BIG WHEELS AWARD: The "Is It or Isn't It Publicly-Funded?" Foothills Welcome Center Project that may cost us $4,391,809.00 before it's over. (6/29 update)
In 2008, a parcel of land in Kendall was purchased with public funds for a local NGO using "free" grant money (no match or payback required), at a price more than a half million dollars over “assessed fair-market” value. The deed passed to the private nonprofit. This is a true story, and here are the facts:
FACT: A grant (actually two grants, beginning in 2006) for this project was underwritten by the Whatcom County Council of Governments (which is our “regional transportation planning organization”) for a county chamber of commerce. The motion to approve the grant for the land purchase was made by a "conservative" Councilman, and subsequently rubber-stamped by the County Executive. The money for both grants was tapped from federal STPE (transportation improvement) funds, and channeled through the Washington DOT. The actual purchase of the parcel was finalized 8/25/08.
FACT: The “letters of support” attached to the grant application, used as "proof" that the project received broad public review and support for the public need were all written by individuals who were (and still are) members of the grant-recipient's own board (!) - a link to the application with letters is below -- plus a couple of members that were subcommittee "regulars." Typical maneuver and snow job for grant apps, folks.
MORE FACTS:See the history of Parcel 400534 469371 0000 at the Whatcom County website, and follow along. The seller purchased the property for $140,000 on 11/05/01; and the parcel's 2008 Whatcom County valuation was $186,975. (Sounds believable so far, since assessments are required by law to be “fair market value.”) But the NGO purchased the property for $714,000.00 ($527,025.00 over the last assessor's "fair market value"). With closing costs, the bottom-line parcel cost was $737,175.00.
FACT: With the March 15, 2011 County Council award of additional cash for site improvements, this “public project” has cost citizens $942,300 to date, for property that's in private hands.
FACT: The actual “Welcome Center” facility they have in mind was designed to "Platinum LEED" specifications. That's extra fancy. The present construction estimate is a whopping $3,229,509 - and that's in “2007 dollars.” It doesn't include sales tax, AE fees, or “escalation allowances.” Plus, the estimate also says “ADD future solar for $220,000 more." So, in addition to the $942,300 already spent for the parcel and studies to date, the cost of this project may be $4,391,809.00 -- probably more. This is not chunk-change.
FACT: While councilpersons swore the public wouldn't pay for the building, the "project" now appears on Page 12 of the December 7, 2010 "CEDS" list (see the actual Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy list). It's on PDF page 15, it's Item #FSP-IPNCF #2. The “Estimated Cost” says “undetermined.” The “Potential Funding Sources” are “Federal, State, Local.”
What, exactly, is the truth about this project? Is this government work that fulfills a public need? If so, does it seem quite right that property paid for with public funds (apparently also a brand-new building, perhaps even appliances and furnishings) should be owned by a private non-profit, non-government organization? If the citizens in this county want a library or a fire station, they have to scramble to build these really important buildings on their own. But this -- this is - well, what is it? You decide.
FLASH - 6/29/11: WE just learned that Whatcom County Council, out of the goodness of their hearts, gave this group another $53,300 "for installation of water system, septic system, and related electrical service for the construction of the Mt. Baker Scenic Bypass Welcome Center" (AB2011-112) on March 15, 2011 (see page 8). Nothing quite like friends in high places, with the public checkbook in their pockets, willing to improve privately-held property. All the figures above include this latest prize.
This story should give every tax-paying citizen a serious case of heartburn. How much should the public rely on and trust "public-private" partnerships"? If this really is a legitimate public need, shouldn't the public own the property we're pumping cash into? Are there any controls in place to stop reckless spending? Ask your elected officials about items like this that they just can't seem to resist "supporting."