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The second-day story, with your help. Call Gazette reporter Adam Belz at (319) 398-8273 or e-mail him: adam.belz@gazcomm.com

Pen-pals! Supes to write Westdale letter Wednesday

At its 10 a.m. meeting Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors will formally deal with the letter from Westdale’s owners that was read aloud at Friday’s meeting.

“We are responding in writing,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said.

Will the supervisors ask for the mall to reconsider, and extend the county’s leases even if the supervisors decide not to buy the mall?

“That is hopefully what our letter will address,” Rogers said.

Meanwhile, Rogers says, the supervisors may authorize staff to search for new office space.

I called Clint Miller, the representative for Westdale who wrote the letter that told supervisors to “buy or fly,” as our headline writer put it.

I asked him two questions.

1. Is it possible you will extend the county’s leases past April 30 even if the supervisors don’t buy the mall?
2. Why add the threat of ending the short-term leases? Why not just say you’re going to put the mall back on the market if the supervisors don’t respond by March 30?

“We’re in a position here where I’m going to give you a no comment,” Miller said.

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What was behind Westdale’s ultimatum?

After the flood, the mall donated office space to Linn County for nearly six months.

Since November, the county has been paying rent, and weighing its options for the future of county buildings. On Dec. 1, the mall’s owners offered to sell the mall to the county for $18.5 million.

Then on Friday came an ultimatum for the supervisors: Buy the mall or find a new place for county offices.

Clearly frustration played into this, as Brent Oleson argues on his blog.

But there’s more to it.

The fact that the county has taken up temporary residence at the mall is the mall owner’s only bargaining chip.

They’ve been trying to sell for $18.5 million since March 2008, and reportedly have received no offers near that. While the presence of numerous government offices has breathed some life into the mall, its pre-flood retail occupancy had dwindled to around 50 percent.

Even if one were to disregard the figures presented at Friday’s meeting – where purchasing Westdale would be millions of dollars more expensive than the county’s other options (which include a potential joint facility with the city and school district) – the prospect of buying Westdale Mall is daunting to county officials. The county would fill only 10 percent of the space, leaving 90 percent of the 630,000 square feet for the county to manage/sell/develop/etc.

One theory is that the supervisors (except perhaps Oleson and Rogers) have never seriously considered buying the mall.

This has been Auditor Joel Miller’s contention since before the offer was made, and Miller exploded at Friday’s meeting over the fact that the supervisors and their staff have not been communicating with mall owners much since December.

The mall says it has “assembled a package of property information for [supervisors’] review,” but can’t send it until the county returns a confidentiality agreement that would protect the proprietary information in the packet. The county has not returned the agreement, and this bugs both Miller and Oleson.

Miller said he was “incredibly disappointed” and called the supervisors “amazing” for not communicating better with the mall’s owners.

Oleson, on his blog, argues something similar, in softer language:

“I think the statement was made in frustration at the lack of formal communication between the county and the Mall owners. There has literally been no communication between the county and the sellers regarding the Mall owners early December offer to sell.”

Mike Goldberg said he received the confidentiality agreement and passed it on to Gary Jarvis, assistant county attorney.

Jarvis said after the meeting Friday that he thought the county had gathered the information it needed. But more importantly, he didn’t want county staff to come up with a recommendation for the supervisors based on confidential information. It might have forbidden staff from explaining their recommendations in public meetings, a scenario he did not find acceptable.

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Cut, run, or levy a local option sales tax

The Linn County supervisors began reviewing department budgets today at 1:30 p.m., and they’re at a crossroads.

Looks like they have three choices: cut the budget, operate at a loss for the fiscal year, or find a way to get more revenue (local option sales tax). The budget will be finalized Feb. 17.

There’s a $3 million shortfall because the jail is closed and isn’t earning its usual revenue for housing federal/non-Linn County inmates.

“They do need to redirect any money that they can to the county’s general fund, because we’re short the inmate revenue,” Linn Budget Director Dawn Jindrich said. (She and Finance Director Steve Tucker prepare the budgets for presentation to supervisors.)

The supervisors will save $400,000 by cutting the county’s capital improvements budget, Jindrich said, but that still leaves them $2.6 million short.

Actually raising property taxes to overcome the deficit looks unlikely, Jindrich said, adding that it’s OK to take a loss and replace the revenue over a few years.

“I’m not sure if they’re cutting anything,” Jindrich said. “No matter what, it’s going to take us a couple years to replace that money.”

Unless of course a local sales tax is approved.

“If that happened,” Jindrich said, “that would bring in more than enough to close that gap.”

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Hen-pecked Houser and Linda “The Brain” Langston

Supervisor candidate John Erceg displayed a remarkable (and some would say refreshing) lack of political sophistication on Thursday.

If you’re an elected official in Linn County government, you’re a Democrat. And if your name isn’t Joel Miller or Don Zeller, than you don’t break rank to level even the slightest criticism against a colleague. At least not publicly.

Enter John Erceg, a shoot-from-the-hip Republican running in District 2 (southeast Linn County and southeast Cedar Rapids) against Linda Langston.

Speaking to The Gazette’s editorial board, Erceg said Linn Supervisor James Houser is “off in the the corner” at supervisor meetings while his colleagues Langston and Lu Barron do all the talking.

“The two ladies’ll take the game and run with it,” he said.

Erceg has been attending supervisor meetings regularly in the past month or so.

Asked which of the two “ladies” sets the agenda, Erceg did not hesitate.

“Linda! That’s the only brains in the place,” he said. “She’s the only one with a college degree.”

(This second part is true, though Houser is a card-carrying union sheet metal worker and Barron is a former director of the Freedom Festival.)

Now, Langston is Erceg’s opponent in the Nov. 4 election, so what does he gain politically by arguing she’s the only smart one on the board?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Houser faces Republican Dave Machacek in District 5, which covers western Linn County and parts of southwest Cedar Rapids.

Barron is running unopposed in District 1, which covers downtown Cedar Rapids and surrounding areas.

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