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Vote on school land purchase could come Tuesday

September 17, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Board of Commissioners could vote Tuesday to purchase a 16.5-acre tract for a new elementary school. All five commissioners said they do not know who owns the property for which they are expected to pay $1.5 million.

The property was at one time listed for sale at $2.4 million, The Herald-Mail reported in May. Its assessed value is listed at $495,600 as of July 1, 2012, according to online records from the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. The same records list the owner as Hagers Crossing Multifamily LLC.

The commissioners last week all said they did not know who owns or is invested in the limited liability corporation. Most said it did not matter as it is a legal entity entitled to do business in Maryland.

“I could tell you names I’ve heard, but I honestly don’t know,” Commissioners President Terry Baker said when asked if he knew the owner or owners of Hagers Crossing Multifamily LLC.

“Absolutely, I think that would be very important,” Baker said when asked if the commissioners ought to know who are the principals of Hagers Crossing LLC. “That’s part of the transparency our citizens deserve.”

“That’s who I work for, the citizens of Washington County,” Baker said. “They should know how I use their money and who the recipients are.”

When asked if she knew who owns the company, Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said she does not want to know.

“No, I don’t, and if you find out, don’t tell me,” Callaham said.

“As an elected official, we have a responsibility to stay at arm’s length from anything that might appear to be a conflict of interest,” Callaham said. Regarding the decision on whether to purchase the property, she said, “decisions were based on data, not faces.”

“Of course I know that it is a corporation and that it’s a legal entity of the state,” Callaham said of Hagers Crossing Multifamily.

As far as whether taxpayers ought to know the owner or owners, articles of incorporation are public record, Callaham said.

The website for the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation shows that Chesapeake Holdings HC LLC bought the land, which had been foreclosed upon, in May 2011 for $495,600 from Rachuba Town & Country. The company then sold the property to Hagers Crossing Multifamily LLC for $525,000 in November 2011.

The articles of organization for Hagers Crossing Multifamily LLC list Tracie Clabaugh Weaver as the entity’s resident agent, according to a resolution to change the resident agent filed in May 2012 with the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Weaver said she could not comment on any aspect of the matter due to attorney-client privilege.

The previous resident agent listed for Hagers Crossing Multifamily LLC was David C. Lyles of Hagerstown, who also signed the LLC’s articles of organization on Oct. 31, 2011, according to department records.

A woman who answered the telephone in Lyles’ office said last week he would not comment on the matter.

“It’s an LLC and I do not know who the partners are,” Commissioner John Barr said.

Asked if the board needs to know the names before the vote is taken, Barr said, “not necessarily.”

“It’s a piece of property that’s been identified as suitable. It’s been vetted through all the processes,” Barr said. “It’s the least expensive suitable piece of property we looked at.”

“We’re buying it from a corporation,” Barr said of the land. “It’s no different than if we buy a piece of machinery from a corporation. ... We don’t ask who the stockholders are.”

“I think it’s important for tapxpayers to know who we’re dealing with,” Commissioner Jeffrey Cline said. “It’s public money. It should be public knowledge.”

He said he does not know the investors in the limited liability corporation. Cline and Baker both voted against approving a sale contract for the property in May, while Callaham, Barr and William McKinley voted in favor, Cline said.

Cline said his main concern was not ownership, but price. The property is approved for water and sewer and 241 apartments, Cline said.

While that adds value, in today’s market, Cline estimated the price should be “somewhere under a million.”

McKinley said he does not know who the investors are.

“As long as we know it’s a legitimate company ... I don’t think the names of the owners are that crucial,” McKinley said.

At the same time, he said, “I have no problem with the taxpayers knowing who owns it.”

“I don’t believe there’s been any effort to hide it,” McKinley said.

When county Director of Public Works Joseph Kroboth outlined the proposal to buy the land, no mention of the owners was made, he said.

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