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Frustration builds as county looks to sell Baldwin ag building

A frustrated standing room only crowd filled the classroom of the St. Croix County Agriculture Service and Education Center, known as the Ag building, in Baldwin on Wednesday, Sept. 25, to protest the proposed sale of the building.

County Administrator Pat Thompson began the meeting with a presentation documenting the history leading up to the decision by the county board to sell the building.

The Ag building was built in 1998 and houses the Parks and Land and Water personnel for the Community Development Department, University of Wisconsin Extension staff, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s local Farm Service Agency (FSA) branch, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a Sheriff’s satellite office and some 911/Emergency Operation Center (EOC) personnel.

Rural Baldwin was chosen because of its central location with respect to the farming communities throughout St. Croix County. In 2010, as part of a long-term plan, the board resolved to vacate the Health and Human Services (HHS) building occupied since 1974.

In 2011, the board hired Pat Thompson to fill the newly created county administrator position.

In 2012, the board approved a new strategic plan for the county and resolved to build a new nursing home.

A citizen survey conducted in 2013 directed the board to reduce taxes and debt, increase government efficiency, and improve delivery of government services. Also in 2013, Thompson was directed to create a capital projects fund with $3.5 million raised from the sale of 500 acres of county-owned farmland. The fund was to be used to relocate the 911/EOC Center and 130 HHS employees and pay for the demolition of the old HHS building.

In August, the county purchased the long-vacant County Market building in New Richmond for $1.28 million with the intention of relocating the HHS employees along with Aging and Disability Resource Center staff, Veterans Services staff, and 911/EOC to that location in mid 2014.

As part of the effort to reduce taxes and debt, and raise revenue, Thompson reviewed the county’s lease with FSA and NRCS (the building’s largest tenants), and he found it had expired in 2010. Efforts to renegotiate a new lease with FSA officials in Washington at the fair market rate of $25 per square foot (nearly double what FSA was paying) failed, which led to the agency’s expected departure at the end of this year.

The departure of FSA and NRCS will leave 20 CDD and UW-Extension staff occupying 15,000 square feet. Thompson said there is room in the St. Croix County Government Center in Hudson to accommodate those employees.

Though not directly linked, the abandonment of the old HHS facility and consequent purchase of the County Market building with so much more space appears to have played a role in the fate of the Ag building. Combined with the failure to re-sign the FSA and NRCS as tenants resulting in a large, underutilized, and marketable space, the board decided to pursue the sale of the building using the proceeds to reduce future debt and tax levies.

In making its decision, Thompson said the board also weighed the changing nature of how services will be delivered to the farming community in the future. In a results-oriented work environment (ROWE), a mobile county workforce armed with portable technology will be in the field responding to rural community needs and connecting to necessary resources online as opposed to the existing model where farmers travel to a central location to take advantage of “one-stop shopping” where numerous agencies are located in one building.

Thompson said just the opposite is true for HHS and 911/EOS where a “one-stop shop” housing multiple service agencies that is centrally located and easily accessible to urban populations is the preferred model.

A number of residents were concerned that this is a matter of urban versus rural sensibilities. Some claimed that the current makeup of the county board no longer accurately represents the interests of rural community members and is out of touch with their needs.

A board member with a history in dairy farming refuted their claim saying each board member represents an equal number of residents.

A resident from Glenwood City said, “It’s working, there’s no need to change,” implying the failure to keep the FSA and relocate the remaining county staff would be breaking up an established successful team.

A number of residents felt the decision process was moving too quickly and that proper notification of that night’s meeting and previous meetings had not been adequately communicated to the public.

“I commend the county on keeping it a secret,” said one frustrated resident.

Meeting dates and agendas are published online and in the papers, Thompson said.

A dairy farmer from the west side of the county reminded Thompson that historically county resources were located moving from west to east with the center of government being located in urban Hudson, while the Ag building and fairgrounds were located in rural Baldwin and Glenwood City respectively. He felt it was important to keep the FSA and UW-Extension in Baldwin, even if it meant offering the FSA a more affordable lease.

Several residents questioned whether the county was selling too many assets too quickly, especially in a down market. Thompson countered saying the down market also enabled the county to purchase the County Market building significantly below market value making it a wise and timely investment.

Suggesting that the FSA would prefer not to relocate, an FSA representative said that the county had not followed federal procedure and filed a Request for Lease Proposal (RLP) which is required before any lease can be signed.

Thompson said the board received the RLP late, after the deadline, and did not fill it out, but that they have been in constant contact directly with FSA officials in Washington.

One resident asked whether, given that there is additional acreage available at the current Ag building site, did the board consider adding on there?

Thompson said the board did consider that option but the proximity of the County Market building to HHS employees and clients appeared to be a better option.

As to whether the county board could change its decision to sell the Ag building, Thompson said, “The county board and its standing committees can do just about anything they want to do.”

The meeting concluded with Thompson thanking everyone for their comments. He promised to communicate their suggestions to the board at its next meeting, and he encouraged everyone to attend that meeting.