County should not take sole risk

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 26, 2007

Ed Hilderbrand has worked 12 years at Linden Lumber Company. His wife is a teacher at Sweet Water High School. They have three children.

Charles Grant says Linden Lumber is his livelihood. His wife suffers from epilepsy. One bottle of her medicine costs $400. Without the medical benefits that come with his job, he could not afford the medicine his wife needs.

Rodney Golson knows that while 425 employees would be affected by the closure of Linden Lumber, the actual number of people impacted would be more than double that when families are considered &8212; families like his own.

Those are only but a few of the faces who represent why a proposal for the county to loan Linden Lumber Company $7 million has become so emotionally charged. When livelihoods are at stake, how can anyone turn a blind eye?

But just as with most things, this decision has another side &8212; in this case, fiscal responsibility to the county as a whole.

If Linden Lumber defaults on the loan from the county, it will be the taxpayers who are left holding the debt. And while Marengo County will take possession of a mill valued at $21 million, we are likely to get far less for it. Commissioner Ken Tucker said he has been told that the county would realize only between five and 10 cents on the dollar if it was sold at auction.

The county is assuming all the risk in this venture. The owners of Linden Lumber are putting nothing of personal value on the line. If the company defaults on the loan, the business closes, but the owners personally would be financially secure.

Finally, we have no real assurance that the lumber market will recover soon enough, allowing for Linden Lumber, even with the $7 million loan, to improve their fiscal viability.

Those are some of the real, hard facts that must be considered, even with emotion playing a part.

During Friday&8217;s public hearing, Tucker said that the commissioners should take emotion out of the equation and look at the proposal from strictly a business perspective.

He&8217;s right, they should; but it cannot be done. Too much is at stake. Perhaps that is why Tucker fought to place stipulations on the loan, which will both give the county an out if the deal falls apart before the loan is made and buys everyone some time to find an acceptable alternative.

But let&8217;s put everything into perspective. First, as Tucker pointed out, the county has no responsibility for Linden Lumber. None. If the county loans them money, then the commission is doing Linden Lumber a huge favor. Regardless of what anyone says, it would indeed be a bail out.

But if the county does not come through with the loan, the only fault for what happens to Linden Lumber and its employees lies with the management. They have admitted as much, that they made a bad business decision and stayed in a losing venture for far too long &8212; nine years, to be exact.

In the end, we are where we are because of that.

While I personally do not believe the county has any business loaning a private entity a single, red cent to help get them out of financial dire straits, the stakes are just too high to walk away without looking at all options.

But, as a taxpayer and a businessman in the county, I do not want to see Marengo County solely exposed to the risk. And folks, as Tucker said, under this proposal the county is all alone in this venture. If Linden Lumber defaults, the county must still repay the loan.

For that reason, the owners of Linden Lumber should show they are personally committed to it. They should use personal property as collateral against the loan. Doing so would show their level of commitment.

If they are not willing to do so, then so be it. That does not make them bad guys, and it doesn&8217;t mean they are being selfish, as some have said of them.

(I&8217;ve been amazed at the level of personal attacks against the Overmyers during all of this.)

Look, no one should ever begrudge the Overmyers their financial success. They built a good company, and they deserve their just rewards.

The timber industry has been volatile in the past two decades. Many small mills &8212; like Linden Lumber &8212; have closed. But each time, the Overmyers have positioned Linden Lumber to weather the storm. Maybe not this time; then again, maybe so with the county&8217;s assistance.

That said, if the Overmyers are not willing to put some personal assets at stake to save their company, then how can they reasonably ask the county and its taxpayers to do that very thing?

And, yes, I&8217;m aware of what they have done to date. But this is not about putting cash back into the company. It is simply about allowing their personal property to be used as a partial guarantee against the loan.

My sincere hope is that Tucker will be successful in finding an alternative to the county borrowing and then loaning $7 million. But if not, the county should not take all the risk. Perhaps some how the banks, the state and the owners can spread the risk among themselves.

In the end, no one wants to see even one person lose their job &8212; much less 425 people. But we should look at the big picture, the entire picture, not just part of it.

For the county and its citizenry to accept full responsibility for a $7 million loan to help resurrect a faltering company whose owners will put up no personal liability is just simply too much to ask.

If it comes to that, then the county should not do it.

Sam R. Hall is publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com. Read his blog at dtsamhall.wordpress.com and his observations on news from this area at dtnews.wordpress.com.