When the Knox County Commissioners on Tuesday offered their first public discussion of a Capital Improvement Plan for the next two years, there was one project noticeably absent — a new roof for the old poor farm.
And that project, according to commission president Kellie Streeter, is now totally the table.
“That’s just not something we’re going to be able to do,” she said following the commissioners regular meeting, “per the opinion of our attorney.”
The commissioners earlier this year voted to give the deed to the 140-year-old Victorian building on Hart Street Road to Andy and Angie Barmes, a contractor and local nurse.
They also agreed to spend about $5,000 to remove some asbestos from its basement.
But that’s where the financial assistance will stop, Streeter said.
County attorney Andrew Porter — who represents both the commissioners and the Knox County Council — said state law prohibits any kind of monetary “donations” made to individuals or organizations.
And taking on the replacement of the roof — a project very large in scale — would trigger a state-required Public Works Project, which mandates a full bidding process.
Barmes has said he wants to do some of the work himself, so that doesn’t work either, Porter said.
In short, Porter said the commissioners’ hands are tied in terms of helping the Barmeses any more than they already have.
The commissioners have talked in previous months about giving to the Barmeses $250,000 to replace the roof, but that plan wasn’t met with enthusiasm from members of the county council, who would have to approve the additional appropriation.
Their next plan was to include the expenditure in their EDIT (Economic Development Income Tax) Plan, which is now called a Capital Improvement Plan. thanks to a change in state law.
There was also talk of giving to the couple $40,000 from an old insurance pay out when the roof was damaged in a storm years ago.
But that, too, is off the table, Porter said.
The commissioners have long said they believe themselves at least partly to blame for the building’s deplorable condition.
Commissioner Trent Hinkle said repeatedly that he thought they should at least fix the roof so the Barmeses could move forward with other repairs.
Commissioner Tim Ellerman, too, also a local contractor, has been a big advocate of helping the couple as much as possible.
“So it was a disappointment to find that out,” Hinkle said of Porter’s opinion on the matter, “and I certainly hated to tell Mr. Barmes that, but there was nothing else we could do. The deed has been signed and turned over to them.”
That said, Hinkle said Barmes still seemed optimistic that he’ll be able to find the funds to support such a large project. He’s launched a non-profit, Hinkle said, that could make grant dollars possible.
“We’ll see what happens, but I would be elated if he could find some grant dollars to help with that,” Hinkle said. “He remains adamant that he is going to be able to complete this project.”
The Barmeses, who have said they want to transform the old poor farm into a hospice house, are just the latest among many who have looked at the facility with a desire to re-purpose it.
Most recently, the commissioners rejected a proposal from Adam Kimmell, producer and director of “Resident Undead,” a paranormal documentary show on You Tube.
The Pennsylvania-based ghost hunter first expressed his desire last fall to take over the old poor farm, turning it onto a ghost-hunting attraction, but the commissioners just wouldn’t get on board.
Years ago, the commissioners gave the deed to the poor farm — with stipulations — to local pastor Sandy Ivers as she hoped to turn it into a shelter for women.
The project was largely forgotten, that is until Kimmell’s unexpected request caused the commissioners to look more closely into that agreement to see if it was still valid, especially since the property was still in a serious state of disrepair.
But Ivers eventually said she was no longer interested in the building and it reverted back to the county.
The county’s poor farm served as a home for the less fortunate until the 1920s, when it was turned over to Purdue University and converted into a “model farm,” an early predecessor to the current extension system.
Later, the building was used as office space for KCARC, during which the organization paid for many improvements to the aging structure, including putting in a new heating system, plumbing and electrical, all while leasing it to the county.
Eventually, KCARC let its lease with the county run out, and the building has been abandoned since.