Decision to remove lights still sparking controversy
BUCKHANNON – Controversy continues to flicker about Create Buckhannon’s decision to remove the LED lights that outlined Main Street buildings after one of the group’s volunteers addressed the matter at two public meetings Thursday.
Create Buckhannon volunteer Michael Cowger questioned the group’s choice in several emails sent to Create Buckhannon members and media outlets earlier this week, calling the move a waste of taxpayer money and alleging that it might even be a crime.
At Thursday’s weekly Create Buckhannon meeting, Cowger confronted the topic head-on, saying he was still upset about the fact that the decorative lights were dismantled by several Create Buckhannon volunteers over the weekend – and even more angry that community members hadn’t been solicited for input.
“I think it’s a shame that this group allowed this to happen,” Cowger told members.
In 2011, the city of Buckhannon voted to contribute $10,000 to the Upshur County Development Authority, which then worked in conjunction with Create Buckhannon to purchase and install LED lights that lined downtown buildings, as well as a host of more traditional Christmas lights and decorations.
“I would have expected someone to contact all the people involved in the project and see what their opinion was,” Cowger continued. “I’m sorry, common sense has left the room, I guess.”
“Common sense left the room when you forwarded everyone else (emails saying) that these were criminal behaviors,” Create Buckhannon member CJ Rylands replied. “You had been part of the discussion and emails back and forth.”
Another Create Buckhannon member, Sam Nolte, said he was surprised Cowger didn’t know the group was contemplating taking down the lights.
“I guess my biggest shock when I got the email about the (light removal) is you get all the minutes and you were even on that (email) request for help for taking down the lights,” Nolte said. “That’s what I didn’t understand. You seemed very shocked, but yet you received all the emails leading up to that point.”
Cowger said he had been in Alabama and that although he receives emails every day, he doesn’t always have the time to read them.
Rylands said members asked Cowger three months ago to provide the group with an estimate of how much money it would take to fix the lights and keep them operational. However, Rylands said that information was never provided.
Melodie Stemple, assistant director of the Upshur County Development Authority and a Create Buckhannon volunteer, said the decision to remove the lights had to do with repair and maintenance costs. She said Micrologic owner Emiel Butcher – who she eventually consulted about problems with the LED lights project – informed her that those costs were “just beyond what we had.”
“To do what we had up there, he said we would eventually just say ‘start all over,'” Stemple said.
Stemple said there were compatibility issues with the lights; each building needed its own plug-in, and extension cords ran from building to building. She also said the lights needed to be screwed into the buildings, which would require contacting each of the owners. Stemple added that the lights were not weatherproof.
“We just decided that was more than we were ready to tackle,” Stemple said, adding that the organization did consult City Administrator Michael Doss about the lights.
However, nothing any of the volunteers of Create Buckhannon said in response to Cowger’s comments seemed to change his stance on the situation.
“I don’t think any other building owners were contacted as part of this, and once the audit’s done with the (Upshur County) Development Authority, I’ll be talking to (the Development Authority’s) board (of directors) about that,” Cowger said.
Earlier that day, Cowger brought the issue before the Upshur County Commission, wanting to know how much – if any – county money had been spent on the project.
Commissioner JC Raffety said when the commission was approached about contributing money toward the project, it declined to do so.
“The decision was not strictly the county commission’s,” Raffety said. “The commission canvassed elected officials about whether they were interested in participating, and the answer was almost universally no. They were reluctant because they preferred more traditional Christmas decorations like wreaths and candles in the windows.”
Cowger said it appeared the Upshur County Development Authority was organizing Create Buckhannon initiatives, and, as a result, he wanted to know how much money the county gives to the UCDA. He also asked how much “county time” had been spent on the lights project via the UCDA’s planning efforts.
“Is there an audit trail? Are they audited?” Cowger asked.
Raffety said that although the commission contributes a certain amount to the UCDA’s budget annually, it’s a standalone organization and the commission doesn’t monitor how working hours there are spent.
“As far as knowing the day-to-day operations of the UCDA, we don’t have any idea,” Raffety said.
When contacted for comment, UCDA Executive Director Steve Foster said the Development Authority undergoes annual audits, and this year’s audit results will likely be available by mid-November.
“It appears that Mr. Cowger doesn’t have time to read his emails (from Create Buckhannon volunteers about the LED lights), but yet he has time to appear before the commission and ask questions concerning the operations of the Development Authority,” Foster said. “We would be pleased to answer those questions if he would direct them to the right people, which are the people who work at the Development
Create Buckhannon meets weekly at noon on Thursdays in the second-floor conference room of C.J. Maggie’s Restaurant.