By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Clack Foundation is conducting its own survey to gauge public opinion on whether the city of Havre should pay to keep the Heritage Center open.
City Council members said today they had not yet seen the questions, which were approved by the Clack Foundation board on Wednesday, but that they will take the results into account when they make a final decision on the matter in July.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice has included a similar one-question survey on the back of his quarterly newsletter this month, but foundation members expressed concerns that Rice's survey is not reaching enough people, and that his question is not specific enough.
"(City Council members) have to be responsive to their taxpayers," said foundation vice president Elaine Morse. "We're just trying to help do the right thing and let them know they have support in the taxpayer community."
The city purchased the historic building from the U.S. Postal Service in 1996 with federal highway dollars available for local improvement projects. The Clack Foundation helped raise the local match to secure the funds, and leased the building from the city.
After the lease expired in 2001, the Clack Foundation has continued to run the building and pay its expenses, but a shortage of renters has led to chronic monthly shortfalls currently estimated at $600 a month.
That has led the foundation to appeal to the city for in-kind or monetary support several times this spring. Foundation members have said they might be forced to walk away from the building if the city doesn't help, leaving the city to manage the building.
City Council members have balked at helping because at the time the building was purchased, they say, taxpayers were promised no taxpayer dollars would be needed to keep it going.
The survey asks whether the foundation should continue to operate and pay all maintenance expenses on the building with the help of financial and in-kind contributions from the city.
The next question asks whether the city should refuse to give any type of aid to the foundation to help with its current financial crisis.
The survey also asks whether the city should take over operation of the Heritage Center from the foundation.
Morse said she recognizes that the three-question survey is not scientific, but that it will at least give an idea of the support in the community.
"Hopefully 50 percent of the people would support us. I would hope it would be higher than that," Morse said.
Foundation board member Ardelle Hurlburt said she thinks a great deal of the public is neutral about the issue, but that a lot of people are proud of the building.
She said there would need to be "a lot more positive (responses) than negative ones" for the results to be convincing.
If the results are convincing, she said, she thinks the council will feel obligated to help.
"I think they would feel very obligated in that case," she said. "I think this would turn their feelings around totally."
City Council member Tom Farnham said this morning that he has not seen the new survey, but that he is interested in the outcome.
"We're trying to provide the best services we can at the lowest cost," said Farnham, who chairs the City Council's Finance Committee. "We'd like to know what the people have to say."
Even if the survey comes back with overwhelming support for city help for the center, Farnham said, he could not guarantee that he would consider it a mandate for city involvement. Help would still depend to a large degree on how much money is available at the end of the budgeting process, he added.
City Council President Rick Pierson also said it would be difficult for the survey alone to convince him.
"It would have to be an overwhelming response as far as I'm concerned, that yes, they would want to monetarily support it," Pierson said.
Pierson, who repeatedly reminded council members this spring of the promise that no more taxpayer money would be needed for the building, said he has been called by several constituents who are "dead set against" using taxpayer money, but that there are 1,400 voters in his ward.
"I would take (the survey) into consideration upon my decision," Pierson said. "You've got a lot of facts to weigh when you make a decision. Especially when it's the taxpayer's dollar."
Morse said she would like the surveys to be sent to or dropped off at City Hall by July 1.