City says it has no money for Heritage Center
A group of present and former Clack Foundation board members and other concerned advocates of the Heritage Center appealed to the Havre City Council's Finance Committee on Monday night to level with them about the prospects of city help for the beleaguered building.
The answer from the committee was firm: The city may be able to help with services, but it has no money to spare, so the building's current monthly shortfall of about $600 a month should be made up by cutting in half the hours of the building's only paid employee, building manager Debe VandenBoom.
Foundation members said that was not a good option.
"You simply can't turn that building loose without somebody being there," said former foundation member John Brumley. "I think you would lose renters. I don't think that's a very good cost-cutting measure."
"I wouldn't like to see it happen," Clack Foundation vice president Elaine Morse said after the meeting. "I don't know how it could be operated without Debe or somebody. But it may be something we have to consider."
Foundation board members repeatedly told the committee Monday night that if the foundation walks away from the building, the city will be faced with a much greater financial burden than if it helps the foundation now.
"I'm baffled by the fact that if the city takes over the building, they feel they would have the money to run it," said Clack Foundation board president Keith Lokensgard. "If the city has the money to do these things we are not able to do, then, boy, the city is in a much better position than I had been led to believe."
"You have to cut something too," responded committee chair Tom Farnham. "This is a business. When you've got to cut you've got to cut, and you've got to cut your help sometimes." He added that cutting the building manager's hours in half would save $1,000 a month.
Brumley said the foundation is close to breaking even now, but that its stamina is flagging. "It is financially and physically exhausted at this point," Brumley said.
"The reality is that that's the city's building," Brumley said. "The reality is it's going to be on your shoulders. The question is whether it's going to be one-third on your shoulders or half or all of it."
Finance committee member Rick Pierson read a letter from city attorney Jim Kaze presenting the city's options with the Heritage Center.
The letter said the city can legally make a grant to the center, as long as it is for a "public purpose." The city would have to budget for such an expenditure, the letter said.
Kaze wrote that another option would be "to reduce or eliminate rent" instead of a direct grant.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said today that is not an option, because the foundation pays no rent to the city. The foundation uses rent from its tenants to pay the utilities on the building, and the city receives no money for the building, he said.
Another options outlined in the letter included donating the building to a nonprofit group willing to restore it.
Pierson emphasized the city's budget situation.
"Last year we had an $80,000 shortfall in the city budget," Pierson said. "It's my understanding we're going to have another budget deficit this year." He said he was not questioning the job VandenBoom does, and that he does not want the city to take over the building.
Morse said it was possible that the assistance would only be needed for a year or two.
"Unless we can get this little boost, we're in trouble," Morse said.
The discussion shifted when Morse said the foundation would welcome city contributions in services, not just monetary assistance. She said if the city could help with health insurance, shoveling snow, maintenance and other services, it would help the foundation make ends meet.
Farnham agreed to meet with Morse to look over the list of possible services the city could assist with before the next council meeting on June 16.
Rice told the committee that the city could provide services, but that it would not be able to waive utility fees like water bills.
Rice also said he is putting out a survey in a newsletter asking Havre residents if they would be willing to pay $2 each to help the Heritage Center.
"I'll be honest with you. I am really getting tired of getting beat up over this thing because whatever I do, I'm getting beat up," he said.
The city has owned the building since 1996, when it was purchased from the U.S. Postal Service for $150,000. The Clack Foundation paid for much of the match required to release the CTEP funds used by the city to purchase the building.
CTEP is the Community Enhancement Transportation Program, which is administered by the Montana Department of Transportation. Under the program, federal highway dollars are made available for various local improvement projects. Every project using CTEP dollars requires a 13.42 percent local match before the money can be used.
In 1996 the Clack Foundation became responsible for the lease of the Heritage Center. The foundation's five-year lease ran out in August 2001, but under its current "tenancy-at-will" agreement with the city, the foundation can continue to use the building until the city asks it to leave. The Clack Foundation has continued to pay to keep the building running.