Owner of Viroqua car dealership says he will pay full price for land, despite county agreeing to lower price
By Tim Hundt
After much wrangling over the last several months the Vernon County Board of Supervisors on Thursday finally agreed to sell a little over a half acre of land to a Viroqua car dealership, but at the original price not the higher appraised price.
LaVon (Spanky) Felton approached the county about buying the piece of property after acquiring the Ford dealership last year on the North side of Viroqua. Felton owns two other car dealerships in Viroqua and wanted to acquire the land that adjoins the back of his property for additional parking. The land is part of what is known as the “County Farm”. The county still owns several hundred acres of what was at one time a working farm owned by the county and used for farmer training and education.
What seemed to start out as a simple land transaction to a well respected business person in the community turned into something of political football for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons was the original resolution put forth to sell the property had a price of $5,440 in it but with no appraisal. At last months county board meeting some county board supervisors asked why there had not been an appraisal done to determine fair market value.
The other issue raised at various points in last months meeting that threw a wrinkle in the sale was the relationship between Felton and some county board members. At one point supervisor Francis Hynek from the Hillsboro area asked if some board members should abstain from voting if they had worked for or were friends with Felton. That caused a spirited exchange between Hynek and supervisor Geoffrey Banta who told the board he had worked part-time for Felton at various times driving cars. Banta even asked for an apology from Hynek for questioning his ethics. Hynek said he hadn’t pointed to anyone in particular but said if a supervisor had a potential conflict of interest they perhaps should abstain from voting.
The end result of all the wrangling last month was the board sending the issue back to the building and facilities committee to get the land appraised. The building and facilities committee did meet and hired an “outside the county” appraiser, at a cost of $250″ and then sent the appraised price on to the county board.
Fast forward to the county board meeting on Thursday. The issue of conflict of interest was raised immediately as the board reviewed the minutes of the previous meeting. Supervisor Dennis Brault asked County Attorney Greg Lunde to clarify if the county has a policy on conflict of interest. Lunde said conflict of interest is usually defined as immediate family, business relationships or if someone has a the potential to gain something financially. Lunde said that could include an employer/employee relationship.
The resolution to sell the property to Felton was again brought back. The board was informed the appraisal said the property was worth $7,450. A number of supervisors spoke in favor of the sale based on the fact that Felton owns a number of Vernon County businesses and is one of the largest if not the largest generators of county sales tax.
“We have a business man in town here that I know for a fact that in one month out of one of his businesses Vernon County received $10,000 in sales tax,” said Supervisor Geoffrey Banta. “And I know of one business there was $200,000 in 2012…. I really think we need to take that into consideration. I think we should to let him have this property.”
To put that in perspective the county takes in about $1.2 million a year in sales tax revenue depending on the strength of the economy.
Supervisor Hynek who had raised the conflict of interest question the previous month said he was supportive of the sale.
“I am going to support this project,” Hynek said. “My concerns are that I want this committee to make this a business arrangement like any other real estate transaction following the rules. I don’t want any critics in our county to say what our county board is responsible for. I had a former county board member call me a to say we should support this and I do but I want it done in a business way.”
County Board Chairman Herb Cornell weighed in on the issue.
“Personally, if we don’t sell this to this man I think we are very narrow sighted,” said Cornell. “That’s putting it pretty strong but I am sorry.”
A number of other supervisors pointed out that the land was essentially landlocked because of a waterway behind it and Felton, with the several businesses he owns, is one of the biggest generators of county sales tax and one of the largest employers in the county.
Supervisor Gerry Cade asked the board to pass the resolution with the original price for the property at $5,440.
Felton had a chance to address the board on the issue.
“I appreciate your kind words and I don’t expect anything extra,” said Felton. “I just want whats fair and I think it is a fair offer. Whether we employee all these people and whatever, that’s all fine and dandy but I don’t want anything extra.”
The board did approve the sale on a 20-9 vote with supervisors Donald Subera, Will Beitlich, Kevin Gobel, JoAnn Nickelatti, James Servais, Mary Bringe, Jerry Johnson, Eric Evenstad and Dennis Brault all voted no to the sale.
Even though the board agreed to sell the property at that lower price that may not be the final amount the county receives. Following the meeting Felton committed to paying the full appraised price of $7,450 and paying for the cost of the appraisal and the survey.
“If that is what is the fair market value then I am willing to pay that,” said Felton. “I don’t want to be treated any different than anyone else.”