Vehement community feedback leads to more discussion for Moffat County School Board on Yampa Building issue
Emotions were high during a Moffat County School District Board of Education meeting Thursday, June 20.
During a public comment period, more than a dozen people voiced their concerns, and, in one case, approval, of the board’s pending decision to transfer ownership of the 99-year-old Yampa Building, located at 775 Yampa Ave., to Memorial Regional Health for use as a new substance abuse treatment facility.
If approved, the negotiated agreement between the two entities would see the nearly century-old building transferred to MRH for a small fee, and, in return, the hospital would give the district a 33 percent discount for three years on contracted health technician and nursing services, a total savings of $218,126.19.
Gar Williams was the first, out of 18 people, called to speak to the board against the backdrop of a packed, standing-room-only library at Colorado Northwestern Community College.
Williams informed the BOE of a discrepancy found on a fact sheet MRH circulated to the board last fall. The MRH fact sheet, Williams said, listed a myth that half of the patients seeking substance abuse treatment in Craig would be from areas one to two hours outside of town. In direct contrast to MRH’s statement, he detailed an email to the building department in which Jim Blackwood, of Sunflower Management Group, confirmed that eventually half of the treatment center’s patients would arrive from more than one to two hours out of town, as the Craig Press previously reported.
“This totally contradicts what you were given,” he said. “You all recited the Pledge of Allegiance tonight. The last few words in the pledge of allegiance are ‘justice for all.’ Justice for the taxpayers and the students of Moffat county is to get the most money and the best deal for the school district.”
Audience members clapped and, at times, cheered as they listened to members of the public speak about the property.
Neil Folks spoke in favor of the treatment center moving into the Yampa Building and addressed what he believed were invalid fears the community holds about those who struggle with substance addiction.
“I believe the individuals (seeking treatment) will be more of middle class,” Folks said. “The ones who are really bad usually stay south of the tracks anyway.”
Former MCSD board member Joe Ence thanked the board members for the hard, often thankless, work they do on behalf of the community and gave a detailed history of the former board’s decision to renovate the Yampa Building, and use it for administrative functions, in the 1980s.
“This building seems to have a certain charisma, it has a sense of community to it,” Ence said. “If we’re going out to recruit people to join our staff here, East (Elementary) is one of the ugliest properties we own. It’s functional, but Yampa is easy to find. It (the Yampa Building) has nice curb appeal and I don’t think it needs to be transferred to an independent company for their own fundraising, because there are other buildings that could accommodate that. They (MRH) don’t need to take one of the oldest, prettiest buildings in town to do that.”
Multiple public speakers requested board members table the agenda item to postpone voting on the real estate transaction in order to deliberate further on the public’s concerns.
In a comment which received one of the loudest rounds of applause and cheers from the audience, Vickie Huyser told the board they will have a hard time asking the public for more money if the Yampa building transfer is approved as proposed.
“It may be of no value to you, but the property itself still has value,” Huyser said. “So no more mill levies, I can tell you that. You give this building away and I don’t know of any taxpayer that will ever give you more money.”
Dave Wallace told the board the Yampa building should be on the national register of historic buildings, he cited concerns about the depreciation of residential real estate if a treatment facility moves into the area and called into question the link between hospitals and those who suffer from substance abuse addiction.
“You can’t have a medical facility, on one hand, treating patients and prescribing prescription drugs and opioids, and then, on the other hand, offer a facility to treat a condition you (the medical facility) were likely responsible for in the first place,” Wallace said. “I don’t know if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I know for one thing that it’s not right.”
Others, like Ken Wergin, cited concerns about the number of contradictory facts circling the community as his reason for requesting the board take more time before voting on the proposal.
After about an hour of public comments, board member Jobeth Tupa motioned the group take a ten minute break to gather their thoughts.
Board member Chip McIntyre motioned, and Cindy Looper seconded, to table the Yampa Building proposal after their break.
Board Secretary Dr. Elise Sullivan abstained from voting citing a potential conflict of interest.
In response to the public’s testimony, board member comments largely centered on the need for a treatment facility in response to a dire substance abuse crisis taking place in Craig.
“I encourage you, as a community, to educate yourself on that (drug) problem in this community,” McIntyre said. “Since January, we’ve had four deaths that were related to heroin. That’s not reported in the newspaper. We have people, we have kids, who are affected by this problem. This is the board’s, I think, obligation to this community to step up and be part of the solution.”
Board member Chris Thome doubled down on McIntyre’s sentiments.
“I feel this board has been transparent,” Thome said. “This has been on every agenda that we have had. This is not new news. Anybody that believes this is new news with what we’ve been discussing and what we’ve been proposing then they are not paying attention. You guys are not showing up in meetings. I’m thrilled to see the outcome here, but the same topic was on the table in May, April, March.”
A discussion of district real estate was listed on the March 28 agenda as part of executive session, which is closed to the public.
Following Thome’s comments, multiple outbursts from the crowd occurred.
One voice demanded to be heard; another accused board members of fraud and threatened to report the matter to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation; and another suggested the entire board be removed from elected office.
A total of 12 people shouted out of turn at the board throughout the remainder of the meeting.
When the outbursts occurred, board president JoAnn Baxter informed the individuals that they were out of order; that, per board policy, they were not allowed to speak after the public comment period was over.
“I’m happy to see so many of you here, but I’d be happier to have seen you through this whole process which began in December 2017 when we voted to close East Elementary School,” Baxter said. “I believe that there has been a lot of stirring of the pot, if you will, and we have maybe not done our due diligence in explaining this.”
While finishing up her sentiments about the Yampa transaction, including her intent to vote to table the topic, the board president was interrupted another five times by shouting from people in the audience.
With the exception of Dr. Sullivan, the board unanimously voted to table the topic and rescheduled the Yampa transaction for a vote during a special meeting to be held in July.
“I hope you all will get yourselves informed, ask your questions at the appropriate time,” Baxter said. “Get your answers not just from us, the hospital has answers to questions. Try them, they have a board that’s meeting right down there, why aren’t you there?”
The Memorial Regional Health Board of Trustees meets every third Thursday of the month during the same time, 6 p.m., as the Moffat County School District Board of Education.
Minutes after refraining from speaking about the Yampa transaction, citing a need to not “influence board members,” Sullivan broke her silence to talk about the woes of those afflicted by substance abuse addiction.
“The only thing i would like to say to the community is that I do treat heroin addiction in my clinic,” Sullivan said. “I see all walks of life in my clinic and if there’s anything that I can do to help convey the sense of hurt and pain that substance abuse disorder causes to people that have the problem … I would be happy to talk to you all.”
Prior to adjourning the meeting, one final public comment came from the front row of the audience.
“What you are talking about is not germane — this situation of having this be a treatment center is not germane to the school board,” Sharon Pletcher said. “What you’re talking about is that the community needs a treatment center; what we’re talking about is the Yampa School. They are two different topics and I wish you would not put them together.”
The MCSD board will hold a full-day public workshop from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, July 30, to be followed by a special meeting solely to discuss, and possibly take action on, the Yampa real estate transaction at 4:30 p.m. the same day.