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Pierce County supervisors OK'd the purchase of these properties in Ellsworth recently. The two houses are south of the county fairgrounds.

Opportunity or waste of tax dollars?

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ELLSWORTH -- When Pierce County bought two houses and land in April, it paid over 10 times the amount the seller paid for the same parcel a month earlier.

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The board voted 16-1 April 20 to buy the parcel -- which includes houses at both 388 and 420 W. Grove St., Ellsworth -- for $360,000.

According to a property transfer recorded March 17 with the register of deeds, Doug and Lori Dodge bought the same parcel from T. Gregory Amann for $35,000. The assessed value of the property is $169,100.

Still, said County Board Chairman Paul Barkla, the purchase was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

With this purchase, the county now owns contiguous property from the Courthouse north to the County Office Building to the new property to the fairgrounds.

In the last seven years, the county bought three other parcels along Grove Street and now owns that whole area next to the fairgrounds, said Barkla. That, he said, gives a future county board space to enlarge the fairgrounds or for a new government building.

Barkla said some supervisors felt the county passed up an opportunity when it didn't buy the former Proch's Ballroom property on the southwest side of the fairgrounds years ago.

"There was an opportunity to do something, and we chose not to," said Barkla. "This time we had an opportunity to put together a whole campus plan, and we chose to do it. I think we acted with prudence."

He said county supervisors didn't try to buy the parcel from Amann before Dodge did because they didn't know Amann was willing to sell.

"It was never offered to us," said Barkla. "We didn't know it was for sale."

Barkla said supervisors learned of the sale when Maintenance Supervisor Al Huppert noticed plywood being put over windows and talked to the new owner.

"It wasn't on the market," agreed Doug Dodge Monday. "We approached them (the former owners)."

Dodge said his family owns other rental property and wanted more: "That's what we were looking for."

The buildings had been rental property before. In fact, said Dodge, his brother-in-law once lived upstairs in one of them.

Dodge's plan was to renovate the buildings. One structure, he said, was almost ready to rent, but the other would have taken more work.

As for the $35,000 purchase price, Dodge said the transaction included "other personal considerations." He would not elaborate.

If the county had waited until he had started remodeling, the price would have gone up "immensely," said Dodge.

"My opinion on the purchase price is that it's too much," said Ben Plunkett, River Falls, the only County Board member to vote against buying the property.

But, he said, other supervisors had legitimate reasons for wanting the land.

If there was an immediate need for the property, the county could have gotten it more cheaply through eminent domain proceedings, but there are no current plans for the site, said Plunkett.

"We do have a lot of needs, and the money could have been spent elsewhere," he said.

In March 2003 the county bought the house at 372 W. Grove for $127,000. In September 2003, it bought 344 W. Grove for $130,000. In 2008 it bought the house at 364 W. Grove for $190,000.

In 2003 Mark Schroeder, the county's former administrative coordinator, reported that the county made an offer on the 388 and 420 properties, but the owner verbally rejected that offer and made no counter offer.

That year the board talked with consultants about attempting to acquire the property through eminent domain proceedings but didn't follow through with that.

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Judy Wiff
Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.
(715) 426-1049
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