Excavator: I got the shaft

By late Thursday morning, Jerome Simon’s home was gone — on paper at least.

The sheriff’s sale at the Dubuque County Law Enforcement Center was quick, with no bidders appearing and his bank claiming the rural Holy Cross, Iowa, property. The opening price was $209,000, quite a bit more than its $150,000 assessed value and nearly 20 times the $11,000 mortgage remaining on his home of 28 years, Simon said.

“That was the most devastating day of my life,” he said of the sale. If he can’t come up with the money in 120 days, Simon, 62, will be forced to move out.

Over the past several months, the bank, looking to recoup the approximately $1.2 million Simon owed it in delinquent loans, has sold off nearly all of the businessman’s possessions, save his pickup truck. His company — or at least the fleet of heavy equipment and, consequently the means to operate — was auctioned off in November. Before that, the bank sold 136 acres near Asbury, Iowa, that Simon prized. Gone, too, he says, is his $17,000 retirement savings.

His road to ruin wasn’t built on bad business decisions or the recession, Simon asserts, but by two big-time tri-state developers he claims owe him more than $1 million for excavation work he performed. It’s a claim presently playing out in two tri-state courts, with the developers disputing many of Simon’s charges. But even if he wins — Simon says he’s lost faith in the judicial system — it might be too little too late.

‘A lot of work’

In late spring of 2007, Simon Construction Co. began grading the first phase of Asbury Plaza Business Park, the commercial development vision of Mason City, Iowa, businessman Wendell Corey and his Motor City limited liability company. Corey was the developer behind Dubuque’s Asbury Plaza, a thriving shopping center to the immediate south of the planned, 70-acre business park.

Simon contends Corey strung him along, failing to come through on the hundreds of thousands of dollars he was owed for the job. By August, Simon and his crew wrapped up the contracted work, holding an outstanding bill of $681,000, plus interest.

“I’m borrowing money, $25,000 a week,” he recalled. “And I borrowed on my house and equipment to keep operating.

“It was a lot of work, and we worked seven days a week to get it done.”

After months of failed attempts to collect, Simon took Corey to court.

In documents filed in Dubuque County District Court, Corey admits he owes the amount charged. He does contest the approximately $250,000 in interest Simon claims. And Dubuque County Judge Lawrence Fautsch sided with the defense on that point, ruling Simon Construction failed to note finance charges in the written contract. Simon is appealing that part of the ruling, however, claiming his itemized bills included interest and Corey offered no objection until the matter came to court.

Fautsch did rule that Corey owes Simon the $681,000 both parties agree on.

Reached at his Mason City office Thursday, Corey declined comment.

‘I was warned’

Meanwhile, Simon Construction was hired to work at the rural Jo Daviess County, Ill., property of Wayne and Tracy Briggs.

Wayne Briggs, a principle in Dubuque-based supplemental insurance provider Platinum Services, has made a name in tri-state development circles. Perhaps he’s best-known for his investment in the development group that owns the former Dubuque Packing Co. property.

Simon said he performed work at Briggs’ estate for about five years before Briggs relieved him of his duties in the summer of 2007, claiming poor workmanship.

Seeking $200,000 for the work performed, Simon took Briggs to court. Briggs countersued, claiming Simon failed to perform his obligations under the contract and that Simon was paid in full, based on the terms of the agreement. Simon said Briggs never had a problem with his work until he was presented with a copy of the bill.

Briggs’ counterclaim asserts Simon failed to “lower bluffs and fill valleys … to build a road … and to comply with all laws,” among other complaints.

“I was warned by others not to use Jerome Simon and I wished I hadn’t,” Briggs said. “Jerome Simon breached his contract with me. Jerome’s poor workmanship damaged my property, and I’m suing Jerome Simon for his poor work.” Briggs would not disclose who advised him about Simon’s work.

Simon countered he was “kicked off” Briggs’ property before he could complete work critical to shoring up the property from runoff. And Simon claims his work has never been called into question by another employer in his 40-plus years in the excavating trade.

‘I’m done’

Simon now awaits the outcome of two court cases that could take many more months to resolve.

At the same time, the land Corey planned to transform into a business park reportedly has been turned over to the lender, partially graded and paved but a long way from developed.

“As far as development, we haven’t heard anything new on it as far as pending commercial property,” said Kyle Kritz, associate city planner.

Simon said he’s preparing for the worst, convinced the chances are good he’ll never see a dime of the money he’s owed, and everything he’s worked for will be gone for good.

“I’m done. I’m out of business,” he said. “I’m prepared to start all over again with nothing.”