April 17, 2021

Supervisors respond to questions about NewCare building purchase

Editor’s Note: The following is a first-person account from reporter Christopher Braunschweig as he sought answers from the Jasper County Supervisors about the NewCare building purchase in 2019. He explains the processes he took while seeking response and the responses he was given from board chairman Doug Cupples.

Jasper County citizens were not notified and were unable to give feedback when the board of supervisors purchased the NewCare building in October 2019, and then they were asked to pass a $3.6 million bond to renovate the property into new administration offices.

By press time Feb. 28, Newton News had not received comment from the Jasper County Board of Supervisors.

On March 2, supervisors chairman Doug Cupples provided the newspaper a six-page response, which included replies to all seven questions, an excerpt from a KCOB story and a handful of questions directed toward me.

Cupples told me these answers were ready on Feb. 27, but said he had been busy and was unable to send me his responses by Sunday, even when he told me directly he would have them sent by the afternoon. He also wanted to wait for his fellow elected officials to read through the responses.

QUESTION #1:

Can you explain why the building was sold to the county before it was brought to a vote? Or, at the very least, why the dates do not correspond with each other?

According to the Jasper County Assessor’s Office, the former NewCare building was purchased on Oct. 3, 2019, which contradicts the board of supervisors’ action on Oct. 8. I along with other readers who had contacted me with concerns were confused by this. Cupples affirms the building was not purchased on Oct. 3.

Rather, the warranty deed was signed by the seller of the property on Oct. 3, 2019. Jasper County Auditor Dennis Parrott provided me that very document, corroborating Cupples’ assertion. Parrott and Cupples also drew attention to the recording date included on the document: Oct. 16, 2019.

“In between, on Oct. 8, 2019, the board of supervisors approved the transfer order to purchase the building and a check was written to the seller,” Cupples said. “That explains the dates you were confused about.”

This was helpful to me, as was the auditor’s office in providing the closed session recordings of the NewCare building negotiations. Since the county had already purchased the building, those closed session tapes are now available for public viewing upon request.

Cupples also noted on July 26, 2019, the county attorney was authorized to negotiate a price for the building on behalf of the board of supervisors. The county attorney reached an agreement that fell below the set price threshold the board had set, Cupples said.

In my email to supervisors, I provided context for my next set of questions, which primarily focused on the more than $616,000 transfer order that had been added to the agenda last minute at the Oct. 8, 2019 meeting.

I told supervisors the amendment bypassed any chance for public feedback. I also informed them I had contacted the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s executive director and he agreed that citizens were not properly notified of the building purchase. Cupples said this:

“We have researched the board minutes and recordings from that timeframe in 2019 to ensure we provide you with the most accurate information to answer this part of your question.

“We cannot comment on your accusation that the public was not properly notified because you did not furnish us with the information you provided to the Freedom of Information Council.

“Because you misinterpreted the first part of this question so badly concerning the dates, we cannot and do not know what you told the Council and will assume that incomplete or inaccurate information was used when you inquired with that Council.

“Therefore, we do not agree with the answer you were given from that council.”

Cupples seems to have blended — or misinterpreted — my contextual information included for the second set of questions into the first question, which only asks about the date posted by the assessor’s office. I believe my questions were clear and direct.

QUESTION #2

Did it ever occur to the county to wait until the following week to put such an expensive and consequential action purchase on the agenda?

This is when I provided supervisors with context about my correspondence with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Here’s what I said, word for word:

On Oct. 8, 2019, the supervisors approved a transfer order (#1427) to purchase the former NewCare building. But this action was not placed on the agenda. In fact, it was amended, thereby bypassing any chance for public feedback.

I’ve contacted the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s executive director and he agrees citizens were not properly notified of this more than $600,000 purchase.

Waiting another week was not considered, Cupples said, because ever since he was first sworn in to office in January 2017 the repair or replacement of the annex building had been discussed “over 50 times.”

Cupples said this was not a new discussion and he finds it odd I had not asked these questions or spoke up at that time in October 2019 when the county purchased the building.

Yes, the annex building was a frequent topic of discussion, even leading up to the election of the board’s newest supervisor Brandon Talsma and the re-election of incumbent Denny Carpenter.

Talsma, as a candidate, told Newton News in a Q&A that he doesn’t think there is good communication between the board and the citizens, based on the information he received from speaking to people over the summer in 2018.

“They all know there is an issue and about the debate that’s been going on for five years,” Talsma said. “However, they do not know exactly all that is wrong with the building, let alone how much the entire project may cost the county … There should be more communication being made with citizens.”

So there is reason to believe the county fails to adequately inform its citizens about topics, even when the supervisors and county officials had discussed the annex building extensively prior to the Oct. 8, 2019 action. But specifically purchasing the NewCare building was a new discussion for citizens.

Cupples also asks why I waited a week before the special election to bring up these concerns. He then questions whether I am the real “author” of these questions. I am.

As for why I didn’t bring this up sooner, I honestly didn’t know as much about open meetings laws or who to talk to about them back then. I had been covering the board of supervisors on and off since July 2018. But I remember my instincts telling me something didn’t feel right. I just didn’t know how to act on them.

QUESTION #3

Would you agree such an item would garner public discussion or feedback? Because apart from a Sept. 17 action to form a programming services agreement between BBS Architects and the county, there was very little discussion about this (especially since most of the conversations happened during closed sessions, as is the county’s right).

Cupples claims it would be have been difficult to determine whether the NewCare purchase would garner public discussion or feedback. The board of supervisors, he added, have been non-stop discussing this for four years, even mentioning that I had written several articles about the meetings on the building situations.

Other Newton News staff may have covered these proceedings, but I did not prior to October 2019. Cupples goes on to say there had been ample public discussion concerning the annex building and the only real options the board had were: to sell the annex building or extensively rehabilitate it.

Obviously, to do the latter would be a costly expense. Cupples estimated it would be between $3.5 million-$5 million “to gain nothing in space, land or parking.”

But if there had been ample discussion, it’s fair to say the purchase of a new building would garner, at the very least, some public feedback. But the way in which the board went about it prevented any public input. More importantly, the public wasn’t informed the county was going to purchase the NewCare building.

Conversations about the NewCare building purchase, he reiterated, did happen in a legal closed session.

“There were very good reasons for this at the time, as the county was not the only government entity that was interested in buying this building,” Cupples said. “A public bidding war was not in the taxpayer’s best interest.”

The supervisors chairman later said time was of the essence and that action needed to be taken. Cupples said Iowa Code chapter 331.441 allows for counties to spend up to $750,000 to purchase a public building without allowing public vote

QUESTION #4

Does the county ever use purchase agreements when buying real estate? If so, why wasn’t one used here?

Cupples said there is no legal requirement to use a purchase agreement when buying real estate property in the State of Iowa. The county uses legal contracts drawn up by our attorneys.

QUESTION #5

If the county’s intent is to buy a building, do you think a transfer order is the best way to communicate that to taxpayers?

I included this because oftentimes transfer orders on agendas are extremely vague. Only when you dive into the supplementary documents do you find out what transfer orders are for. The county approves these all the time.

My concern was that putting down “transfer order” for a building purchase may not get the point across to citizens. Cupples requested the county auditor provide him more accurate information for this question.

From Feb. 14, 2017 to Oct. 8, 2019 (two years, six months), a total of 42 weekly meetings had some sort of repair or replacement of the annex building on the agenda in this timeframe, they said. Over the same timeframe there were seven closed sessions on the repair or replacement of the annex building.

Cupples and Parrott repeat that the building was purchased on Oct. 8, 2019, which I’m not disputing. Based on the information I was given, they do not in any way address my question.

QUESTION #6

Was purchasing a new administration center ever included in the county’s CIP prior to the actual real estate purchase?

Here I’m using some of the knowledge I’ve gained from covering city council meetings. I figured the county would have some sort of capital improvement plan (CIP). However, Cupples said the county does not operate under a CIP.

Instead, Jasper County has a capital projects fund that is an annual budget line item every year, subject to board approval.

When the budget is passed, specific projects are projected to be completed and funding is put in the capital projects fund, which is flexible so long as the money is used for capital projects. Cupples used the courthouse and annex building repairs, derecho cleanup and generator purchases as examples.

QUESTION #7

Do you think it’s right for the county to ask taxpayers to finance a new administration building when those same taxpayers were not properly notified of the county’s intent to purchase the building in the first place back in 2019?

This was the main question I wanted to have answered. This one question is the culmination of readers’ concerns I received. Instead of answering that question, Cupples repeated the auditor’s findings from Question #5. He later stresses the importance of the bond referendum and giving the citizens the opportunity to voice their voice through voting in a special election.

Cupples also asked me questions:

“Chris, after being at all our meetings and reporting on the Annex Building and the New(Care) building for (four) years, do you think it is right for you to just now be bringing this issue up to us or your readers?

“Should not your readers have been informed by you that you had concerns?

“Were your readers not properly notified through your multiple articles?

“Did you voice your concerns with the Board of Supervisors prior to this?

Why didn’t I report this sooner? If I had known more about open meetings law, I would have reported about the October 2019 real estate purchase as soon as supervisors adjourned. And I hope I would have asked many of these same questions. Readers were concerned in 2019, but I was unaware until this year.

Many citizens have not forgotten.

Cupples also included a report from local radio station KCOB that was released the same day the supervisors bought the NewCare building. Regrettably, my story didn’t come out until a week later, because, like I said, it was too late.

The board approved transfer orders in the past, so I didn’t think another one would be much more newsworthy than the others. This one had a new building attached to it. This one had been amended last minute.

The timing of the article being released near the bond referendum is both significant and not significant.

It’s significant because it provides citizens more information before making their decision. The timing is not significant because it would have been out before the election no matter what. It would have been published sooner if the board of provided comment sooner.

I’m going to rephrase one of Doug’s questions: Were readers not properly notified through Newton News articles of Jasper County’s purchase to buy the NewCare building for more than $616,000?

No, they weren’t. No one was notified. That’s the whole point.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com