Debate punctuates redevelopment commission meeting

Last week’s meeting between the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and Brown County Commissioners was called to review the county’s new economic development plan, but there wasn’t a lot of talking about that document.

Instead, the audience of about a dozen people was witness to raised voices and sarcastic laughter among RDC members, which caused commissioner Diana Biddle at one point to silence the discussion.

Much of the two-hour meeting was spent debating a proposal to do a survey of Brown County properties and grade them on their physical condition. The purpose would be to find out which homes are truly abandoned and could be redeveloped into livable homes for new people to occupy. RDC member Justin Schwenk had introduced this concept at a presentation in August at the Brown County Playhouse, then the RDC spent several more board meetings talking about it this fall, making no decisions.

The part that RDC members had a hard time agreeing on was the concept of a land bank. It would involve creating a corporation to purchase abandoned properties and convert them to a productive use — in this case, new housing units.

They also were unable to agree on the best way to get data that shows which homes are truly abandoned.

The past couple RDC meetings had been spent talking to a company called Loveland Technologies about getting software to do a property survey and to extract a variety of reports on property data — charts that would show how much property tax is being produced from certain parcels, for instance.

RDC member Jim Kemp didn’t understand why the county would want to commit to spending an estimated $10,000 to get this software when the group didn’t know if there were enough of these abandoned properties to justify creating a land bank.

Other RDC members explained that the board needs data first before it can make any decisions, including whether or not it would even create a land bank. Getting a tool to do this survey and extract these reports is step one.

That was the main disconnect that spurred the raised voices.

“You’re looking at me right now like I’m Santa Claus or the devil, I’m not sure which,” RDC member Jim Schultz told Kemp at one point.

Kemp said no, he was just confused, because just from working with the county health department and area plan commission, “we have all the addresses right now” and “we’re already working with Tom (Reoch, the county’s GIS coordinator)” to create a map of “questionable” homes from a public health and safety standpoint.

That prompted Schultz to ask, “Who is ‘we’?” to which Kemp answered, “It doesn’t really matter.”

RDC member Terry Foy said that it did matter.

Kemp said that “we” was him working with the health department and Reoch. He then started talking about his role in the “blight” conversation and the “false narrative” that’s been told about his vision for Brown County, including the idea that he’s “the rich guy who wants to kick all the poor out of the county.” While he did post a photo of a home with a messy appearance on social media earlier this year, which kicked off a debate about property rights, poverty, culture and other topics, he said that he “emotionally reacted” at that time, and he doesn’t think the county has a big blight problem. “It’s a small percentage,” he said. “… But it doesn’t warrant $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 for a new software system.”

Biddle agreed with him that there are some properties that need to be cleaned up but it’s not a huge issue. And since Brown County has limited resources, she personally wanted to see the RDC work with the tool the county already is paying for, which is what creates the GIS map that the public can view on the county’s website. That program has more capability than most county users are using. Representatives from that company, WTH, also spent some time talking about their product at this meeting.

Biddle also said she wanted to see the RDC change its focus and go back to a vote it took in August 2018, which was to make the primary area for redevelopment the Bean Blossom-Helmsburg area. That would include helping Helmsburg get a grant to fix its stormwater problem, she said.

Kemp started talking about not wanting to see large subdivisions be developed in Brown County.

“Who said that that’s what we want?” Schultz said about the RDC as a whole.

“When have we ever had that conversation?” Kemp asked.

Schultz said it’s come up many times over the years and that the RDC prefers to see smaller pockets of homes.

“Then why hasn’t it happened, then?” Kemp asked. “Why are we having this conversation? Why don’t we have the homes? If you’ve had all these conversations over the last 25 years, why are we just now trying to figure out how to get the Brown County Regional Sewer District up and running?”

“You’re acting like I’m some sort of moron,” Schultz told Kemp.

“Gentlemen, that’s enough,” Biddle interjected.

Residents who’d been in the audience to discuss the economic development plan had started to leave by this point. By the time the 5 p.m. meeting concluded just after 7 p.m., only one of the 13 or so people remained in the audience.

Biddle directed the RDC to work with the tools the county already has to get property data.

She also “cautioned” the RDC that it is not a code enforcement agency; other county departments do those jobs. However, she agreed that the RDC needs data to be able to do its jobs, which include retaining and bringing new residents and businesses into the county to help broaden its tax base.

Later, though, she said “we all know where the houses are” that this survey would be identifying, and that it’s hard to know how many of the other homes the Census shows as “vacant” are truly vacant since so many of them could be vacation homes. She said she thinks the number of “truly abandoned” homes would be quite small.

“That was the purpose of having a survey,” Schwenk said. And then the discussion/debate started around again.

“I think what we’re trying to do is to get a data-driven, analytical approach, so we can take the emotion out of it. Everything escalates to this emotional thing,” Foy said. “… ‘This is what the data says.’ We could be proven wrong, wouldn’t that be wonderful. But I think the time wasted in these ups and downs of things appears to be quite a lot.”

“We’ve got to remember what the goal is, here,” said RDC member and county commissioner Jerry Pittman. “We’re trying to prevent the collapse of this county in the next 20 to 30 years by increasing our tax base, and that means getting more homes, more businesses, growing our tax base so we don’t all wind up having to pay sky-high taxes or dissolving services. That’s the goal of the RDC. First of all, we have to have data to work with; then, we can make some intelligent decisions.”

Kemp said he wasn’t against getting data; he just wanted to do away with the land bank and new software discussions completely.

“So, take away the data and the trigger and figure out a new plan that has your name on it,” said Schwenk, laughing. “That’s what it comes down to, Jim.”

The WTH representatives — who had been in the room listening to all this — again said that they’d work with the commission to get them the tools they needed, since the county is already paying them.

Yet another heated discussion broke out again about the land bank concept before the meeting shifted to the actual economic development plan document more than an hour in. However, the group didn’t get much further into that discussion past objective 1 in the plan, which was “to assess and mitigate potential environmental risks.” Biddle left the room, and while she was out, the group decided to schedule a half-day meeting sometime in January to figure out what the RDC’s focus should be in 2020.

“Our overall focus needs to be on how to reduce what it costs to live in Brown County. That’s what we’re solving for,” Kemp said. “… People in Helmsburg should not be paying $100, $200 a month for water and septic (sewer). That’s insane.”

Schwenk suggested that the group use this economic plan as a guide for whatever projects they discuss in 2020, checking off the objectives that the project relates to.

Another meeting date was not set for residents to comment on the plan.

All volunteer members of the RDC are up for review at the end of December; the county commissioners and the county council choose the members.

“I may have come across this evening as very argumentative or combative, or I don’t know how it came across,” Kemp said. “If there’s a disagreement, is there anything wrong with having a disagreement?”

“Absolutely not,” Pittman said. “Just don’t be disagreeable.”

ON THE WEB:

The Brown County Redevelopment Commission has been video-recording its meetings and posting those videos on its Facebook page. Search for “Brown County Redevelopment Commission” on Facebook to watch.