Friday, February 01, 2008

Renting the West Unit

(News-Herald, January 31) Tuesday morning, when I read Rod Bedow’s slightly hysterical missive about the county commissioners’ meeting (about “silent dictators,” the need to “pray in fear” and “indenture servants”—I think he meant “indentured”) I knew I’d have to go to the meeting and see what all the fuss was about. A real reporter covered the evening confab for the newspaper, so you already know what happened. Let me give you my biased account of what it was like.

The meeting was to discuss any questions about the county’s plan to lease the old West Unit from ORA as a place to house the county Human Services departments.

Chairman Tim Brooks kicked things off with a very stern tone, saying there would only be asking the board questions about the lease, laying out some rules, and expulsion for misbehavior. Bedow’s hired attorney further set the tone by immediately standing up and threatening the commissioners with a lawsuit and suggesting that the previous commissioners were crooks who “foisted” this deal on the current set.

Had the Forest County attorney been any slicker, he would barely have kept from sliding out of his seat. He did a great deal of talking at first, loosing such gems as “I would hate to see this degenerate into a lawsuit” and expressing his “hope of engaging you in conversation to avoid triggering a lawsuit” as if the lawsuit were a wild dog that wandered into the room and not a gun that Bedow has chosen to point at the county’s head.

Bedow brought a variety of arguments with him, including the suggestion that residual radioactivity might well be loose in the old hospital building.

What exactly are the major objections? One appears to be that when Bedow spends government money on something, he wants to own it. His point was that businesses lease because they may want to leave, but county government will not move to Tennessee. He wants the county to own a building.

This touched of a period of great confusion (i.e. several people with strong opinions supported by nothing but opinion and hearsay). That was ended by the attorney, who gave a long condescending answer that wasn’t really an answer, but I think it sapped everyone’s will to continue down that path.

One important question was unanswered—if the government owns a building, what can it do with the equity? Can the county take out a home equity loan on the courthouse, or is government-owned property a big unconvertible asset? This would be useful to know, but I still don’t.

Eventually the attorney, with a fairly simple question to which he surely knew the answer (“what is a stipend”) opened up the can of worms that many people had wanted to take fishing in the first place—the ORA.

There are a few separate objections to the ORA. One is that they deal in real estate—some people are certain that economic development is concerned with machines to make stuff, but not places to put the machines.

Everyone agrees that such an outfit should be self-sustaining, but to some people that means a timeline of many years (e.g. Franklin’s Third Ward incubator) and to some it means tomorrow. And, as often the case, some people object to paying employees a salary. One audience member asked ORA head Randy Seitz if he was paid a salary, demanding a yes or no answer as if we were uncovering a deep, shameful secret.

Government should own the real estate. People should work for the greater good and not for money. I had no idea that conservative Venango County housed so many communists.

Numbers were thrown around, most in a manner that was meaningless and didn’t prove much of anything. A few folks got heated up. The attorney dispensed some more threats. (“If it turns out I’m right, you’ve got real problems.”) Bedow delivered one more oration, and the meeting—not so much informational as a great chance for everyone to share and vent—broke up.

By the end of the evening, everyone was behaving amicably and politely (Randy Seitz could teach master classes in shmooze). I’m still not entirely sure why some folks are so agitated. Bedow declared he could build a suitable new building for five million, so perhaps he just wants the business. Afterwards, one opponent allowed “I get angry when I see government handing something to some low life who isn’t willing to work,” so maybe we’re just mad at the human services department.

Personally, I’d much rather spend my tax dollars on ORA than on law suits. At least the ORA is doing what very few have done for the region in the last thirty years—something.

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