Fairgrounds purchase spawned Parks & Rec meltdown

Published 7:59 pm Thursday, February 21, 2019

After negotiations crashed and burned at the last Parks & Recreation joint subcommittee meeting, questions remain about exactly what happened, and why.

Magistrate Phil Sammons, one of those appointed to the committee, says he realizes he made harsh statements and chose the wrong words to express his frustration during the meeting. However, he stands behind his assertion that the offer presented by Danville City Attorney Stephen Dexter for Danville to acquire full ownership of Millennium Park is an insult to the fiscal court and citizens.

He also stands behind his statement that the city “went behind the county’s back” in how it purchased the fairgrounds property adjacent to Millennium Park.

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Emails acquired by The Advocate-Messenger from the time period when negotiations were underway to purchase the fairgrounds land, combined with interviews of city and county officials, have helped connect the dots more clearly on why some in Boyle County government have bitter feelings about Danville buying the fairgrounds, and how that overlapped into the Parks & Rec negotiations.

Monday’s explosive meeting was a follow-up from the previous week, when magistrates Sammons and Tom Ellis and City Commissioners Kevin Caudill and Rick Serres met for the first time and discussed how the two bodies might go about a deal where the county would transfer its half of Millennium Park over to the city.

City Attorney Stephen Dexter, who was also present at the first meeting, brought back a recommendation he felt summarized the thoughts and plans from the week before, and negotiations quickly took a turn for the worst.

Sammons and Ellis were extremely unhappy with the proposed recommendation, which included the county exchanging its part of Millennium Park for 21 acres on Redryer Lane. The document stated the land would allow the county to relocate public works or serve “some other need” without the county having to acquire property, and could “assist in freeing up space at the county jail to allow expansion.”

The magistrates were also upset that the proposal didn’t mention 10 acres of the fairgrounds property they had expressed an interest in acquiring. They wanted the land so the county could potentially move its EMS and the road departments, since those agencies are now located in the same building as the Boyle County Detention Center.

The jail is a major point of concentration for the county due to overcrowding issues and rising costs; The county is facing millions in costs to either expand or rebuild.

Sammons said after the initial meeting, he heard from the county’s solid waste coordinator and county engineer about the shape of the land on Redryer Lane, which is a former landfill and located in a flood plain.

“I had been told (after the first meeting) that there are state regulations involved in how we could proceed in getting that land up to speed … and I’ve been told there’s no way we could use it for what we needed,” Sammons said.

During Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Serres said some of the arrangements being discussed were “stuff that your Judge-Executive (Howard Hunt) and our Danville Mayor (Mike Perros) have talked about.”

Dexter told the two magistrates that they “needed to know” that Hunt had reviewed the document, as well.

“I’ll be honest with you, I did lose my cool,” Sammons said, referring to statements he made about the land being “a piece of dump” during the meeting, and that City Manager Ron Scott is a “better salesman” than Judge-Executive Howard Hunt.

“I shouldn’t have reacted that way, and I realize it pulled attention away” from the business at hand, he said. “But I really feel like the city is trying to pull some hoodoo over on the county. That’s not right.”

During Monday’s meeting, Sammons also “reminded” those in attendance that there had been talks — prior to the city purchasing the fairgrounds — that the city, county and Boyle Schools could buy the property together. But then Scott made an offer “without us being involved,” Sammons said, describing the move as the city going behind the county’s back.

Sammons also said during the meeting that the proposal amounted to “raping the county.”

After a story about Monday’s subcommittee meeting printed, former Magistrate Jack Hendricks took to social media, expressing frustration. His post called the idea to exchange a landfill area for “130 acres of some of the most valuable land in Boyle County” a terrible idea, and said he would have reacted the same way.

He also described Sammons’ assertion about how the city went about buying the fairgrounds out from under the county as “100 percent correct.”

Hendricks said that last summer, he received information that the board overseeing the sale of the fairgrounds — Boyle Land Trust —  would sell the park for $790,000, roughly half of what had been previously asked for it.

“I thought the city would be interested in the land too, as well as the Boyle school system and the county, thinking we could split it up evenly,” Hendricks said. “There’s about 26 acres out there; we could get about 8.5 or 9 each — I thought it was a no-brainer and a win-win for everyone.”

Hendricks set up a meeting with Mayor Perros in mid-August to discuss the idea, which was well received, he said. The mayor called Boyle Schools Superintendent Mike LaFavers on the spot, who also expressed interest in the idea. The next agreed-on move was to get with then-Judge-Executive Harold McKinney and set up a meeting between all three parties.

“We agreed to keep it between us for the time being, because someone else would jump on it at that price,” Hendricks says. McKinney attempted to set up a meeting involving the principals on the deal.

“About two weeks later, on Aug. 27, I started getting some emails … realizing things were going south — fast,” Hendricks said.

In an email provided by Hendricks dated Aug. 27, which was sent to David Williams, president of Boyle Land Trust, McKinney expresses confusion.

“Mayor Perros was the person who said we needed to talk with you about the fairgrounds. Then I am told Ron Scott does not want to discuss it because they have made a written offer. Not sure what the city wants in this situation,” McKinney wrote, then went on to ask for a meeting with Williams and LaFavers to talk about a price “and how we might divide the fairgrounds to everyone’s advantage.”

Williams replied that he shared in the confusion.

“I do not understand why all the parties (city, county, school, fairgrounds owners) should not have discussion. Mr. Scott’s communications indicate the city prefers to own outright, without involvement from any other party,” the email from Williams reads. He said the board would not agree to the purchase offer — which was $750,000 — and that they should proceed to meet.

About 30 minutes later, Williams replied to McKinney that the city upped the ante to the $790,000 asking price, but he could still have a discussion with McKinney.

Hendricks said he was so upset by what he perceived as an underhanded move that he wanted the county to make a bid for the land at $1,000 higher, but McKinney wasn’t a fan of the idea. In an email, the former judge-executive said he did not want to get into a bidding war with the city, calling it a non-productive move that would have a negative impact on taxpayers.

“I believed at all times we were proceeding in good faith with the city and Boyle schools to secure this property together … I have really been blindsided by the city’s actions in this proceeding,” McKinney wrote.

Hendricks said he wanted to come forward sooner with the details on how the purchase happened after the city announced they bought the fairgrounds in December, but knew some would blow it off as “sour grapes” because he did not win re-election in his district.

“But after the way everything was perceived, with how Phil reacted during this last meeting, I can’t say I wouldn’t have reacted the same way. I just thought the public should know,” Hendricks said. “The whole crux of this situation, and the whole Parks & Rec situation, is about nothing but control.”

McKinney declined to comment.

Scott said his discussions with Williams about Danville purchasing the fairgrounds began in June, before the suggestion of a joint purchase had been brought up.

“I never had any direct conversation with any county official” in reference to the idea of jointly buying the fairgrounds, Scott said. “I had engaged in conversation with Mr. (David) Williams for a long period of time before that even came up.”

“I can’t speak as to what the mayor may or may have not done in terms of those conversations,” Scott said, referring to the meeting with Hendricks and Perros in August. He added that “the mayor doesn’t have any official capacity in terms of actions in that situation, but I can’t say that the meeting occurred. That would be something to ask the mayor.”

Mayor Perros said he brought the idea to Scott, which is when he learned that the city manager had already been having discussions with Williams about purchasing the land.

“I wasn’t aware of that. Not my place to be in those kinds of things and dealings, so I dropped it at that point,” Perros said. “I know that Ron and Harold (McKinney) had their own private discussion about it, though. So I backed out.”

Williams said there were several months’ worth of conversations with Scott about the fairgrounds, but any communication between the city and county “was unknown to me.”

McKinney contacted him to find out if Boyle Land Trust was discussing the purchase with the city, “and I told him yes, that’s true … But there was no place for me to have anything to say regarding any form of communication between the Boyle Fiscal Court and the city,” Williams said. “I didn’t initiate that. But there was no place for me in representing my board of directors desiring to sell property, to get involved in the matrix of discussions, or lack thereof.”

Williams said he regrets, for the community’s sake, any level of confusion or misunderstanding on how the transaction took place. He said all he had hoped was that the fairgrounds would not become “a used car lot,” but a piece of land that could be benefit the community in the long-term.

“I was being brought into an awkward situation between the two governing bodies,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was a lot of confusion between representatives of the governing bodies of the community. And I hope this gets settled; the community is not benefitting from all of this going on.”

As far as the Redryer Lane offer, Scott said there has been “mutual interest” in the exchange of it for the county’s half of Millennium Park, but he isn’t totally certain how the idea came about.

“The county is between a rock and a hard place with the jail expansion … We may have said we have something that may meet part of your needs, if you want to move the recycling center out, it would avoid new construction costs,” Scott said.

However, Scott added he’s “not sure all parties to the conversation were involved at the same time, so it became a little bit of a communication issue.”

As far as magistrates’ assertions the land trade is unfair due to the amount of money the county has invested in Millennium over the years, Scott said both governments have invested in the park. They were equal as far as the initial purchase price, each contributing around $450,000.

“The city has separately spent more than that, with energy improvements for efficiency out there … But that’s the wrong lens to look through,” Scott said.

It’s not correct to count who has spent what, Scott said, but rather how to avoid future costs going forward.

“Here’s a new thought — do we really need to have any land swap?” Scott asked. “If the county doesn’t view that land as suitable for public works or the recycling center, that’s fine and they’ll have to acquire property elsewhere to achieve that. What we want to get to is more efficient management of Millennium Park.”

Scott said as far as the “city taking control” assertion, “We are trying to improve our current (Parks & Rec) model, which goes back 30+ years … It doesn’t matter who owns the park, but we need to improve the types of programming and service through that agency, and the (recently completed parks master plan) stated that, as well as it needs to be under one government entity.”

The topic will be discussed at the next city commission meeting Monday night, Scott said.

“I think we will have some discussion, but I can’t predict entirely what they’ll do, but possibly some conclusion will be reached by the city commission.”

He said perhaps an offer will be made to the county, which “may have some options in it. We’re trying not to constrain or restrict the county’s abilities to come up with solutions.”

“As a warning here, it’s the 21st of February,” Perros said Thursday. “We do not have a (Parks & Rec) director. And may not get a director. And so that means the summer of 2019 is going to be a large challenge for everybody. And it may not be very pretty, as far as serving the public properly and executing proper management of Parks & Rec.”

The priority of getting a new director to oversee Parks & Rec has been at a standstill due to questions about who that person will report to, with the city aiming at taking over management of the agency rather than relying on a board of citizen volunteers who the city and county each appoint.