Despite unresolved questions regarding ownership, Pottawattamie County Supervisors voted 5-0 last Tuesday to move forward with interior demolition of the former law enforcement center at the Pottawattamie County Courthouse.
Supervisors approved a $19,000 contract with HGM Associates to provide demolition design documents, bidding and construction administration for the now-vacant law enforcement center.
The two-story structure at the southeast corner of the Courthouse has been vacant since the Council Bluffs Police Department moved to its new headquarters building early this year.
When the then-new Pottawattamie County Courthouse opened in 1977, the law enforcement center was shared by the police department and the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office. The police department took over the entire space when the Sheriff’s Office moved to its current location on Big Lake Road in 1999.
At the time the Courthouse was built, the city of Council Bluffs and the county each contributed $610,882 toward construction of the law enforcement center, with the majority of the cost covered by federal grants.
As construction of the new Police Department headquarters neared completion last year, city and county officials began negotiating the future of the 40-year-old law enforcement center.
Early last year, the city asked the county for $575,000 as payment for the city’s investment when the law enforcement building was built in the last 1970s. The county claimed documentation showed the county owns the building and did not owe the city anything when the Police Department vacated the building.
In April of 2018, supervisors voted 5-0 to deem the useful life of the law enforcement center expired, essentially ending — in county officials’ view — the right to occupy agreement that had allowed the Police Department to use the space in the building.
“We never paid rent, but we paid our share of expenses,” said Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh. “We were never a tenant, we were joint owners.”
County Attorney Matt Wilber advised supervisors the phrase “useful life” does not necessarily mean a building deemed to have reached its useful life can’t be used going forward.
Walsh said the $575,000 request for payment by the city was based on appraisals completed for the city and the county in 2009 — a time when prices were low because of the recession. He said one of the appraisals came back at $1.1 million and the second at $1.2 million and both would likely be higher now.
Walsh said he recommended that the appraisals be averaged, with half of the average — $575,000 — going to the city.
He said the city offered to accept payment of the $575,000 over a period of 20 years with no interest.
“It was a sweetheart deal of sweetheart deals for county taxpayers,” Walsh said. “Our offer was not well received.”
“How can you say a building has ended its useful life when they want to spend money on it?” Walsh said. “I would say a judge would not uphold the county’s premise that the buildings useful life has ended. We contributed as much as the county to that building, and to have them lock us out is not fair.”
“There’s nothing anyone can find that says the county should reimburse the city,” Supervisor Scott Belt said. “We, as a board, have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of the county. I hope we can do what’s right for the taxpayers.”
Belt said that while supervisors have approved the contract with HGM to initiate the interior demolition of the law enforcement center, the county has not finalized any plans for future use of the space. He said, however, there has been discussion of utilizing the space to house community services, the county’s IT department, GIS and the Planning Department.
“The true update from us is there is no update,” Wilber, the county attorney, told The Nonpareil in December. “There have been no real discussions since April.”
Walsh said this week that the decision on how to move forward rests with the City Council.
City Councilman Roger Sandau said he’s not aware of discussion of the issue since the council voted in April 2018 to request mediation with county officials.
“Everybody is on a different page,” said Councilwoman Melissa Head. “A few of us are willing to compromise, since it’s all taxpayers’ money.
Head said it might be time for the council to revisit the issue now that supervisors have approved the beginning of the demolition process.
Like Sandau and Head, Councilwoman Sharon White said there have been no negotiations with the county for more than a year although she has visited informally with Supervisor Chairman Tim Wichman about possible compromise agreements.
“The council has to do something,” she said. “The question is what. I’m open to discussion. Maybe there are things we can do to cover our differences.”
Councilmen Nate Watson and Mike Wolf could not be reached for comment.
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