By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The city of Havre's plans to sell the Heritage Center have hit another roadblock. The Finance Committee of the Havre City Council met Monday, hoping to get the green light to move ahead with its intentions to sell the downtown landmark, but instead, the committee took no action.
The city is still unsure if it will have to pay back any of the $89,600 grant money from the Montana Department of Transportations's Community Transportation Enhancement Program used to purchase the center in 1996, if the historic building is sold to a private entity.
"My gut feeling tells me that it's not going to be an issue," Craig Erickson, director of community planning at Bear Paw Development Corp., said at Monday's meeting. "But a decision to sell the building cannot be made until we get a definite answer. We need to assess the city's liability."
Erickson said he's been working with MDT officials in Helena to find answers on whether there will be any penalty to the city if the building is sold, but the city's questions haven't had the easy answers he'd hoped for.
"I've conveyed to them the urgency of the situation. This whole thing has been a learning process for everyone involved," Erickson said.
In July Erickson was informed that CTEP funds - used for transportation-related projects that are designed to "strengthen the cultural, aesthetic, and environmental aspects of Montana's intermodel transportation system" - can be used for the historic preservation of privately owned structures. Originally the city had planned to use CTEP funds to fix the roof on the Heritage Center - an estimated $92,000 project. But because the roof repairs can be designated as historic preservation, a private purchaser of the building could apply for CTEP funds as well, alleviating the city's responsibility for the historic building.
"We don't have the money to continue managing the Heritage Center," Mayor Bob Rice said at Monday's City Council meeting. "We have a $250,000 deficit as we speak. We simply don't have the funds available to keep the building."
According to city clerk Lowell Swenson, the city's preliminary budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 contains about $240,000 in proposed spending for which revenue has not been identified.
The city took over management of the Heritage Center on July 1. The H. Earl Clack Foundation had leased the building since 1996, when the city purchased the former post office and federal courthouse from the U.S. Postal Service with CTEP funds. When a five-year lease expired in 2001, the foundation continued to manage the building under a tenancy-at-will agreement with the city. The two parties had been attempting to negotiate a new lease when the foundation announced in May that it planned to relinquish management responsibility of the building on July 1 because of financial constraints. The City Council voted June 21 to consider selling the building to a private purchaser.
The Finance Committee is now considering three proposals from local, private entities to buy the building, which houses Hill County's H. Earl Clack Museum and some business offices.
"We really need to get the ball rolling on this so the museum, the city and this community know where they stand," Finance Committee chair Tom Farnham said at Monday's committee meeting.
Erickson said he hopes to have some answers soon.
"We're just waiting to get the go-ahead," he said. "We not only need the green light from the Montana Department of Transportation, we also need input from the Federal Highway Administration. We're dealing with two layers of government, and that takes time."
Because no bids were received the first time the city opened the bidding process to repair the center's roof, the city is accepting bids again. The first deadline was July 22. Roof repair bids are now due Aug. 19.
City Council member and Clack Museum manager Emily Mayer Lossing addressed the council during the public comment period at the end of the council meeting. She proposed leaving the fate of the Heritage Center to the city's voters.
"The building is too important to the community for just a few to make the decision for the many," she said.
Mayer Lossing proposed placing the issue of taxpayer funding of the Heritage Center on the ballot in November 2005. She said she believes voters would agree to pay a small increase in taxes - an estimated $24 per year - to support the building financially, keeping the cultural center in the hands of the public.
"The Heritage Center should be and can be a building we can all be proud of," she said. "It should remain a publicly owned building."
The Finance Committee will meet Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. to review the final written proposals for the Heritage Center. Depending on information it receives from Erickson and CTEP, the City Council is tentatively scheduled to vote on which private group to sell the building to at its regular meeting Aug. 16 at 8 p.m.
In other City Council business:
Council members voted to draft a letter to the state's congressional delegation expressing their support for a four-lane U.S. Highway 2 across Montana. Rice said the council already passed a resolution of support for the 4 for 2 project in 2001.
The council voted in favor of a resolution designating all city parks in Havre as tobacco-free. The resolution was presented to the council by the HELP Committee and Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line.
The City Council voted to approve a request by Lila Drive residents to post a dead-end sign at South Dell and Lila Drive. The residents said they hope the sign will deter drivers from speeding in the area.