I don’t get Leighton buying old school and property

ACHTUNG: The following is not a “fair and balanced” article. It is an editorial by the editor.

Did I miss or badly overlook something, or did the Leighton Township Board Thursday night poop the bed by spending $650,000 to buy the old Moline Elementary building and surrounding property?

If I understand this development correctly, the Township Board voted 4 to 0 to pay more than 10 times what the current owner paid about six years ago. This doesn’t make sense for four members of the Republican Party, which has consistently maintained over many years it doesn’t spend the public’s money foolishly.

Supervisor Steve Wolbrink, Clerk Rachel Fennema and Trustees John Hooker and Brian Bonnema (Treasurer Jaci Bultsma was absent) agreed to use $650,000 from the federal America Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to buy a dilapidated old elementary school building and almost five acres in order to open it all up to local recreational pursuits.

Indeed, the old school and property is adjacent to the Moline Softball Association fields and there is a lot of talk about creating pickle ball courts.

But it should be noted that six years ago owner Steve Austin bought the old school building and property for just $45,600, and he received a little help from the Township Board in getting the proper zoning.

Austin told board members in 2015 that he wanted to buy the school and property to establish his Happy Camper recreational vehicle repair business and actually live inside the old school, which was mothballed by the Wayland Union School District in 2003.

So now Austin apparently has decided to give up on his business operations and sell it, but at what price? $650,000!

What happened during these six years since Austin paid $45,600? Was oil or gold discovered? What am I missing here, or do board members need to plead temporary insanity to reckless expense of public funds?

If I were emperor (and of course I am not), I would have offered Austin a very generous $100,000, more than twice the price he paid to the schools, and then salted away the other $550,000 to create a special road fund to meet future repair and paving needs for Leighton’s crumbling roads.

And this doesn’t cover the estimated $250,000 that might one needed to tear down the old school building. And who knows what such razing will reveal in the way of further problems?

I hate to be naive about such an important matter, but I think the public deserves a much better explanation of such a puzzling expenditure than what was presented last Thursday night.

So, Leighton Township Board members — What is the reasoning behind spending $650,000 in federal ARPA funds for an old school and property that was sold for $45,600 six years ago?


  • Mr Young
    I for one must tip my hat and raise my glass to congratulate the Leighton Township Board. They have taken the trophy for the most foolish action taken by a township board this season.
    Now the pressure is off the Dorr Township Board and Wayland City Council for their previous blunders.
    It’s known that the Circus season ends at the start of November. I as a long time resident of Dorr township thought we had the best performances, but despite our efforts. It seems Leighton waited to the last minute to show the area how quickly $650,000 can be spent….on a purchase that befuddles the mind.
    Again Cheers for a job well done…

    • Just an old farmboy.
      Guess you must have started to compromise on some of your ideals. I thought you were always against the wasteful spending by government bodies.
      Guess its possible you play softball there, are a pickle ball player or related to the seller. That would explain your happiness for the seller.
      Someday we the “Hay Seeds”, “Rednecks ” and “Uwashed masses” will wake up and end this craziness of spending money that just might be used more wisely. Especially when infrastructure should be improved.

      • Mr. Smit, I never said it was a good investment for the township. I think the money being spread around by our current assinine administration is doubly assinine. I would be interested to see how this money is being spent in other parts of the country, I’m sure there have to be better stories of extreme ridiculousness that would top this one. If this windfall dropped into your lap are you telling you wouldn’t be all over it like flees on a dog?
        It is exactly like I said before,
        Who’s the fool!

  • Editor,

    Why does WUS get a free pass? IIRC they had nearly three quarters of a million dollars of bond money wrapped into this beauty that they (WUS Board) said we desperately needed. (Former Supt. Eivor) Swan gave the orders to close the school, shut off the boiler, mold starts to grow and they sell it for pennies on the dollar. Hmmmmmmm………Sounds like WUS is part of the problem………..


  • To the above posts. First off, don’t blame the seller. Steve Austin has over the past 6 years invested a large sum of money into the building and put it on the market last spring with under the advice of the Realtor for near a million dollars. The offer he got was from the Township which he accepted. Secondly, as far as the Wayland schools go, yes they screwed up by selling it 6 years ago. It was not filled with mold as they said but did have much mildew which was quickly taken out by the Austins. Wasteful use of money seems to be much further than township spending.

  • Even if the WUS Board had known about mildew, it would have been after spending at least a few thousand dollars to fully test the school building for mold prior to selling. Unless the school had previously undergone complete remediation for asbestos, it would explain why they just wanted the old building off their books. No building alterations could be done for public use without remediation. The sales contract probably said the transaction was based on As is condition without any inspections.

    Mr. Austin bought the school and made improvements so he and his wife could live there and operate a business out of the same building. It became a private structure. Maybe they pulled permits to make alterations for living quarters, maybe not. Either way they got a deal from a motivated seller, got a place to live and run a business for 6 years and it appears got very lucky when the township bought it for 60% of the asking price but the asking price can be set at any amount by the seller.

    I think the questions about the transaction are valid. Based on comments other than the property was listed its been coulda/shoulda. But 6 years ago township board had feet of clay on buying a potential Pandora’s box of environmental issues if they made the purchase to remodel or demolished the building for a new structure. A publicly owned building requires a lot more inspections than the Austin’s ever had to consider when making their purchase.

    The building improvements mentioned by the current owner don’t matter unless you are concerned about the Austin’s welfare. Anytime you buy a building you are rolling the dice on possible building improvement costs after purchase. “Nice” isn’t in the commercial real estate vernacular.

    In the last six years Leighton Township has seen real estate valuations increase very rapidly. I’ve seen homes that are “near” Green Lake sell for more than double in price from what they were listed for in 2016. Some on the water sell for even more but have never seen any sell for more than 14 times their 2016 selling price. Until now.

    Others have mentioned other uses of the ARPA funds rather than this purchase.
    ARPA funds have to be budgeted by Dec 31 2024 and spent by Dec 31 2026. ARPA funds can be used for roads and road repairs. Its not like there was $650K burning a hole in the township pocket that had to be spent by New Years Eve 2022.

    And so it goes.

  • Mr Miller
    I am not focusing any blame on the seller.
    My point is currently townships , villages and cities have a very bad habit of wasting money on ridiculous things when roads and other infrastructure is in dire need of help.
    Adding the unknown cost of razing the structure to the purchase price. I can only hope whatever happens is worth all that money to benefit the residents of Leighton Township.
    Since it looks like pickleball courts, ball diamonds and parking. Which in my opinion would not be money well spent. But there again I am not a resident of Leighton Township so maybe I do not understand what is important to you residents. From my view it looks like softball diamonds and pickleball courts, trump improved roads.
    As stated in my first response the pressure is off Dorr Township and as you can see the City of Wayland will stop plowing the city sidewalks ( there will be no argument , with most still talking about Leighton township) . Just waiting to see what Dorr will try to push thru under the smoke screen set by Leighton Township.

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