Council discusses assuming bookkeeping role for railway
By Garrett Estrada
Ely Times Staff Writer
The White Pine City Council tabled a vote to have the city of Ely take over the bookkeeping responsibilities of the Northern Nevada Railway and to set up a scheduled payment plan to pay back money owed to its executive director.
The decision was made in front of a standing room only crowd at the senior center on Jan. 23, many of whom showed up to voice opposition to the agenda item, fearing it meant closure of the railroad.
The still-pending vote, which is expected to happen at the council’s next meeting on Feb. 13 at the armory, is a culmination of an inquiry by Councilman Bruce Setterstrom after an audit pointed to potential problems in the railway’s finances.
One of the points of concern was money the railway’s Executive Director Mark Bassettt was loaning to the railroad foundation.
“The main thing I wanted was for that to stop, for that loan to not get any bigger,” Setterstrom said of the money owed to Bassettt, now totaling around $72,000. “This is not right.”
Setterstrom has also run into issues with trying to gather information about where the money has been spent.
“The actions Mark has done in the past two council meetings, with the lack of information that he has given us, I feel is worse than anything he has done in the past. By not bringing in the information that we are asking for it’s disrespectful and it’s downright wrong,” Setterstrom said. “He’s basically saying ‘Screw you guys.’”
Setterstrom said he had raised concerns over the loan to the city council three and a half years ago, when the total was $40,000.
“The only difference between this council and the past council is that this council is doing things out in the open,” Setterstrom said.
Bassettt said he doesn’t understand why the city has made it a point to pay him back “out of the blue” and is worried about breaking down the divide that has separated the city from railroad financially for the past 30 years.
“There has been this firewall between our finances and city’s finances. We have always been liable and taken care of our own debt,” Bassettt said. “We’ve never gone to the city with our hat out and said ‘Please sir, can you give us some money?’”
The city council, which serves as the Board of Trustees for the railway, has cited the recent audit and accumulating debt as proof that Bassettt and the rest of his management board are not managing the incoming money in a way that can last much longer.
Councilman Sam Hansen came up with the proposal to have the non-profit organizations bookkeeping become the city’s responsibility. It was an effort, Hansen said, to try and save the historic landmark, not shut it down.
“We wouldn’t be bothering with this exercise in oversight or management of the finances or concern about the red flags brought up in the audit if we didn’t want to save the railroad,” Hansen said. “In fact, if it were an attempt to have it go under, we would simply ignore all of these things we have brought forward and let it collapse under it’s own weight.”
Bassett still says he has lots of questions. He said he’s concerned the city could begin using taxpayer money to fund parts of the railroad or pay off debt, something he is strictly against. He also worries that the city’s involvement could hurt his fundraising efforts, as he thinks it would be less clear to the donators where the money is really going.
“My concern would be ‘Are we going to confuse the donors? Are the donors going to ask themselves if they are giving to the foundation or to the city of Ely,” Bassett said.
Bassett also points to the council’s track record of firing city officials recently as troubling for his security in running the foundation.
“When you look at the dominos here, it’s like OK we have the city clerk gone, the city treasurer is gone, the city road’s supervisor is gone, the city attorney is gone, then gee, I wonder what my future holds,” Bassett said.
According to Bassett, one of the main reasons he’s not trusting the city council has to do with a former employee of his, Councilman Marty Westland. Several people in attendance used their time in the public comment sections of the council’s meeting to share Bassett’s sentiment of distrust for Westland, with one member of the community going as far to call him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Westland said that the accusations were stemmed in “misinformation” and he in fact wants the very best for the railroad.
“There are a bunch of things that have been said that are just completely false,” Westland said. “The notion that anybody wants to shut this railroad down is just absolutely preposterous.”