From Ward reapportionment to $22,000 an acre, developers push ethical limits
COLUMBIA, 12/4/11 (Beat Byte) -- Just weeks after they voted for a so-called "gerrymandering plan" known as Trial D, two members of Columbia's recently-concluded Ward Reapportionment Committee want the Columbia City Council to fork over big taxpayer dollars for vacant land near the new Battle High School.
Bob Pugh (left), Scott Atkins, and their St. Charles Road Development (SCRD) partnership with Scott's father Tom Atkins, builder Rob Wolverton, and the estate of developer Bob Lemone want city taxpayers to pay $681,000 for 30 acres -- a whopping $22,000 per acre the Boone County assessor has appraised at just $521/acre.
By comparison, all 47 social services agencies in Columbia would get just $979,000 under a proposal Council members will consider Monday night.
The land would be banked for future use because the city has no money to develop it, Columbia park services manager Mike Griggs told Columbia Daily Tribune readers agitated over the proposed acquisition. The sale would mark the third time in roughly three years the Pugh-Atkins-Wolverton-Lemone partnership has sold ultra-pricey land to a public entity.
Shades of ethical gray
With the pending land sale -- which Council members will also take up this Monday -- Mr. Pugh, Mr. Atkins, and the City Council step into an ethical gray area.
Mr. Pugh -- a former Columbia Mayor and CEO of MBS Books -- chaired the Ward Reapportionment Committee (WRC) and voted for Trials E and D, the most notorious of two so-called "gerrymandering plans." Mr. Atkins also voted for Trial D, and used his considerable influence to sway 4th Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley into a political minefield that exploded across the community with a highly-charged recall effort over Mr. Dudley's support for Trial D.
Had the Mayor, Council members, and the public known that Mr. Pugh and Mr. Atkins would turn around just weeks after their Ward reapportionment votes with a big bucks deal for City Hall, would they have been appointed to such a powerful committee? Why didn't Mr. Pugh and Mr. Atkins fully disclose what was coming? Why didn't they recuse themselves from membership on this committee, or at least from voting on any reapportionment plans?
More importantly, should people with such significant, pending, and personally-enriching business before the Council ever be put in a position to affect its make up?
Particularly galling given this turn of events: Mr. Pugh openly discounted public opinion about Ward reapportionment, while telling this writer to stop "picking on him" because he was a mere "has been" in the world of politics and business. He made this dubious statement as WRC chairperson, in what now seems an attempt to tamp down transparency about a business deal then just weeks away from City Council deliberation.
Third Time at The Trough
In 2008 and again in Sept. 2011, Columbia Public Schools agreed to pay the SCRD partners $2.4 million for land in the same area: 32 acres for a new elementary school at roughly $50,000/acre; and 79 acres for Battle High at roughly $11,000/acre.
The $900,000 Battle High land purchase also saddled the school district with millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements that were neither budgeted nor expected. "We’re spending $2.9 million that we never intended to spend," Chief Financial Officer Linda Quinley said at the time. "Hopefully we can learn from this and not make these mistakes again," then-School Board member Ines Segert added.
Even more disturbing given the school district's involvement: the St. Charles Road group pays only a few hundred dollars in property taxes. Between city and school district, the partners will have pocketed about $3.1 million on land the assessor has appraised for under $100,000. Property taxes are the #1 local source of school district revenue, and also provide revenues for city services.
Fictitious names only, please
"Damn. Must be gold in them thar hills," wrote Trib reader Vanessa Hall. "St. Charles Road Development LLC must be pleased with the amount per acre. Just exactly who is it that makes up St. Charles Road Development LLC? I sure would like to know if the names are publicly recognizable."
Hall asked that question because the Tribune refers to the prominent group only by its fictitious business name, further reducing transparency.
Responding to reader concerns about the whopping price tag, Mike Griggs wrote "park staff agreed with the purchase price of $681,280," based on two appraisals. Pugh, Atkins and partners "own the entire tract between Lake of the Woods Golf Course and Battle High," he explained, where they are planning "a mixed use development of single and multi-family residences, commercial and office space."
Budgets are apparently tight enough that "there currently are no funds to develop the park," Griggs wrote. "This acquisition could simply be seen as 'land banking' for future use."