By Terri Harber
Baker City and Historic Baker City Inc. will need to renew their official ties during the coming months.
Members of the Baker City Council and HBC board members -as well as some past members - spent Wednesday night, however, trying to find out what they want from the overall relationship.
"There has been contention about ways things were being done at HBC. It had gotten to a point where we really needed to hash some of those things out and get them resolved," said City Manager Mike Kee.
It's also time for the city to "decide whether to continue on or dissolve the relationship," he said.
Members of both groups have expressed concerns about the partnership. Among community activities the city and HBC work together are the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally, Miners Jubilee and the Christmas Tree lighting and parade.
Wednesday's work session also allowed the new councilors an opportunity to pose questions to those involved with the HBC about things they've heard around the community, Kee said.
The ordinance renewing the economic improvement district - as well as the agreement between the city and HBC describing the process for levying property assessments - will be coming to the councilors for possible renewal during the next few months.
"My concern is if the ordinance is not renewed, HBC will cease to exist in its present form," said Gene Stackle, the new president of HBC. "We're ready to move forward."
Part of that movement includes obtaining help from local accountant Bruce Nichols. He has been examining HBC's finances and has made some changes recently, Stackle told the councilors.
City Councilor Clair Button had been the council's most recent representative to HBC but "I divorced myself ... because of troubles and a lack of trust of some individuals," he said.
Button spent a great deal of time looking into problems he had heard about at HBC. He compiled an extensive report and presented it earlier this year to HBC officials.
Kate Dimon, HBC's director since spring 2012, has accomplished "some good things," especially in engaging new business owners. She also "turned out" and "enraged" others, Button said.
Stackle and others representing HBC denied the latter assertion made by Button and have said no one has complained to them that Dimon is causing widespread discord.
"I try to answer some accusations but I answer one and another pops up. It concerns me greatly," Stackle said. "I'm befuddled, not sure what you want us to do. ... We don't hear a majority of people are unhappy."
Much of the concern surrounds the HBC's acquisition of the former Bank of America branch at 1790 Washington St. Historians know it as Ison House.
Dimon convinced Bank of America to sell the historic building to HBC for $1 after the corporation announced last year that it was shutting down the Baker City branch.
HBC didn't have all of the needed costs to pay for closing, however. Dimon ended up partnering with the Veteran Advocates of Ore-Ida. Each non-profit contributed $3,000 to complete the property transfer.
These two organizations also have an assortment of linkages.
HBC rents office space from VAOI for a $235 monthly "donation." And the Ontario-based VAOI lists Dimon as a board member on its web site, www.veteranadvocates.org/.
The veterans' group uses refurbishment projects on the building to help some of its members to hone work skills that would help them re-enter the work force, said Doug Dean, one of VAOI's founders.
Dimon and her husband moved into Ison House and are doing a substantial amount of the repairs themselves on it. She is the caretaker, and the building as a residence is considered part of her compensation as the HBC's director.
Button wants to be sure that deal has been properly arranged and documented so that Dimon can live in the building and consider it part of her compensation.
Nichols said it isn't an improper arrangement.
VAOI also seemed to be a good partner in ownership of Ison House because it's also a non-profit. Both parties need to be non-profit organizations for the partnership to be permissible and most beneficial.
Initially, Dimon envisioned the historic home as the eventual headquarters for HBC, and a tourist stop. She wanted to open up a portion of it for public use as a library with documents about historic structures.
However, it's more likely the building would be sold and the profit split between HBC and VAOI, Stackle said.
"We need the funds to do other things," he said. "But it'll be up to the (HBC) board" when and if the building is sold.
"I didn't understand the acquisition at first," said Julie Blank, who was elected to the HBC board this past spring.
Once the Ison House is fixed up and sold, that money would go into HBC budget, and "the result would be more downtown improvements," she said.
Stackle explained that the previous HBC board approved the arrangement with VAOI. Dimon had been given authority to secure the historic property, and the decision to partner with VAOI for the closing costs was approved retroactively.
HBC wouldn't have been able to take possession of Ison House without VAOI, Stackle said.
Another concern was that HBC and VAOI partnered to provide zero-interest loans.
This wasn't the case, said Nichols.
There was one loan that Dimon and Dean made to someone personally but they did use HBC paperwork to make it official, he said.
Button remains concerned about VAOI and its practice of asking for "donations" instead of simply referring to payments for occupying office space in its building on Main Street as rent.
Stackle also pays the VAOI a donation for use of office space to house the Blue Mountain Community College's Small Business Development Center.
As a practice, asking for a donation for use of building space "doesn't meet the sniff test," Button said.
Button is worried that if the Internal Revenue Service finds that it isn't appropriate then it negatively could affect HBC and, potentially, the city.
The city possesses the authority for the Economic Improvement District to exist. It also collects the money from property owners and business owners in the historic district that is the main source of HBC's revenue and is used to promote and improve the historic downtown area.
There is great potential the city also could be held liable for any wrongdoing by the HBC or even the VAOI - at least in its joint efforts with the HBC, Button explained recently.
Dean said it's an arrangement that's allowed because of VAOI's nonprofit status and that various reviews by other agencies haven't turned up any problems.
Another event that has brought about complaints was the HBC board election. The balloting process didn't allow for large property owners. More property means more say. Dimon sent out more ballots to make up for the initial error, she said.
"This is an open meeting. This meeting was advertised," Blank said. "But the people who put out rumors aren't here."
After more than two hours of discussion the councilors and HBC officials agreed that more communication between themselves as well as the community about HBC's activities is highly necessary.
Stackle said that the city needs to have someone again representing the HBC board.
And the HBC agreed to make quarterly reports to the city as well as to work on its bylaws.
It will also let city officials know when there are potential problems.
"The responsibility is on you to be transparent," said Councilor Barbara Johnson.
She also said the work session was productive.
Kee and Stackle both strongly emphasized that the situation didn't extend to the HBC's funds being in any danger as a result of any recent actions.