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Side view of the historic caretaker's home

This is a side view of the caretaker's home at the Basin Creek Reservoir picnic area. The house has been heavily damaged and its fate debated by county officials for years.

For months and months, Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Jim Fisher has been trying to derail a multi-part county plan for saving and restoring the long vacant and vandalized “caretaker house” at Basin Creek Park.

He says the plan is costly and illogical, believes the “silent majority” in Butte is with him on that, and hopes some of them show up and speak up at a public hearing on the issue at Wednesday night’s council meeting.

“The council has the authority to shut this down, and I will continue to bring this up and try to shut this down,” Fisher said.

He has been outnumbered by supporters of the plan so far, including a majority of commissioners and the county’s top elected official — Chief Executive Dave Palmer.

The current plan, when boiled down to its simplest terms, is to sell another county-owned house near Basin Creek Park, use the proceeds to fix up the caretaker house, then have a county employee live in it.

There are more steps involved than that, but Palmer says they’re worth it to have an employee keeping close watch of the park and Basin Creek Reservoir.

The reservoir has been a key source of drinking water for Butte for more than a century, and if other plans pan out, it could be open for recreational use later this year or next.

The new, nearby $30 million water treatment plant now makes it possible for people to fish and canoe and swim in the reservoir. But it will remain a major water source with waterworks still there and operating.

“In this day and age where people seem to get a kick out of vandalizing things, I think we’ve got to protect our investment and have somebody there,” Palmer said. “It’s a large investment and it’s going to be a well-used recreation area.”

The county-owned house has been batted around as an issue for so long, it has become a saga. 

It has been vacant and vandalized for years and needs an estimated $140,000 in repairs to make it livable. County officials wanted to tear it down four years ago, saying numerous proposals to save it in previous years had not panned out.

But it was given a “temporary” reprieve in 2014 that continues today.

Under a Palmer-backed plan a majority of commissioners approved last July, the county will auction off the nearby house — dubbed the "watchman's house" — and use the money to repair the caretaker house.

A county employee lives in the nearby house now and polices the area, which includes locking a park gate each night. But the house is tucked away in the trees, blocking view of most of the park and base of the reservoir.

“If people are able to sneak past that house, he just doesn’t know about them because he can’t see them,” said Public Works Director Dave Schultz. He would see them from the caretaker house, he and Palmer say.

Here’s the status of the current plan:

In order to sell the watchman's house that’s lived in now, a new septic system must be put in. So there are plans to do that, and the employee has been given notice to move elsewhere so it can be auctioned off.

The county is getting $38,000 from an insurance claim on vandalism to the caretaker house. That money, combined with money from the sale of the other house, should be enough to fix up the caretaker house, county officials say.

To get started faster, the county would take $155,000 from Water Division reserves, pay for the repair work and get it done this summer, then replenish the account when the other house sells.

Fisher is baffled by all of that.

“We are going to take the $38,000 in insurance money, then we’re going to put $50,000 to $60,000 toward a new septic system, then we’re going to sell that house for about $150,000 and put that money into the (caretaker) house over there that is worth zero money right now,” Fisher said.

“Then once we get that all fixed up, we’re going to let a county employee live there for free,” he said. “That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Fisher isn’t alone. Commissioner Dan Foley has also questioned the logic and said the county has bigger things to worry about. A few others went along with Fisher’s most recent motion to scrap the whole thing. Not enough to derail the plan, but more than before.

Fisher also questions taking money from the Water Division when commissioners just raised water rates last year. And he says the county shouldn’t be in the real estate business or put employees up in homes.

The county should give the caretaker house to a nonprofit group and let its members fix it, Fisher said, or tear it down and be done with it.

Schultz says when all is said and done, taxpayers shouldn’t be out any money because the plan is cash-neutral. But they will benefit in the end, he says.

“We have 454 million gallons of water right on top of Butte so we have an interest in having a presence out there,” he said. “The bang for the buck is … we will have an employee who can keep an eye on the park and the dam and its facilities.”

The public hearing is on the portion of the plan to spend $155,000 on repairs now and then replenish the money. It will be part of the council meeting that starts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Courthouse, 155 W. Granite, and anyone can speak on the issue.

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Government and politics reporter

Reporter with emphasis on government and politics.

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