City attorney Mike O’Brien said Lincoln Mayor Bud Kitchin contacted him six-seven months ago regarding the old Lincoln High School property and usage.
“The mayor asked whether it was permissible under the law to let private organizations use public property at no cost,” he said. “The answer is no — the city can’t let public organizations use city property with no compensation.”
O’Brien said while researching the matter, the issue of the condition of the buildings was brought up.
“In addition to contractual obligation, the buildings need to be brought up to code,” he said. “The city requires other businesses to meet building code standards, and the city itself is not exempt.”
O’Brien said in lieu of rent, there is a proposal where the city would assess what is needed to bring the building space up to code, then either the tenant makes the repairs and regular maintenance upkeep and pay no rent, or the city could make the repairs and the cost of the repairs would be the rent.
Kitchin said the city is in negotiations with the Lincoln Food Pantry, which currently is occupying a portion of the old high school without paying rent.
“We can’t treat the food pantry different than any other organization,” he said. “It must be equal opportunity. We must look at the big picture down the road and how it will affect the city in the future.”
Kitchin said Lincoln Food Pantry representatives were given the option of paying fair market rent or doing repairs in lieu of rent. There is no estimate yet of what the repairs would cost.
Lincoln Food Pantry representatives said if the food pantry pays utilities and rent, it might cost as much as half of the monthly donations they have to purchase food.
“It is a city responsibility to ensure our citizens have food,” Councilman Kurt Kuykendall said. “It’s a charitable thing. We are asking volunteers to perform a city service.”
Councilwoman Jean Burk said the issue, which has been discussed many times, needs to be resolved.
“We are spending way too much money (attorney fees) looking into this,” she said.
O’Brien said whatever the city decides to do for the food pantry must be offered to everyone else with similar requests.
“There are organizations that we don’t agree with that could ask for space,” Kitchin said. “I brought that concern to our city attorney. If you open it up now, there could be organizations in the future that you might not believe in their mission that want equal service.”
Burk said the city has unoccupied buildings that could turn into a blight.
“Why can’t we get them occupied?” she said.
Kitchin said in the past, the fire marshal said the buildings are not up to code.
“If the council wants to vote that way (leave things the way they are), I won’t participate in it,” he said. “The former administration looked the other way.”
Kuykendall said sentiment kept the school, and he voted against it.
“I was on the council and we were looking at using part of it for a water department and to move the library in,” Burk said. “There was going to be a theater for cultural arts and other rooms for clubs and organizations. The senior citizens moved and there is the gym for the kids. The city has benefited. We knew it needed repairs.”
Kitchin said for the five years he has served on the administration, it has been status quo.
“The gym was kept up to standard and also the former senior building,” he said. “We continue to keep those up to code, but the other buildings do not house city functions.”
Councilwoman Sadie Britt said the discussion keeps going in circles.
“Let’s see if we can’t work something out and come to a better agreement,” she said.
“It’s obvious there is a sentiment of let them be there and look the other way,” Kitchin said. “Someone asked if other cities do the same. Some cities appropriate money to nonprofits in return for the public benefit of having the entity there to serve a public service.”
Kuykendall said the more money the Lincoln Food Pantry would have to pay for rent, the less food they could buy.
“My concern is setting a precedent,” Kitchin said. “Council members have said, ‘we as the food pantry,’ and I caution you to separate that from council service. We have an obligation to the taxpayers. If we continue the way it’s been done, it’s under the table, not on the table.”
O’Brien said the council can pick organizations; however, if they pick and choose and treat the organizations differently, the equal protection clause comes into play.
“If the food pantry leaves, there is a void in the city,” Burk said. “Then we as leaders are going to have to look ourselves in the face and live with the public.”
Kitchin said the difference between the old high school buildings the city uses and those used by nonprofit organizations is the city-used buildings fall under the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department and every dime is accounted for.
“We have control over how the money is spent with the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department,” he said. “We have no control over nonprofits.”
Kitchin said he is open to a proposal by the council if it meets all city and other regulations and meets the equal opportunity provisions.
“I appreciate the food pantry,” he said. “I’m here as a facilitator to live up to the law and meet the obligations of the city, but I will not break the law.”
Burk said there is a rumor the Boys & Girls Club in Lincoln will move out of the building they currently occupy before paying rent.
“It isn’t a rumor,” Kitchin said. “The city has a rent agreement, but they aren’t paying it. They are in arrears at least 20 months. If they had to pay rent plus back rent, their director said they could not meet it.”
Kitchin said the R.O.C.K. group has already presented a contract to pay utilities and to bring the space they occupy up to code assuming the city can separate the utilities cost.
“We knew this day was coming and dreaded it,” Kuykendall said. “If we have organizations that can’t afford it due to the building condition, then I’m for just shutting it down and get rid of the building and put up a shopping center. We would find room for the food pantry somewhere. We can’t afford to operate the building under its present condition and expect volunteer organizations to pay for it.”
“I think if the food pantry said they needed to raise X amount of money, then the people of Lincoln would step up and help,” Kitchin said.
Kitchin said any agreements would require a council motion.