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Wadena Board narrowly agrees to buy Bob's Auto building for Friendly Rider transit

In the final meeting of 2013, held Dec. 23, Wadena commissioners spent hours arguing, persuading, joking, and fact-checking in their efforts to complete a wide range of county business.

In the end, the board voted three to two to buy the former Bob's Auto building located next to the county highway department on Harry and Rich Drive in northeast Wadena, to become the new home of Friendly Rider transit service. The location may also become a regional hub for transit serving several counties.

Debate over the purchase of this building had been going on for weeks, but eventually the swing vote, Commissioner Ron Noon, was persuaded that the deal offered by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) was just too good to pass up.

Commissioners Bill Stearns, Jim Hofer, and Noon voted in favor of buying the foreclosed building from its present owner, Black Ridge State Bank, Pine River, for $119,000 plus unspecified closing costs. MnDOT agreed to pay $45,000 towards remodeling the building to suit its new purpose as a bus garage with office space for dispatch services and support personnel. MnDOT will lease the building from the county to serve as the Friendly Rider home for an undetermined monthly rent for 10 years.

Commissioners Rodney Bounds and Dave Hillukka voted against the purchase. Bounds mounted an unprecedented series of objections when the momentum of the group's arguing seemed to be shifting in favor of the purchase, and Hillukka agreed with him.

Bounds tried to raise fears that the building site might be contaminated, and insisted that an environmental impact study of the site be conducted before the purchase was agreed to. Other commissioners, County Engineer Ryan Odden, and County Attorney Kyra Ladd pointed out that the site had only been used by Bob's Auto for two years, and had never been a service station with buried tanks. There was no reason to do an environmental study.

Bounds also suggested that there might be large special assessments levied against the site that the county would have to pay. Realtor Dave Mertens, who represented the bank in the negotiations with the county, said that to his knowledge there were no unpaid special assessments. Bounds said he had been down to the County Assessor's Office and had not been able to get a clear answer from the staff there.

Then Bounds suggested that the bank might be trying to hide something from the county, and that was why the quick sale before Dec. 31 was being required. Mertens said that the bank was trying to get the foreclosed property off its books to get rid of the negative valuation on their books, and that no one else was interested in buying the property.

Then Bounds said that the idea that MnDOT would make Wadena County a hub for regional transit and bring in more jobs was speculation. He said that the belief that more people would use Friendly Rider if there were a regular schedule and more buses was not feasible because Wadena County has such a small population.

Bounds' final attempt to block the purchase came when he asked where the money would come from to buy the building. This issue had already been settled at the Dec. 19 meeting, but Bounds brought it up again. Hofer reminded the group that the money would come $50,000 from Highway, $50,000 from Social Services reserves, and $30,000 from the MCIT insurance dividend.

Bounds then attacked Odden, saying, "For you to take money out of your [Highway] budget for a building, it means that something else isn't being done."

Odden replied that his providing $50,000 was just a cash flow issue while the county waited to be repaid by MnDOT. The money would come back to his budget eventually.

Bounds then asked, "Is this a legitimate Highway expense?"

Odden replied that public transit was within the Highway Department's area.

Hillukka had the final comment after the vote. He said, "I think it's immature for us to buy a building without an environmental study."