County Completing Buyouts Of Flooded Properties

After more than two years and miles of red tape, federally-funded buyouts for rural Pacific Junction and western Mills County properties devastated by 2019’s flooding are nearly complete.

The first of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) buyout dollars began going out to property owners in October 2020. The funding for the buy-outs comes from the FEMA Hazardous Mitigation Grant Program and property owners had to elect to take part in the program. The federal dollars are funneled to the county through the state of Iowa.

The City of Pacific Junction is in the process of completing buyouts within the city limits.

According to Mills County Auditor Carol Robertson, the county is down to its final buyout in rural Pacific Junction. She declined to speculate when that final buy-out would be done but she is relieved the process is nearing completion. Not for herself, but rather those property owners whose lives were turned upside down in 2019.

Mills County Supervisor Lonnie Mayberry agrees.

“It’s a headache for us but it’s been more of a headache for the people that we’re trying to get bought out so they can move on with their lives,” Mayberry said.
Robertson said the buyouts were a lot of work but overall went “fairly smooth” with a few exceptions.

Loans taken out by some property owners through the U.S Small Business Administration (SBA) did slow the process, Robertson said. These low interest loans used the buyout properties as collateral for the owners to secure the loan to purchase a new property.
“Getting them (SBA) to release those so people could go ahead and get the money from the buyouts and turn that over was huge red tape,” Robertson said. “The people had a terrible time dealing with that. The county didn’t have anything to do with that side of it. It slowed everything down and it was really a mess.”

Mayberry said the lengthy process of getting property owners paid often came down to getting the “left hand of the government to talk to the right,” a process he admits isn’t always easy.
“We would have just as soon been done with this months ago,” he said. “I feel for them (the property owners). It’s been a frustrating go.”

In all, Mills County coordinated the buyouts of 54 properties in rural areas around Pacific Junction totaling $9 million. Those dollars, in addition to the buyout amounts, include administration and abstract fees, house payment assistance and title publishing costs.

The average buyout totaled approximately $183,000 with the highest coming in at $402,938 and the lowest at $92,657.

At one time, more than 70 property owners signed up for a buyout but several “changed their minds as we went along,” according to Robertson.

Once the buyout process is completed, the county assumes possession of the property and it becomes deed-restricted.

So while the buyout process may be done, the county’s job is far from over. Mills County is now the owner of all 54 properties. And with those deeds comes state and federal regulations on what can be done to the properties moving forward.

Once the homes and buildings on the properties are razed, no permanent structures can be built and the county cannot sell the property. But it can lease the properties. Roberston said the county has already had interest in some of the properties from area farmers.

“I’m happy for the people that they’re finally able to move forward in their lives,” Robertson said. “Their lives have been tied up for some time and for some of them it’s been difficult for them to move forward. However, our job isn’t done. We’ve acquired these properties and now what are we going to do?”

While those plans finalize, the properties will be cleaned up and maintained.

Robertson said the county is looking at several options for the future and the on-going management of the properties. Mills County Conservation has also expressed interest in turning some of the properties into prairie land.

The Opinion-Tribune

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