The frustration in the air was almost tangible on Tuesday as the Mono County Board of Supervisors kicked off its afternoon session with a discussion regarding the Old Sheriff Substation.
“We have a tendency to throw burdens in the way of this business,” stated Supervisor Larry Johnston as he led a discussion to allow the development of basic living quarters and a museum for the building’s current occupant, Jim Ouimet, owner and operator of Mammoth Dog Teams.
Ouimet has been operating out of the Substation for nine years and did have living quarters and a museum until about three years ago. Septic and water issues were identified at the site and since then, Ouimet has been unable to open his museum to the public and has also been told he cannot have any living quarters at the site. The fate of the building, and therefore his business, has been in limbo ever since.
While the water issues still remain, Johnston championed allowing Ouimet to reopen the museum and reinstall basic living quarters on Tuesday.
“He just needs a place to lay his head, flush a toilet, and wash some dishes,” Johnston said. “We can give him what he needs for cheap.”
But supervisors Vikki Bauer and Hap Hazard strongly disagreed.
“The building use was abused,” Hazard said, referring to alleged attempts to break into the building by Ouimet after he was told he could not be there. The break-ins led the County to board up the windows on the building. The boards remain in place today.
“The building is a disaster,” Hazard continued. “It has arsenic and E. coli, and the septic system is too close to the well. History has been grossly misrepresented and amended here today.”
Bauer agreed. At first she tried to politely wave the situation away by blaming the mess at the Substation on “poor direction” from the County.
“Let’s wait until the three new Board members are seated in January,” Bauer suggested. “I’m not interested in putting a dwelling unit in. We can’t open up a can of worms of ignoring rules. Rehabbing is not the answer.
“Three weeks ago we turned down giving $100,000 to June Lake because we didn’t want to fund private business,” she continued. “What’s different here? We need to be consistent with Board decisions, so we should wait for a new Board [before dealing with this].”
“If we’re going to wait for a new Board then let’s take the rest of the year off and not make any decisions,” Supervisor Tim Hansen shot back. “Don’t make these things insurmountable. And, Vikki, we did end up supporting June Lake.”
“But it didn’t go to private business,” Bauer retorted (the funding will be funneled through the County’s Tourism Commission). “And I don’t agree with Larry.”
Johnston pointed out that by January the Eastern Sierra would be in the middle of winter, which would make it difficult for the improvements to be made. He pushed again to get the ball rolling now.
Hazard, Bauer and Mono County Director of Risk Management Rita Sherman were concerned with the legalities of reopening the museum and allowing a dwelling unit, but in Johnston’s opinion, “the County doesn’t have to follow its regulations.”
County Counsel Marshall Rudolph, however, pointed out the County does have to follow state building regulations.
Hansen and Johnston continued to push.
“We need to decide right off the bat if we want you to fail or succeed,” Hansen said to Ouimet.
“How can we, at minimal cost, accommodate Ouimet at the facility,” Johnston asked staff. “Let’s dwell on making it work.”
In his defense, Ouimet stated, “I would like to live without fear [of being shut down] and run my business. I haven’t had a lease since 2008 and I’ve lost a lot of sponsors because of this uncertainty.”
Hazard continued to be skeptical of Ouimet’s financial situation. “Why are we rushing to help him when we don’t know how much he has in his own pockets,” Hazard told The Sheet.
Through it all, Johnston was able to build consensus amongst Hansen and Supervisor Byng Hunt, who was highly in favor of getting the museum reopened and wanted to keep the building as “rustic and simple as possible.”
“At least three of us want to see minimalist accommodations for Ouimet and we want to support him to work toward full utilization of the substation,” Johnston told The Sheet in a follow up phone call on Wednesday. “We want to give him a chance to sustain his business.”
Consensus also included exploring the reimbursement of Ouimet for caretaker services (there hasn’t been any vandalism at the Substation since Ouimet has been down there, Johnston said). This could cancel out the rent that Ouimet is supposed to pay for using the property and just end up being a wash.
Johnston said he believed there was enough in the County housing fund to make the improvements he was suggesting.
“Nothing needs to come out of the General Fund,” he said. “I think we could get the safety and fire issues fixed for about $50,000.”
Full remodel estimates for the building from Sherman came in just under $470,000.
Johnston and staff will meet next week to further vet the details.
“I don’t know how he is as a businessman,” Johnston concluded over the phone, referring to Ouimet. “I just don’t want the County to be the reason he goes out of business.”