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For Washington County, no benefit of the doubt

September 30, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

When the issue of school maintenance came up recently in Washington County, the commissioners initially pleaded poverty, claiming there was no money to pay for the upkeep of such items as heating and electrical systems.

Yet somehow, the commissioners have found the cash to reward a property flipper with a $1 million profit.

The commissioners voted 3-2 to buy 16.5 acres for the planned West City elementary school at a cost of $1.6 million, even though the property sold just 10 months ago for a third of that price, and even though its assessed value is lower still.

Commissioners President Terry Baker, who along with Commissioner Jeff Cline voted against the purchase, called the voting session “a brutal day for the taxpayers of Washington County.”

Maybe, maybe not. Taxpayers didn’t get a fire-sale bargain, which would have been nice, but neither was the purchase price a financial outrage.

What it was a brutal day for, however, was open government, since the majority of commissioners asked us to believe a rather wild story about the property transaction, and further claimed to have no knowledge of the individual sellers.

Really? They didn’t know the gentlemen, even their identity was known by pretty much everyone else in the county, and the sellers themselves didn’t mind being named in a public letter from their attorney?

The commissioners gave the appearance of putting their fingers in their ears when Baker expressed irritation that it was “some of the same names” that sold the county an old bank building that has become an embarrassing white elephant.

Not only does it stretch credibility to think that the commissioners have no idea with whom they are dealing, it’s just plain weird that, by all appearances, commissioners fear being associated with the sellers, who happen to be generally well-thought-of local developers.

So what’s to hide?

Perhaps they sensed that the public would find it hard to believe that a property that sold for $525,000 less than a year ago and held an assessed value of $495,600 as of July 1 is somehow worth $1.6 million today.

The commissioners say that, even considering the fat profit handed to the seller, this is still a good deal compared to other properties under consideration.

The sellers suggest, meanwhile, that the land escalated in value overnight because it had won approval as a housing development.

But for this to be true, one would have to imagine that the housing market in Washington County had suddenly reverted to 2004 conditions.

The county’s story also asks us to believe that no one knew this land was under consideration last November when the developer stepped in and bought it out from under them. But more than a few residents are questioning whether this was simply a coincidence.

Perhaps the county thought it could purchase the land quickly and quietly and no one would ask any questions. When questions did arise, however, we are asked to believe that it is possible to sprinkle a little bureaucratic fairy dust on a property and immediately treble its value.

Eliminate the spin, and this tale is probably exactly what it sounds like on its face — a hastily concocted and totally unconvincing cover story.

The developers are correct that tangible improvements can improve the price of commercial property, but this was merely a land-use designation — a signature on a sheet of paper. Taxpayers can be excused for thinking that this smells more like a pure property flip at their expense than any sort of value-added investment.

And taxpayers will indeed think that, and the commissioners have no one to blame but themselves.

This is the commission that has appeared to play favorites on the Yale Drive bid process; toyed with the jobs of health-department nurses, while publicly trying to assign blame to the health department itself; patted its EDC chief on the back during a public ceremony before firing him the next day; slapped a gag order on county employees, severely restricting the flow of public information.

Maybe the West City scenario played out exactly as the commissioners say: No privileged information changed hands. The property was purchased out from under the school board by chance. Values can triple by a real-estate version of a laying on of hands. County taxpayers got a splendid deal.

But this is the price you pay for routinely playing coy with the public — given the county’s track record, who still has faith enough left to believe them?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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