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Winnebago faces protest over lot cost

April 17, 2009
Sarah Day — Staff Writer

WINNEBAGO - Winn-ebago could witness citizens debating in a parking lot if a Minneapolis man has anything to say about it.

Steve Willett contacted the city recently about its purchase of the grocery store parking lot for $100,000. He spoke about it at this week's council meeting.

Willett was under the impression that the parking lot was paid for with tax-increment financing. TIF funds commonly are used to support community redevelopment.

Willett said he was shocked the city would use funds to purchase the lot.

"It seems wrong at some level," Willett said. "I believe you guys followed the law, but what I wanted to do was become better informed as to how that money was justified."

He called for a public debate on TIF funding and utilization of public funds - to be held in the grocery store parking lot - and wanted the electronic scrolling sign outside to advertise the cause. He planned the debate for 6 p.m. May 12, one hour prior to the next council meeting.

Willett also was concerned that the money went to Councilman Bob Weerts, although he was not on the council when the grocery store and parking lot were built.

The council, city administrator and city attorney informed Willett he was grossly mistaken.

City Administrator Jennifer Feely said the only parking lot where TIF dollars were used was the south parking lot - the City Hall lot. The city paid $20,000, while the actual cost was more than $30,000.

Councilman Rick Johnson said the two parking lots were paid for separately, and were done at different times.

Willett said he read in different newspapers that the council approved using TIF funds for the grocery store lot.

"We approved TIF money for that," Johnson explained. "After further discussion, we found out we could not use TIF money for that."

Willett asked who did the work on the $100,000 lot. He was told Scott Robertson, owner of Precision Concrete, poured the concrete while Weerts completed the ground work.

City Attorney Douglas Johanson explained that while the city paid $100,000 for the lot, it actually cost Robertson and Weerts a combined $180,000.

Feely said two different Winnebago city councils approved purchasing the lot, and funds were used out of the liquor store reserve.

Willett asked Johanson if he could meet with him to discuss the transactions.

"I'm not interested in discussing it," Johanson said. "It's attorney-client privilege matter with the council. What I'd say relative to any discussions, number one. Number two, as you know Mr. Willett, I received your letter and I responded to it promptly. And I indicated I was really not interested in dealing with anything relative to your issues because you have litigation pending with Mr. Weerts on another matter. With him being on the council, it's all in mesh together, in my opinion."

The litigation referred to is a civil suit filed in 2008 by Willett against Weerts and his companies. Willett alleges Weerts assisted in a breach of contract that Willett had with Valley Forest Resources in 2006.

Faribault County Judge Douglas Richards dismissed Weerts individually from the suit March 13. Richards is considering a motion from Weert's attorney to essentially throw out many documents filed by Willett.

Willett offered Weerts a chance to have the whole case thrown out on five conditions - demonstrating that Willett does not consider the parking lot issue separate from the court case.

"When someone that has a net worth of tens of millions of dollars (Weerts) gives up a $1,700 annual salary as a city councilman, one could hardly call that anything more than a token gesture at best and a publicity stunt at worse," Willett wrote. "Since Weerts did not offer a reason, we can only guess at his intentions. Perhaps guilt is taking a toll for the $100,000 of taxpayers' TIF funds he secured."

He suggested Weerts be a "better man" and pick up the tab not only for all the council member's salaries but also "the salaries of the two public works workers he considers expendable, Jennifer Feely's overtime hours he defended, and give taxpayers of this state back the $100,000 Weerts secured for his store parking lot."

Willett said his time, fees, resources and legal expenses spent "pursuing payment on the contract which was breached" now exceed $500,000, and he will ask that $1 million be awarded in punitive damages. Willett said he would share that money among four charities.

He said if Weerts agreed within 14 days to meet the conditions and pay Willett $340,000, he would drop the suit. Weerts did not agree.



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