the county to do the wrong thing
For 128 years, the graceful cut-stone walls of downtown Marion’s historic Bowron Building have survived floods, tornadoes, booms, and busts. Now they face their stiffest challenge: surviving county government.
After 24 years of neglectful ownership, county commissioners washed their hands of the building Monday after nearly a decade of bad-mouthing it. The last remaining county office will move out next week.
Rather than spend up to $8,000 to fix a broken air conditioner, the county will spend at least $9,000 for a year’s rent and utilities in a much smaller, non-descript concrete-block building that has been home to a series of failed businesses since 1975. Two employees who have been sweltering in 83-degree offices will move there.
The taxpayer money that will be frittered away on rent for them is in addition to nearly $19,000 a year the county already is spending to rent space at St. Luke Hospital for three other full-timers and four part-timers, whom commissioners shuttled out of Bowron two years ago.
Bowron’s fate is now in the hands of the county’s controversial, quasi-private economic development corporation, whose officers went out of their way to encourage commissioners to abandon the building and let them market it to the general public instead.
On the advice of the corporation’s head, who actually set the price, the county will now pay rent based on a $60,000 asking price for the former chiropractor’s office, which county appraisal records list as being worth only $27,320.
On the advice of another of the corporation’s officers, this will get the county out of the real estate business — which may be a good thing, given that last week the county paid $170,000 to buy a former Auto House location, appraised at just $122,870, to serve as an ambulance station in Marion’s commercial park.
Whether it’s appraisers or commissioners, clearly someone in the courthouse knows nothing about real estate values.
Development officers repeatedly argued about the need for putting Bowron back on the tax rolls and letting private developers update it. Completely unclear is how private developers could ever be expected to pay for renovations that the county says it cannot, despite having an untapped bank account of nearly $2 million in excess sales tax proceeds, specifically restricted to paying for administrative offices.
“Don’t you want retail in your town?” was all the development chief would say. When asked what retailer might come and how such a retailer could afford the price, the only reply was: “Don’t you want things to be positive and heading in the right direction?”
Apparently, Shoeless Joe from “Field of Dreams” is planning to put in a shoe store.
A less Pollyannaish view was expressed by Marion’s economic developer, who is not a member of the new corporation. The first order of business, he said, is to debunk a county-financed study that concluded it might cost as much as $500,000 to renovate Bowron.
The old study, which commissioners repeatedly used as an excuse for not maintaining Bowron, included adding an elevator and making all 5,175 square feet — more 1½ times the 3,090 square feet of office space in Marion’s city building — fully accessible for people with disabilities.
Avoiding the commissioners
One of the worst-kept secrets in the county is that the only way the new development corporation could be sold to skeptical municipalities — and Hillsboro still hasn’t agreed — was that if it were totally beyond the control of county commissioners.
Years ago, commissioners spent much of their time railing about Keystone pipeline exemptions. Nowadays, they have become the Keystone Cops of governmental efficiency.
These are the same commissioners who on Monday seemed to inflate the list of demands their new, secretly selected lake superintendent had for renovation of the free housing he will receive. They didn’t know about what appears to be his arrest (though eventually discharged) on domestic battery charges. They listened, largely without comment, as a departing employee lectured them about how county employees deserve regular longevity raises, regardless of merit, even if they already are paid above scale.
At practically every meeting, commissioners give someone a raise, like the 9.7 percent raise given last week to a worker in the appraiser’s office who basically became certified to do her job, or the 2 percent raise given to a register of deeds employee merely because she was on the job for six months. The previous meeting saw two driver’s license examiners getting 12th-month raises of 1.9 percent and three ambulance attendants receiving raises of around 2 percent for completing 6 or 12 months on the job. The cost of living, as measured by Social Security benefit adjustments, rose only 0.3 percent last year.
From cell phones to bottled water, county employees seem to get whatever they want. Lawyers, engineers, and zoning consultants are hired every time commissioners turn around. But buildings that actually might mean something 125 years from now are ignored and turned over to developers who seem to think retail is going to come back to small town America, but only in Marion County.
It’s time for county voters to do some hand-washing of their own. Commissioners can meet secretly behind closed doors as much as they want once they are out of office. Let’s help them achieve that objective.
— ERIC MEYER