Commissioners voted Wednesday night to spare the long-vacant and badly damaged Basin Creek caretaker’s house south of town from demolition and instead consider more ways to renovate it.
Commissioner Jim Fisher had asked the council the make a final decision on the house, which was given a “temporary” reprieve three years ago when county officials at the time wanted to tear it down. The stay of demolition is still in place.
Commissioner Dan Foley said there are other pressing priorities and it is time to demolish the house 10 miles south of town and move on. But the council voted 7-3 instead to refer it to a committee for more discussions.
Fisher, Foley and John Morgan voted against doing that, but it was backed by Sheryl Ralph, Bud Walker, Bill Andersen, Dan Callahan, Brendan McDonough, Dan Olsen and John Sorich. Cindi Shaw and Cindy Perdue-Dolan were absent.
The county-owned house in Basin Creek Park has been vacant for years. It has been vandalized badly and needs $140,000 in repairs.
The Public Works Committee will consider the issue now, including a new proposal by Chief Executive Dave Palmer to sell another county-owned house at Basin Creek and put the proceeds into fixing up the century-old caretaker’s house.
The fate of the house stirred more controversy just hours before the council meeting.
Fisher had formally asked the council to decide the issue once and for all, but he said Palmer and other county officials met earlier Wednesday to discuss ways of saving it. Fisher said he wasn’t invited and was only told about the meeting afterward by Ed Randall, the county’s community enrichment director.
“I find this to be a slap in the face to me for not inviting me to this meeting for it was me — Jim Fisher — who submitted the communication they were meeting to discuss,” Fisher wrote in a late-afternoon email to Palmer, fellow commissioners and other county officials.
He said later at the council meeting that he still felt jilted.
Palmer said late Wednesday that he called Fisher and apologized for not inviting him, but he held the meeting to discuss options for saving the house.
Fisher was asking for a final decision on the house, with demolition an option, so Palmer said he wanted to be ready with alternatives. Fisher had made it “pretty clear,” Palmer said, that he wanted the county to get rid of the house.
Palmer said they settled on a proposal to sell another house near the Basin Creek Reservoir that a county employee lives in so he can monitor the area. Money from that sale would be coupled with other resources to fix up the caretaker’s house, where a county employee could keep a better watch on the reservoir once it is opened up for public recreation next year, Palmer said.
“I feel it is necessary, when we open up the reservoir to the public, to protect the park and all its assets,” Palmer told The Montana Standard before the council meeting. “I think it can be fixed up.”
Fisher said that according to Randall, those at the meeting included Palmer, Historic Preservation Officer Mary McCormick, Public Works Director Dave Schultz, Commissioners Dan Callahan and Dan Olsen, Randall and “possibly others.”
Fisher said they “may have been conspiring to gather support” for a proposal to save the house, even though his request to the council did not mention demolition.
Fisher says he is OK with the county selling the caretaker’s house, with the buyer free to spend money fixing it up or moving it. But he opposes the county putting more money into it and is against a county employee living there, and if a buyer can’t be found, it should be demolished.
In his email, Fisher said the private meeting was called prior to Wednesday’s council meeting when he planned to share his thoughts.
“Then to have Mr. Randall call me to meet seemed rather strange for he has little involvement in this issue,” Fisher wrote. “I feel this is an issue that should be addressed in Council Chambers, not in a closed door meeting with a select group of elected and executive appointees.”
Palmer said they were not conspiring against Fisher, a statement he repeated at the council meeting. He also apologized again.
Officials told commissioners a month ago that it would cost nearly $140,000 to repair the house but the county’s insurance carrier would pay about $47,000 of that tab for past vandalism. Grants, private contributions and material donations might cover other costs, they said.
Foley said the employee at the other county-owned house should monitor the area and it made no sense to sell one house to save another. And there were too many other funding priorities to address instead of “adding more dollars into a house that is falling apart,” he said.
But a majority felt otherwise and sent the issue to committee, which could take up the matter next week.