretaker’s house.
The Winneshiek County Home and Farm caretaker’s house, located near Freeport, was built in 1915 as a residence for the superintendent of the facility.
“I apologize for what has been a long silence … it has been difficult to formulate our plan going forward, which is why you haven’t heard anything,” OHFA member Deborah Bishop of Decorah said.
At its meeting last week, the Board unanimously voted to have Winneshiek County Attorney Andy Van Der Maaten file a lawsuit against OHFA in an effort to obtain a judgment for the debt.
In 2008, Sean Devine Meyer paid the county $1 to remove the county caretaker’s house and be allowed to keep all of the materials. The house had been vacant for years, since renters found it too costly to heat.
But OHFA asked the supervisors for time to save the building. In September 2008, the supervisors approved an agreement with OHFA, giving the organization two years to have the structure placed on the National Register of Historic Places and to identify a potential tenant, or take the building down by Nov. 30, 2010.
When OHFA was unable to meet the deadline, it was given an extension. The supervisors set a final deadline of Dec. 31, 2011 to comply with the agreement. When OHFA did not, the supervisors had the building, located near Wellington Place, removed at the county’s expense in 2012.
Van Der Maaten sent OHFA a letter in January of 2012 asking whether a payment plan could be set up to reimburse the county, but he said he was told OHFA has no assets.
In January of 2013, Van Der Maaten sent OHFA another letter regarding the organization’s outstanding obligation to the county. OHFA member James Burns said he was aware of the financial situation but that OHFA lacked the resources to be able to reimburse the county for the building’s removal.
Van Der Maaten contacted an OHFA representative again in March asking whether a reasonable repayment plan could be set up. He did not receive a formal response from OHFA.
“I feel really guilty and bad that it (the debt) is that much and we haven’t done anything about it,” Bishop said Monday.
She said OHFA has materials salvaged from the historic East Side School, including bricks, flooring, trim board, lumber, foundation stones and a large set of doors, which could be sold to cover the debt.
She also suggested the mediation services offered by Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center in Decorah be used to help settle the matter.
“It would be nice and easy if we just had $9,600 in our checkbook and could pay you,” she commented.
Supervisor Dennis Karlsbroten asked whether OHFA had asked a lending institution for a loan to repay the county, using the East Side materials as collateral.
“We sent a letter (to a bank) and received no response. We think we really need to look at that … it would be best to be off your books,” Bishop said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman John Logsdon said he would consider participating in mediation, but is concerned it would involve reducing the amount OHFA owes the county and that it would not involve firm terms or dates for repayment.
“I feel really guilty and bad that it is that much and we haven’t done anything about it. I didn’t come here thinking you should knock it (the debt) down,” Bishop said.
Karlsbroten asked if anyone had offered to buy the East Side materials in one “lump sum.”
Bishop said someone wanted to buy the materials and take them to the East Coast, but because OHFA received donations to salvage materials for local use, the offer was turned down.
“If someone offered you $10,000 today, would you sell it?” Karlsbroten asked.
Bishop said it would depend on what the materials would be used for. If the purchaser planned to use them for a building in downtown Decorah, she said that would be a good use for them.
“I admire your passion, but you’re also in a business dealing here and you have to balance that,” Karlsbroten said.
“It’s definitely time to tell the community what we need and want from them. We want to keep using the materials (here),” Bishop said.
Bishop said OHFA didn’t think the caretaker’s house should be torn down and was successful in writing a site inventory that showed the building was eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
OHFA was not able to obtain a $4,000 grant that would have paid for someone to write a nomination to the National Register. She said it was OHFA’s mistake to think it could accomplish a National Register listing in the time allotted.
“You have been very patient,” Bishop told the supervisors.
Supervisor Dean Thompson said he recognized the good intentions of OHFA and a prior Board’s patience. But the issue now is the contract, the debt and the assets available to settle that debt, he said.
Logsdon said OHFA needs a policy about who the East Side materials will be sold to.
“If you’re going to confine the market to the county, that’s short-sighted,” he said.
Bishop said some materials were donated to the Water Street Park gazebo in downtown Decorah.
“We’re not always going to get paid for every project that we do … we see value in having it (the materials) used again,” she said.
Bishop said the members of OHFA were meeting Monday night and Logsdon asked to hear an update on the group’s strategy for repaying the debt in a few weeks.
“We will actively be pursuing the financing,” she said.
Logsdon, who has been on the Board since the original agreement with OHFA was reached, said he admired Bishop for her principles.
“You’re the only person from OHFA with enough spine to recognize the situation you’re in and try to remedy it … we appreciate it,” Logsdon said. “You know what’s right and what’s wrong … you’re trying.”
“It’s not just me. I couldn’t be doing this without a lot of support,” Bishop said.
OHFA member Janelle Pavlovec said she hoped the Board would discuss the topic of mediation with Van Der Maaten.