River Falls opens new town hall; announces projects

Published 7:30 am Wednesday, September 7, 2022

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By Stephanie Snodgrass, Star-News Correspondent

Nearly 10 years after uncovering decades of stolen public funds, the Town of River Falls today is celebrating growth and looking toward the future.

Only a few weeks ago, the town opened a new center of operations on Plywood Mill Road, Mayor Patricia Gunter said Friday. The move came after years of rebuilding town coffers and services, which caused employees to outgrow its facility next to the River Falls Volunteer Fire Department. Gunter said the council obtained a low-interest USDA Facility Rural Development loan two years ago for the project; however, COVID interrupted the process.

“When we got bids back in April, the price had doubled,” Gunter said. “When (USDA) said we had to seek new bids, we knew we had to do something different. I said, ‘I hate to leave money on the table, but new bids won’t be any cheaper.’

“We decided the project was important enough to take it on ourselves,” she said of the $120,000 project.

The nearly 2,200 square foot building, which houses office and meeting spaces, opened to the public late August. Located in the former Grissett Plastering location, the site consists of three buildings. The one behind town hall houses the town’s water department, and the other – with open bays – is used as police car parking. The former town hall is the new home for its police department, which now features staff offices and a common area after a small renovation project.

Over the years, things have expanded in River Falls, Gunter said.

“And because of it, we needed the room so badly,” she said. “We’ve held one council meeting there, and our municipal court has held one session, too. The space is working out very well, and so is the conversion of the old town hall. The police department before was in one room in the fire department. Now, they have their own space.”

Gunter said the facilities are only the latest in a string of capital improvement projects for the town and more are in the works.

It’s a far cry from the city’s financial picture 10 years ago when, in October 2012, the-then mayor, the late Mary Hixon, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 in town funds in the previous three years after making payments, disguised as legitimate town expenses, to friends, relatives, and others. At the same time, Richard Moss, who shared Hixon’s home for a decade, pleaded guilty to four counts of theft of property after Hixon spent more than $100,000 on utilities, rent, and provided a fake salary for him. The State was unable to prosecute the pair for crimes occurring before the three-year statute of limitations for theft, so the total amount taken by the pair will never be known. Both were sentenced to jail time; however, each received probation and were ordered to pay the town restitution. Gunter said the late Hixon’s estate paid $70,000 to the town, while Moss continues to make payments. The misuse of public funds caused devastating damage to the town’s finances. Since then, the town made significant strides in righting its books – and proving it to citizens.

“In the years since that, we’ve added a fulltime police department, completed two paving projects, and upgraded our water system,” she said. “And I’m excited to announce we are applying for a state Rails to Trails grant that will help us build a walking trail through our town park and around the cemetery.

“We’re also in the preliminary stages of a plan to build a youth park using our American Rescue Plan money,” she said.

Gunter said the plan calls for a basketball court, covered pavilion, and other seating.
“It’s going to be something like Andalusia’s Robert Horry Park,” she said. “We’ve been so fortunate to have land donated for the site, and we’re in the process of getting adjourning property donated too.

“We want to do a lot more for the people of River Falls,” she said, “but it takes time. Just know we are trying.”

And for those wondering if Dollar General will ever make an appearance in River Falls, Gunter said it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

“Unfortunately, we can’t just call up there and order one to be delivered to River Falls,” she said. “But they’re taking my calls and not telling me ‘No.’ We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.”