Battle over ownership: City of La Crosse says it will evict members of Harry J. Olson Center

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — The City of La Crosse says it will begin evicting members of the Harry J. Olson Senior Center if they do not vacate a city-owned building. Earlier this week, the city said it plans to use the Center as an emergency overnight shelter. Center staff say they still want to purchase the building.

The Harry J. Olson Center has been a part of the La Crosse Community for 46 years but its future hangs in the balance.

“We’ve been threatened with eviction, but nobody actually takes the action,” Executive Director of the Harry J. Olson Center, Erin Goggin, said.

In February, La Crosse’s Board of Public Works chose to terminate the Center’s lease. It went into effect on May 31. Goggin says the Center tried to buy the property from the city for the original asking price.

“We let the city know in a timely manner that we would buy it for $1.oo,” Goggin said.

The deal did not go through. In an email, the city’s attorney states the Center “timely failed to complete the purchase of the property.”

“We said look, we can work on this sale, this purchase agreement, we can make some concessions, which we did. They refused to negotiate,” La Crosse Mayor, Mitch Reynolds, said.

In an email, the city’s attorney says the Center “again rejected the city’s terms and conditions.” Goggin says that’s because the city added amendments to the purchase.

“We would pay for the building, assume all liability, pay property taxes, but the city would retain control of the building, keys and all,” Goggin said.

According to the Covenants and Restrictions added to the offer to purchase, the city says any transfer or leasing of property must be approved by the City of La Crosse and the building cannot be used for anything other than a community center. The Center’s attorney Terance Collins says the city would still control the building in this aspect despite not owning it. The building would also be subject to property taxes which Mayor Reynolds says is in compliance with the law.

“As a city, as a municipality, we cannot waive property taxes. If they’re a taxable property we have to tax them, it’s state law,” Reynolds said.

Goggin says the Center also tried to pay rent. Reynolds says the city could not accept the rent payment.

“It would create a lease situation when, in fact, they owed us for back rent from 2021,” Reynolds said.

Goggin says the city is pushing back because it wants to use the center as an emergency shelter for the homeless.

“What would happen to Harry J. Olson, it could not withstand. It just could not withstand it,” Goggin said.

The City’s Parks and Rec Department says it spends about $12,000 to maintain the building. The Mayor says that cost was not factored into the city’s 2021 and 2022 budgets because the Center was supposed to be empty. He says the Center can be used as a shelter because the city still owns it.

“We need shelter, we need places to keep people warm and alive. That’s what we need,” Reynolds said.

In an email, Collins says the city does not have a right to “seek eviction.” Goggin says more than anything, she’s disappointed with the way Center members are being treated.

“It says a lot about a community about how they treat their seniors,” Goggin said.

The Mayor would need to issue an emergency decree to use the center as a shelter, but he says that has little to do with the fact that the Center is operating illegally.

“We begin eviction proceedings, of course. They’re not paying rent. They don’t have a lease. They’re in a city taxpayer-funded building,” Reynolds said.