Friday, September 2, 2011

THE TROUBLE ON HUBBELL, Pt. 2: Bullying, land-grab charges hit Boone County agency

More neighbors decry hardball tactics
COLUMBIA, 9/2/11  (Beat Byte) --  Neighbors on a second North Village Arts District street are crying foul over a Boone County agency's aggressive purchase and demolition of older and historic homes in the area.

The allegations against Boone County Family Resources (BCFR) employees, Board members, and director Les Wagner include bullying, overpaying for property with public monies, and attempting a hush-hush "land grab" on Hubbell and St. Joseph Streets, just a block from District centerpiece Orr Street Studios
"I live on St Joseph Street, where Boone County Family Resources is planning to tear down three houses.  My neighbors and I are outraged," Curtis Stafford told the Heart Beat.  "One of the houses they are tearing down is possibly one of the oldest in Columbia.  It is a Queen Anne, built in the 1870s." 
In a letter yesterday to downtown leadership groups she forwarded to this publication, long-time St. Joseph Street homeowner Nina Wilson-Keenan agreed.  "We are mostly lower-income people trying to create a good life, who believe the North Village is a nice place to live," she wrote.  "We should not fall victim to an out-of-control public organization using our own money against us." 
On Sunday, the Heart Beat reported that nearby Hubbell Drive resident Diana Howland posted a letter on the North Central Columbia listserv airing similar grievances.   The Columbia Tribune followed up with a Tuesday story that confirmed BCFR's pay-up to tear-down plans.
Block full o' bullies?
Five years ago, BCFR started buying and demolishing homes in the tight-knit North Village neighborhood around its Walnut Street headquarters.  Then, neighbors complained about the agency's non-transparency and poor communications. 
Now, the complaints are more serious and involve more people.  "I feel this land grab by supposedly non-profit Boone County Family Resources is to head off the will of the community to restore the North Village," Wilson-Keenan explained. 
A financial aid planner for university students, she charged BCFR with "paying premium prices to acquire most of the east side of the block I live on, in just a couple of months."  Agency representatives, Wilson-Keenan continued, "have literally gone door to door and tried to make people 'offers they can’t refuse' to acquire these lots."  
Those offers have been the talk of the neighborhood, with estimates running as high as $240,000 for three St. Joseph Street properties.  "My neighbor paid roughly $20,000 for the lot next door, as comparison to the inflated prices BCFR is paying," Wilson-Keenan said.  
More troubling yet:  "BCFR employees have bullied my neighbors, and told them not to bother trying to buy properties that may come up for sale on these streets because they will outbid them," explained Wilson-Keenan, who bought her 100-year-old home through a low-interest City of Columbia program after her husband suffered a head injury and stroke in an auto accident
Wilson-Keenan also joined other neighbors who claim BCFR is disregarding historic preservation.  "My house was built in the late 1800's," she said.  "BCFR is forcibly trying to change the demographics of a neighborhood that has survived 100+ years, to create a commercial venture in disguise." 
Deja View
As long as five years ago, BCFR director Les Wagner spoke to his Board members about buying land.   An agency whose mission is to help persons with developmental disabilities, BCFR had a surprisingly large and ready source of funds -- millions of dollars in reserves.  Among Boone County entities, it receives an extraordinary share of taxpayer pie, with a tax rate nearly three times as high as roads and bridges
Puzzled about the need for more land when studies showed too few -- not too many -- citizens in need of BCFR services, Board members Steve Tatlow and Alison Martin (this writer's wife) left the agency in 2007.   Their departure followed a parking lot screaming match between then Board chairman Bob Bailey and members he worried were contacting the media about allegations of financial non-transparency. 
Four years later, charges of misappropriation and non-transparency have returned. 
"Boone County Family Resources is funded by state and property taxes, and this is a waste of public funds that could be better used to serve their clients," Wilson-Keenan wrote in her letter.  "Instead, they are using my money and that of other taxpayers to essentially poach my neighborhood for their own bizarre agenda."
[BCFR director Les Wagner did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment for this story.]

1 comment:

  1. This agency does a great job supporting their clients compassionately. Either leave them be or encourage your friends to buy the properties themselves.