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4-H Park lease talks continue

December 26, 2012
The biggest issue raised at last Tuesday's public hearing regarding Crawford County's proposed lease of the Crawford County 4-H Community Park in exchange for providing the funding to make the annual loan payments dealt with what happens after the loan on the property is retired.

Terry Allen of the Crawford County 4-H Council Inc. delivers to the county board of commissioners a petition with the signatures of 71 county taxpayers, more than the 50 required, supporting the proposed lease agreement. Photo by Chris Adams
The agreement, in its current draft form, calls for the county to be given year-round space for its Emergency Management Agency office as well as exclusive use of the 66-1/2-acre park for four weeks. In return, the county would pay the Crawford County 4-H Council Inc. $37,168, enough for the annual $32,168 payment on the USDA Rural Development loan as well as $5,000 to cover insurance premiums on the property and grounds maintenance.

While the hearing, at the judicial complex in English, didn't have a large crowd and lasted only about 30 minutes, it did raise the question about how the county can ensure a more long-term return on its investment. While the proposed lease is only for a year, the expectation is that it likely would be renewed annually until the loan, which has a balance of less than $350,000, is retired.

Jim Elliott, a former member of the county council who has been among those who have questioned whether the county has all of the necessary documentation in place to provide funding for the loan payments, said taxpayers need to continue to see a return on their investment beyond the life of the loan.

County attorney John E. Colin, who drafted the lease, admitted that the agreement as proposed doesn't provide that guarantee, but to tie the hands of future councils by extending the terms of the lease wouldn't be prudent.

"The one problem that exists is, I just don't think there can be an instance where you have more than a one-year agreement to it, because it would be inappropriate to bind the council to say, 'We've got to appropriate that every year,' even though that well may be everybody's intention," he said.

Council member Steve Bartels said another question that needs answered is whether the USDA would honor the current terms of the mortgage if the county took ownership of the property from the 4-H.

"That's a good question, Steve. I don't know," Colin answered. "That's certainly something we could communicate with them about."

Bartels said he also agreed with Elliott that, if the taxpayers are paying the loan, there needs to be a "little more forward thinking and future planning on what we're doing here long-term." Instead, he noted, it appears that the county is only looking at fixing the immediate problem.

Jim Schultz, president of the board of commissioners, said the 4-H does have a major investment in the property beside the USDA loan.

The 4-H originally made the loan payments with revenue from a five-year tax levy to construct the main building at the park. When the levy expired, the only way for the 4-H to have continued generating tax income was to have imposed a lower-rate levy for building maintenance, which the county council at the time didn't favor, saying the county could use discretionary riverboat gaming revenue to help with the loan payments. In addition, the 4-H also has received grant money to make infrastructure improvements, and volunteers have invested countless house to the park's upkeep, including mowing.

Bartels said there are some residents who have a misconception that, because of the words "Crawford County" being in the park's name, the county is responsible for the property.

"They don't quite understand that that's not necessarily true," he said. "So, my point is to inform them the facts that this is not county property and it really is not the county's responsibility. We're doing this because we believe in the project and what they (the 4-H) do there."

Noting the need to fast-track the process, as the 4-H, without money from the county, is past due on this year's USDA loan payment, the commissioners had hoped to move as quickly as possible on the lease agreement. To have the hearing, a petition signed by at least 50 Crawford County taxpayers supporting the lease was needed and the 4-H Council had to approach the county council to determine if the lease is needed.

Terry Allen of the 4-H Council presented the commissioners with 71 signatures, but the county council didn't approve funding for the lease when approached at its Dec. 11, as its attorney, Marcus Burgher IV, had just received the draft agreement earlier that day and had some questions.

Colin, Burgher, Bartels and Doug McLain of the county council and Schultz are to meet this week to fine-tune the proposed lease with hopes that the county council will act on it at its reorganization and regular monthly meeting on Thursday, Jan. 3, at 8:30 a.m. at the judicial complex.

The commissioners, who recessed the public hearing, voted 3-0 to meet in special session at 9 a.m. that day with the intent of voting on the proposed agreement, considering the council first gives its approval.

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