A contentious Johnson County board of commissioners meeting Tuesday night, May 24, left county residents with more questions than answers. The regular meeting was moved to the high school commons to accommodate expected crowds, following an emergency meeting held on Friday, May 6th to discuss the acquisition of part of the vacant 240 acre Gambit Golf Course property as a site option for the county administration building. Other site options discussed in the past have been a downtown Vienna location and the industrial park near exit 16. Commissioners Phil Stewart, Fred Meyer, and Ernie Henshaw were all present.
Board Chairman Phil Stewart provided little direction to the meeting, making it unclear whether the board was addressing the administration building site, saving the golf course, or both. Stewart started the meeting by reading the agenda item – “Land purchase and site”- and immediately inviting public comment, providing no context for the discussion, no indication of which proposals were under consideration, and no information regarding the goal of the meeting.
Mike McMahan, a local resident who was involved with the sales tax initiative, was the first to speak, presenting his proposal for an advisory committee to assist the board in locating and building the administration building. He presented this as a compromise position between the county board managing the project directly and the alternative option of creating a Public Building Commission. The Illinois Public Building Commission Act allows local governments to create a Public Building Commissions with broad powers to manage complex building projects. McMahan stated that he is uncomfortable with the amount of authority that is delegated to these commissions, but believes that expert locals could be brought in on an advisory basis to assist the county board.
McMahan distributed a detailed description of his proposal, including an October 2016 deadline for a recommendation report for the commissioners’ consideration.
McMahan asked the commissioners for permission to circulate a petition on this proposal. Commissioners Meyer and Stewart were not enthusiastic; Stewart stated that “we don’t need a petition; we was elected by the county to make decisions…the three of us are plenty capable to do that”.
Meyer was also opposed to McMahan’s advisory committee proposal, adding “I feel the same way” and “I say no, myself”. McMahan invited Meyer to “reconsider that statement”, and then presented one of Meyer’s 2014 campaign advertisements, where Meyer, at that time, wrote that “if elected I will propose the idea of a building commission made up of 11-13 people” and that the county offices should be put “back directly on the square”, both positions to which Meyer is now opposed.
Commissioner Meyer attempted to explain the change in his positions, saying “a lot has changed in two years” specifically noting that “I have found out how much it will actually cost the county” to demolish the current buildings, stating “probably a million and a half to two million dollars”.
When one local resident asked Meyer to explain the source of the two million dollars estimate, he said “Like everyone else, I guess I dragged it out of the air” as he mimed grasping the air with his hand.
Later in the meeting, Larry Mizell made a presentation on behalf of Johnson County 2000, Inc., the non-profit board that operates the industrial park near exit 16 in Vienna. While Mizell made sure to reaffirm that “the Johnson County 2000 Board of Directors believe that the…building best serves the community by remaining on or adjacent to the Vienna town square area”, he wanted to present an option in case the “commissioners make the decision to locate it elsewhere”.
Mizell explained that, since the industrial park land was purchased through a grant from USDA Rural Development, any parcels must be sold at a minimum of appraised market value. He proposed that the county could buy an available five acre parcel; the price would be the full appraised market value plus an additional $300,000; Johnson County 2000, Inc. would then commit to use the extra $300,000 for various economic development projects, such as acquisition and marketing of the six acre abandoned Gambit Inn property at exit 16 and matching money for grant funds for construction of a frontage road on the south end of the industrial park. Mizell noted that this could be a “win-win” for Johnson County.
A string of interested residents then addressed the board with their thoughts and concerns on the proposals under consideration. Mayor Jon Simmons of Vienna made an ardent appeal for keeping the county offices on the public square: “If you would, please put it somewhere by the square, or on the square…please consider this”. Vienna property owner Nancy Porter submitted a letter to the board in favor of the downtown Vienna site, due to its proximity to the court house, and stating that the “mixed-use development” characteristic of the downtown area is the future of development practices. Vienna resident Zach Garrett noted the negative property tax consequences of taking the Gambit Inn property “permanently out of circulation”, observing that the county is the “anchor employer and institution” on the city square and that the “city will have a big mess on their hands if the county leaves” the downtown location.
Tom Cole, retired Vienna High School Athletic Director, spoke in favor of the golf course site, explaining that the county has a “chance to increase the tax base” with additional development east of Vienna, and warning the board about the decrease in tax revenue if the golf course is converted back to farmland. Vienna dentist Dr. Robin Wetherell, while affirming that the downtown location is desirable, also spoke in favor of integrating the golf course into the county’s plans, emphasizing that “communities are in competition with one another” and that development of tourism could create an “income influx” and keep “tax revenue coming in”.
One local citizen – stating “I am a golfer” – said he was “in favor of the golf course staying open” and held that “we owe our children” a golf course. Board Chairman Phil Stewart seemed to agree, stating that we need to go “out”; that he would not like to see a building “in town…the nice new building with all the surrounding old buildings” and that he would like to see “all of this out somewhere in a new nice spot”.
Morris Mott, owner of Mott Excavating in Vienna and former Vienna High School board member, struck a conciliatory tone, hoping that they could still “be friends” after his statement; he stated that the board needed to “study it more in depth”, “don’t get in such a big hurry”, and he seemed to concur in part with McMahan’s proposal for advisory assistance, saying that the board needed to look for “smart people” to help them make good decisions.
As the attendees spoke, it remained unclear if the board was more focused on addressing the administration building location or the vacant golf course; the issues were muddled with no clarification forthcoming from the commissioners.
After minimal discussion, Meyer made a motion to further postpone decision on the administration building site and/or the golf course issue, seconded by Henshaw. The vote to postpone was unanimous.
Other issues addressed by the board at this meeting included plumbing issues at the senior citizens’ building, celebration of the upcoming Illinois bicentennial in 2018, and a proposal from Newcomb Heating and Air to help the county deal with the ongoing serious mold issues in the county office buildings on 5th Street. Additionally, the commissioners all expressed their appreciation for departing county employee Faith Haney.
At the end of the meeting, after most of the attendees had left, the commissioners gave their final thoughts on the direction of this meeting. Meyer said bluntly that “no one wants us out there at the Shagbark [Gambit Inn site]” and that “Larry had a pretty good idea”, referring to the Johnson County 2000, Inc. proposal to sell the county five acres at market value plus an additional $300,000. Henshaw expressed support for the county to take some action on the golf course, but separately from the administration building issue. Henshaw summarized the lack of clarity and direction in the meeting, lamenting that we “should have never got the golf course and county office building intertwined”, further explaining that it is “not helping the process on either end” and that they are “just two separate issues”.
The board adjourned after a short executive session.