YMC Board reaffirms support for school demolition

CLARKFIELD — In the past two weeks, Yellow Medicine County’s plans to demolish most of the former Clarkfield public school building continued to take shape with answers to several remaining questions.

After demolition issues were discussed in a hour-long segment of Tuesday’s county board meeting, four out of the five county commissioners responded with unwavering support for the demolition agreement with the city of Clarkfield, which was finalized at a prior board meeting on May 28.

Actions taken Tuesday afternoon allow for a bid extension of 45 additional days as agreed upon by the contractor. The board also approved a revised asbestos inspection and abatement management agreement with the IEA consulting firm based in the Twin Cities with a regional office in Marshall.

Two additional votes were taken to clarify the May 28 motion to approve the demolition agreement. They were needed to indicate a willingness to convey the remaining newer west gym, along with the rest of the property, to the city after the demolition project takes place.

The prior motion specified that the property was to be put up for public auction. Commissioner Gary Johnson, who made the May 28 motion, asked that it be rescinded and then approved in revised form.

The board then cast a unanimous vote to rescind the motion. A motion and second with amended language to consider a transfer to the city led to a 4-1 vote for approval, the same margin as the original approval with Commissioner John Berends of Granite Falls again voting no.

Berends said he remains opposed to the idea of private ownership for the west gym. He added that it’s based on the possibility that it might once again revert to the county as tax forfeited property.

The Yellow Medicine East School District previously exercised its option to sell the property to a private owner, which was in turn followed by county tax-forfeited ownership.

“I’d support letting part of it remain only if the city would want to own it and take responsibility for it,” Berends said. “We had a chance to demolish the whole thing at the best possible bid cost. The board chose another option, and now we still have issues. That’s why I voted against it.”

The other four commissioners voted for a slightly higher $499,100 demolition cost to remove the rest of the school but keep the west gym.

That cost will be added to what needs to be spent on asbestos abatement. An initial IEA cost estimate totaled $352,500; but further testing requested by the county might substantially reduce that total.

Commissioner Ron Antony said that county-wide taxpayers will have much less of a tax burden, even under the worst case cost estimate, because of Clarkfield’s willingness to pay half the demolition and asbestos abatement costs.

He referred to the current tax burden as part of “an eastern school district (consolidation) issue that got dumped on us.”

With county-wide tax dollars coming into play, some of the demolition costs will fall to groups of taxpayers located in the Canby, Minneota, Dawson-Boyd, Montevideo and Lakeview school districts.

Meanwhile a portion of the Yellow Medicine East School District (originally part of the Granite Falls School District) is located on the opposite side of the Minnesota River in Chippewa County. It includes about a fourth of the city of Granite Falls as well as additional rural farmland and residential acreages.

After sending students to Clarkfield for junior high classes from 1991 until 2007, that group of taxpayers won’t incur any school district or county-based tax increase for the planned demolition.

“I think it’s very unfair to the west end,” Antony said. “The one good thing that’s happened with the whole process is the partnership with Clarkfield. I want the best option for everyone, and the best thing for county taxpayers is to partner with the city.”

The Clarkfield City Council voted 3-2 in favor of the demolition partnership prior to the county’s 4-1 vote. Johnson, whose district includes Clarkfield and who attended the council meeting, said the two dissenting votes were not cast out of preference for a full demolition.

Instead they were based on not committing to any demolition partnership. That alternative would leave a large, centrally located part of Clarkfield in county ownership unless mutually agreed upon terms for demolition expenses could be worked out at a later date.

The approved demolition partnership is in place along with interest in using the west gym for a regional basketball academy and a location for indoor fitness activities.

Kayla Lindblad of Dawson, a Dawson-Boyd High School graduate and a three-sport Dawson-Boyd Blackjack athlete, inquired with Clarkfield city and economic development authority officials after hearing that the gym might be available. She has experience coordinating sports programs in the local area for up to 80 participants.

Yellow Medicine County Administrator Angie Steinbach informed commissioners that a budget review completed in the past week confirmed that reserve funds are available to pay the county’s share of the cost. Remaining reserves are more than enough to meet state requirements.

She and Yellow Medicine County Auditor Janel Timm explained that the $352,500 asbestos estimate did not take into account a split between older portions of the campus and the newer grade school wing.

IEA evaluators followed inspection guidelines which state that portions of a building that look the same can be graded for the same asbestos contents. Tests that show zero readings for asbestos are likely with sampling in newer areas.

County officials also reviewed documentation from the 1980s when an asbestos removal project was undertaken. It shows that a certain amount of asbestos removal took place, but does not include any assurance that the school was completely asbestos-free.

With input from County Attorney Keith Helgeson, staff noted that the city-county demolition partnership is consistent with Minnesota statutes giving cities or townships a first chance to take possession of tax forfeited property.

After receiving a request for the property, county officials then have the option of stating a purchase price if it’s needed to recover forfeiture-related costs.

“It can be transferred under state statutes for the removal of blight,” Steinbach said. “If the city were to decide it doesn’t want it, or if an agreement can’t be reached, that’s when we’d need to consider a public auction.”