Wise County Sheriff’s Posse President Russell Stephens and attorney Frank Newman stood before county commissioners Monday hoping to strike a deal.
They left empty-handed.
The Posse continues to seek reimbursement from the county for the buildings and improvements the group has made over almost 60 years to the Wise County Fairgrounds.
The group had leased the 15-acre property from the county for $1 per year since 1955. But last September, the late County Judge Bill McElhaney told commissioners the county could no longer offer multi-year renewals.
The commissioners appointed a committee to oversee the transition, and intense negotiations – mostly private – followed. On Nov. 11 the county gave the Posse a Dec. 1 deadline to turn in the keys and schedule book.
The Posse moved its office and removed its locks from the property Dec. 2 – but it’s not over.
Newman reminded commissioners that an appraisal of the buildings at the fairgrounds, conducted at the Posse’s request, valued the facilities at $1.6 million. He said it was suggested that the county pay $1.2 million.
“I see a number of different possibilities to resolving this,” he said. “I can throw out some alternatives if the commissioners court wants to hear them.”
Precinct 1 Commissioner Danny White urged him to proceed.
“There’s the outright purchase,” he said. “We have a thought that we’d like to continue the activities of the Posse, but we need land to do that on. We’d be glad to consider some sort of purchase of the improvements in land and money perhaps.
“I think this horse has left the barn, but the idea of entering into another lease, that’s certainly open to us,” he said.
White asked why the county’s offer to allow the Posse continued use of the grounds was not acceptable.
“That was our offer in the very beginning … to let them have … every event they would like to schedule,” he said.
Newman said under the old lease, the Posse kept the schedule book for the facility and they want to “maintain that flexibility.”
“The power. You want to maintain the power of it,” said White.
Newman said the Posse “had a few money-making events and that money has always been spent on kids and rodeos, things like that.”
Citizen Richard Pietila of Decatur interrupted.
“… as a person who buys and sells property all the time, if you put permanent infrastructure on my property, either it’s renewed or you get nothing. Nothing.
“It was lost, and you deserve absolutely nothing,” he said. “If you want to sue this county, go ahead. You’re going to get nothing.”
White again expressed frustration that the Posse seems to be the only group with which commissioners can’t seem to get along.
“I don’t understand why we’re having an issue with the Sheriff’s Posse when we’re not having an issue with anyone else,” he said. “Just because we took over the scheduling book?
“I’ve heard the term that we ‘ran them off’,” he said. “No, we did not. Their lease expired.”
Newman admitted the property did belong to the county, and commissioners had the right to lease it out to any group they choose.
“Our preference would be to have our own land where we can build our buildings and have control over that just as you have control over the fairgrounds,” he said.
Stephens said county officials first told them nothing would change other than the county would assume responsibility for the maintenance and utilities.
“By the second meeting, we started having differences because the county couldn’t do maintenance if they didn’t have the property,” he said. “The Posse has been there 60 years. They’ve done the improvements with the help of the community, not tax dollars, and we were OK with that. We were going to go forward with that.”
Stephens recalled the day he removed the Posse’s belongings from the office at the fairgrounds and expressed frustration that the county turned off the group’s electronic sign.
“This negotiation has went south since it started,” he said, “and the way the Posse feels is we aren’t wanted down there – plain and simple. For whatever reason, whether it be me or another member, I don’t know. That is the way the Posse feels. We’re not welcome. We’re not wanted.”
White disagreed, insisting Posse members were told from the beginning that the county would take over not only maintenance and utilities, but the schedule book.
Newman said both groups should move on.
“All those discussions are in the past, and we find ourselves where we are right now,” he said. “We’re ready, willing and eager to discuss any way the court would like to resolve this.”
White said he remained in favor of allowing the Posse to have their events at the fairgrounds – free.
“If you do that, what kind of bad blood does that represent?” White asked. “‘Bad blood’ would be ‘Get your stuff, get out and bye-bye.’ We never told them that.”
Precinct 3 Commissioner Harry Lamance said he didn’t think the county could move forward with any negotiations until it had its own appraisal conducted.
Wise County asset manager Diana Alexander said they have requested an appraisal by the Texas Association of Counties and are awaiting its completion.
“It doesn’t matter what the property is worth,” said Burns. “The lease is up.”
Newman reminded them that under the terms of the lease, improvements on the grounds are the Posse’s property. He asked if they could meet again after the county’s appraisal is complete, and they agreed.
Lamance had questions about the lease and suggested further study, but Burns had the last word.
“This court cannot bind any future court to any sort of agreement past this group of guys right here as mandated by the Texas Constitution,” he said. “So whatever he has in his hand is a worthless piece of paper when we get to the courthouse.”
Newman and Stephens departed with no further discussion.