CLAY COUNTY — After a contentious and long meeting Wednesday, Aug. 28, rife with accusations of unfairness, wasting of taxpayer money and questions about the payment disbursement’s and special meeting’s legality, a majority of Clay County commissioners went ahead with a purchase of property to be the home of a new county Annex.
In a familiar result of commissioner votes, the purchase agreement was passed 2-1, with Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte being the dissenting vote.
Under the contract, the county will spend $2 million for approximately seven acres near the intersection of Missouri Highway 152 and North Brighton Avenue in Kansas City. The property is located near Brighton Creek Apartments and is within 8 miles of the county’s current administration hub on the Liberty Square.
Before approval of the contract and amid hours of public debate on the matter, Nolte, as he has for months, again expressed his opposition to purchasing more property, citing numerous reasons including the county has not cared for property is currently has, that the current Annex property on the county’s west side on Northeast 48th Street could be expanded upon or built on, that the new location is too close to the County Administration building in Liberty that serves the same function, that the Kansas City’s property cost seemed high, that moving the Annex from the Western District to the Eastern District means it will not serve the population density of the county that needs it and that he has yet to hear from a constituent in favor of the purchase.
“I’ve heard universal opposition to this,” he said. “Why are we doing this if the people are against it?”
Nolte said he also did not understand how or why the terms of the purchase had changed, saying he was not notified or consulted ahead of the special meeting Wednesday.
“We changed the parameters of this contract without explaining why or giving other sellers the same opportunity,” he said.
The contracted property, from sellers Bob Becker and Chuck Calvert of Beck-Cal LLC, originally included five acres with a purchase price of roughly $2.6 million. The property and its price tag were originally brought before the commission by Western Commissioner Gene Owen as a comparison to another property, owned by one of Owen’s campaign contributors and located in Gladstone, that had a $1.6 million price tag. While the Gladstone property, which was voted down as an option by the commission, was vetted and assessed by the county’s contracted site selection firm, the Kansas City property was not.
In a previous commission meeting, Becker told commissioners he received an inquiry from Owen about the most expensive piece of property he had but was not asked to provide possible options.
Before the commission vote, residents took to the podium to express dismay and explain their erosion of trust in commissioners Owen and Ridgeway, who some in attendance said operated with a lack of transparency and seemed determine to get a new Annex whether the public wanted it or not.
“This is a ripoff of Clay County citizens,” said Mary Hill.
“I don’t trust you, Luann; and I don’t trust you, Gene,” said retired Realtor and developer Ken Boschat, adding the purchase price equating to roughly $300,000 per acre was “ridiculous.”
Multiple people in attendance, including state Rep. John Carpenter, residents Kelly Minette and Valarie Furrow, and former presiding commissioner candidate Wendi Bridges, questioned why commissioners felt the need to move forward when there seemed to be no public support for the purchase.
Ridgeway, as she has stated in previous meetings, believes a new property for a new Annex is needed to keep up with the growing needs of the county, which currently is lacking space for employees to allow officeholders to consolidate operations, and has security and safety concerns.
Ridgeway also added she has heard from constituents who back her decision.
“What I am getting from many people is, ‘I trust you, I know you’ve been looking into these materials for a long time. I don’t know all of the intricacies involved in all of it, but I trust you,’” she said, adding people are also expressing concern over “appalling” social media backlash and comments about the project and process.
Bridges questioned Ridgeway, asking if she has supporters for the purchase, why none have come forward in a public meeting, saying it’s unfair to say she has public support for her choice if there is no proof people can see.
“Why wouldn’t you invite them here?” Bridges said at Wednesday’s meeting.
Minette said the question asked by leaders should not be why the county shouldn’t purchase land but why it should, adding the only justification she has heard was because of better facility visibility.
Visibility, she said, “doesn’t matter” as all taxpayers have to do business with the county regardless of where it is located.
Owen said he agrees with Ridgeway on current space concerns and believes the Kansas City property was a good choice because of its visibility and location, saying population growth in the county is moving north, so it makes sense to build on the property at North Brighton and Highway 152.
“I think for the future of Clay County, it’s a great location,” he said.
Owen said the option is also good because he has no conflict of interest in the deal.
“I know most all the developers in Clay County. I know most of the landowners in Clay County, so if I know a landowner in Clay County, there must be a conflict of interest to me. I don’t know these people at all,” he said of Calvert and Becker. “There is no problem with me voting on this and there is no conflict of interest to me at all.”