Mules Jack and Jill run up $78,000 bill

County officials bought the animals to put them to work on a proposed historic farm, a living museum where schoolchildren would learn how farmers tilled the land a century ago.

But Cobb put the cart before the horse. Or rather, the mules before the farm.

Several key steps in the development of historic Hyde Farm had not been completed by the time the county bought the mules. More than a year later, some are still not resolved.

In the meantime, Cobb taxpayers have footed the bill for $78,000 on the mules in the past year — including purchase price, a caretaker, food and other expenses. With the cost rising, the county has been trying to sell the mules since June but has not found a buyer.

The problems don’t surprise the Alabama farmer who sold the animals to Cobb officials.

“Most of that bunch, you know, they didn’t know a mule from a donkey,” said Terry LeDuke of Vincent, Ala.

While $78,000 is a tiny fraction of the county budget, that amount could have covered the price of building a medium-size playground or a pavilion restroom structure at a county park. And the episode demonstrates how poor planning can lead a government to get in over its head.

Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott has led the effort to get rid of the animals. “They were pure expense,” he said. “We weren’t getting anything out of them.”

Then-Commission Chairman Sam Olens championed the purchase of the mules.

Olens said the county ran into unexpected delays, though the county’s top parks official said he warned Olens not to buy the mules.

“If you went up to me and said, ‘Look if you knew you were going to have these delays, would you have bought the mules?’ And the answer is absolutely no,” Olens said. “Of course we wouldn’t have.”

‘This is ridiculous’

Hyde Farm is made up of 135 acres along the Chattahoochee River in East Cobb, off Lower Roswell Road.

It was owned by two brothers, J.C. and Buck Hyde, who worked their land like they were in a time warp, farming with mules and a plow while the suburbia crept up around them.

The idea to preserve the farm kicked into gear after the last of the brothers, J.C., died in 2004.

The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation group, scooped up the land and agreed to sell portions to Cobb and the National Park Service, which plan to operate Hyde Farm jointly. Cobb bought its 42.5 acres in January 2009 for $5 million.

In August of that year, behind Olens’ motion, the commission voted 4-0 to buy the two mules and plowing equipment for $7,800. Officials drove to Alabama two days later to pick up Jack and Jill.

But Eddie Canon, the director of the Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs Department, which is responsible for the mules and the Hyde Farm project, said he told Olens beforehand that his department did not have the money or staff to handle them.

“We told him we just didn’t think we were ready to have the mules yet,” Canon said.

County Manager David Hankerson confirmed that Canon expressed concerns. Both Hankerson and Canon said that Olens wanted to buy the mules anyway.

Olens, who has since stepped down to run for attorney general, said he recalled getting some “pushback” from Canon about Hyde Farm, but not the mules specifically. He said he believed that it stemmed from Canon’s lack of experience with historic farms and that, with a little creativity, the county could have easily absorbed the costs related to the mules.

Once purchased, the mules quickly started racking up other expenses that now stand at $63,490, the largest of which was $25,488 to pay a caretaker to feed, groom and exercise the animals. The caretaker, Cindy Cason, is the wife of a county transportation department employee, Randy Cason.

County workers also spent 701 man hours — an estimated cost of $15,000 in taxpayer money — to work on four different mule-related projects.

Ott began investigating in June when he started learning of the additional expenses, which continue to rise due to the cost of feeding and caring for the mules. The caretaker has been paid about $1,800 monthly.

He asked the parks department how much the mules had cost the county so far. At the time, it was $55,000.

“I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous. You don’t need these mules,’ ” Ott said.

Ott had voted in favor of buying the mules but says now he wasn’t aware of all the costs.

All of the purchases and work involving the mules was done by Canon’s department. Canon said his department got support or approval for each purchase or project from then-Public Services Director Bob Ash or Hankerson. Ash was Canon’s supervisor.

“Any time something came up about the mules that had to be bought, it was talked about with Mr. Ash or Mr. Hankerson first before we did it,” Canon said. “The majority of the time, it was with Mr. Ash.”

Ash, who retired in April, could not be reached for comment.

Hankerson acknowledged that he supported the purchases and projects, but said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” that Canon continued to pay a caretaker to tend to the mules.

“What I had asked him to do was use the caretaker and then [have] staff start taking over and feeding and maintaining the mules,” he said.

Canon said he does not recall such a discussion.

In making plans for Hyde Farm, county officials initially estimated the farm would have a “soft opening” in August 2009 — the same month the county bought the mules. They said the farm would be fully operational by spring 2010.

The county didn’t come close.

First, the National Park Service didn’t buy the final piece of Hyde Farm land from the conservation group until August of this year.

Several county officials, including Olens, say they expected the land to be purchased much sooner.

But officials from the park service and the Trust for Public Land say they knew from the beginning that the National Park Service would have to wait for money from two different yearly budgets to pay for the land.

“We knew we’d have to wait for two years for [park service] funding,” said Debra Edelson, project manager for the Trust for Public Land.

Cobb and the park service also still have not signed three documents that will allow both to jointly operate the farm. The primary sticking point was a conservation easement that Olens and Cobb officials believed, as originally written, gave too much control of the land to the park service.

Another hitch is that Cobb still doesn’t have a detailed plan for what Hyde Farm will offer and how it will operate.

Ott said the University of Georgia is working on such a plan free of charge, but that it won’t be complete until the end of next year’s fall semester, more than a year from now.

Taking those factors into consideration, Ott made a motion June 22 for the county to sell the mules and their equipment. It passed 4-0.

For three months, county staffers have been trying to find a new home for Jack and Jill. They are advertising them on eBay, Craigslist and several specialty mule websites but are not getting good offers for them, Canon said.

LeDuke, the Alabama man who sold Cobb the animals, said it’s a bad time to sell mules. “Ain’t no market for them. Right now, it’s winter coming on and somebody’s got to feed them all winter.”

LeDuke told the county he’d be willing to buy the mules back for $3,000 — less than half of what he sold them for.

When LeDuke learned how much Cobb had spent on his former animals in the past year, he said, “Good God almighty ... That’s a bunch of [expletive].”

While no one argues that the Hyde land could eventually become a special place for Cobb residents, county officials say they don’t have the $4 million or so needed to develop it now.

And when they do, they’re toying with the idea that the final plan for Hyde might not include mules.

“That’s a possibility,” Ott said.

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