Downtown boondoggle exposed

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Coming fresh off the disappointment of the issue of a fair real estate tax cut greater than just two cents, we now are awakened to another downtown boondoggle supported by Mayor Bobby Ralph and city management.

The latest bad idea supported by those who have stated that a tax-cut greater than two cents is bad public policy, I note as reported in an article from the Daily Press, that the mayor believes assessments are not correct for a city-owned property near the Cultural Arts Center to be sold to a well connected downtown developer.

It was also conveniently noted in the Daily Press article that the assessor’s office believes the property was improperly valued by almost $200,000, yet the city still planned to sell it for one-fifth of even that low price.

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The property had an assessed value of $726,000, which was lowered to $536,000 by the assessor.

Yet the mayor stated that even that assessment was wrong and the property should be sold for only $105,000, according to the Daily Press article and two other members of council.

With the average assessments for the citizens rising this year at more than 16 percent, has the mayor called into question the process and value of all our assessments?

With the mayor and others on council and city staff willing to sell this property at a discount of more than three-quarters, as described in the Daily Press article and by Councilwoman Linda Johnson, were our assessments just as flawed and too high?

It is obvious that such a scenario will not be accepted by the powers that be at city hall as they spend our money this year, but it is perhaps the best example of the double standard that exists in our local government concerning our taxes and downtown deals.

It also calls into question just what kind of financial advice our leaders are getting to make such decisions. How does such a profoundly bad deal get recommended for approval?

It should also be noted that the process of bidding this particular property is also much in question, as it relates to the Virginia Procurement ACT and as described by both Johnson and Councilman Curtis Milteer. Given the fact that no appraisals were done and the bid list for bidders was short to non-existent with only three bidders, the deal would seem to be an inside deal cooked up for political purposes.

It should also be noted that in other deals and bids not held downtown or for preferred bidders, the city’s approach to such matters is much sharper and less cozy.

The process to lease small lots at the airport from the city can and has taken years to work out, because the &uot;City must insure that it gets the best deal possible&uot; according to the city finance director.

Such was clearly not even an issue as reported by the Daily Press and council-members Johnson and Milteer, so where were the financial gatekeepers?

Such policy to protect the interests of the public does not even appear to be a passing concern as required in the &uot;Procurement ACT&uot; and that is troubling to say the least.

How is it possible that after seeing the strong show concerning taxes that our mayor and others played-out a few days ago, are we to believe that practically giving away this valuable public property is good policy?

With the spigot of public monies already flowing freely for the Cultural Arts Center and other downtown projects supported by city hall, the way this deal was almost made really stinks. The call from Councilwoman Johnson and others for an independent appraisal is not only proper, but also a specific demand of the &uot;Procurement ACT&uot; to protect the interests of the people.

This may inconvenience the backroom deal that is the way of Suffolk, but it is about time that such be looked at first, before deciding whom to make richer.

City staff should have demanded a fair review and process before this deal was presented for approval.

They have been noted in other areas to press the case hard for nothing less, but what happened here?

This troubling deal and the attached questions highlights at best, the fact that there seems to be a defacto policy that any downtown deal must be fast-tracked even if it leads to a bad deal for the people, because city hall is flush with cash to spend.

If we assume that the assessment for this property like yours is proper and correct, then it indicates that a $600,000 plus giveaway was to be approved.

City council could have given us another one-cent real estate tax reduction with that much money, but…

Given the fact that the very same day that four members of city council made it clear that even an additional one cent reduction could not be afforded, this deal was structured and reviewed just hours before.

With such an unfair bend from the same four on council who stole the show on any sensible tax reduction, it is not possible to understand this sale as anything less than another &uot;Let’s make a deal&uot; for downtown at any costs.

As such, a full investigation must be held and accountability demanded.

Someone decided that this was what should be done even if it did not make any sense, yet it was almost pushed through, but for a very few cooler heads that vote in the minority for the people.

Roger Leonard is a Suffolk businessman and regular News-Herald columnist. He can be reached at