Three city councilors on Tuesday spelled out their criticisms of the city’s recent purchase of land in West Quincy for flood control, despite the city solicitor’s arguments that the purchase was valid and legal.
The standoff led to Councilor Joseph Finn’s raising the possibility of asking the state Inspector General’s Office to look into the matter, though no vote was taken to do so.
The acquisition of two parcels at 20 Furnace Ave. for $485,000 has been a center of controversy over the last few weeks, after councilors discovered that the purchase had occurred without their direct permission.
However, officials in the mayor’s office said the purchase was authorized under the city’s $25.4 million Capital Improvement Bond, which specified, among other projects, that a pumping station needed to be installed in this area to help alleviate flooding.
Councilors met to talk through the issue during an Oversight Committee meeting on Tuesday night, but both sides stayed resolute in their view of the transaction.
“I want to move beyond this, but also guarantee that it doesn’t happen again,” Finn, who was one of three councilors critical of the purchase, told City Solicitor Jim Timmins. “And I think you have a broad interpretation, personally, about what is required under the law in relation to the purchase of real property and the role of this body in relation to that.”
Finn cited the city’s charter, which specifies that if the purchase price for land is more than 25 percent higher than its average assessed value of the previous three years, the land shall not be purchased, but taken by eminent domain.
The charter also specifies that any land purchase requires a City Council vote with two-thirds of the members approving.
Councilor Doug Gutro agreed that his reading of the charter implied that an appropriation and vote by the council was necessary for purchase of property.
But according to Timmins, eminent domain was not a possibility because of the mortgages on the property.
Furthermore, Timmins said that he did have permission and an appropriation from the council.
“In this particular instance, what I saw was a council order following a council review of what was going to happen, and understood it included an acquisition of this lot, an appropriation of $900,000 for the issue. I understood the council appropriation to be a council order,” he said.
Although Gutro and Finn said that they did not recall any discussion of a land purchase during a vetting of the capital improvement plan, Councilor Brian Palmucci supported Timmins’s course of action.
“It was contemplated $900,000 for a project that involves creating a flow-control system. It’s my ward, so maybe I’m a bit more familiar, but I’m not aware of any land we own in that area. If we don’t own any land, how can we spend almost $1 million building flood control?” he asked.
Finn countered that even if a purchase of land was assumed, it would still require a vote.
The Capital Improvement Plan “doesn’t talk about acquisition, doesn’t identify a property, but begs the question of what’s the difficulty of coming in here, explaining the unique characteristics of this parcel and its availability. If you were persuasive enough, you could get the votes. But it requires certain disclosures . . . to be made,” Finn said.
Finn also questioned the validity of the property appraisal, and the relationships between the appraiser, the seller, and the city.
The properties were assessed at $135,000 for tax purposes in fiscal 2012, and were appraised at $595,000 by John McGovern of Quincy.
Councilor Brian McNamee, chairman of the Oversight Committee, said that not only were there issues with the assessed vs. appraised values, but the square footage was incorrect in the appraisal. There also were questions about the value of comparable properties.
Additionally, McNamee said the appraiser had done work with Dan Flynn, the principal of the company that sold the property to the city. None of that had been disclosed, he said.
Timmins admitted that the appraisal had problems, but stood by the process and the price paid by the city.
“I accepted that a licensed appraiser was competent, which Mr. McGovern is. He made mistakes, but he is competent. He said [the price] ranged from $6 to $49 per square foot, and I said, ‘Good, we’re at $12 or under,’ ” — well within the range. “It didn’t impact what we did here, which has allowed me to sleep the last several nights,” Timmins said.
Other councilors said they appreciated the chance to thoroughly vet the transaction, and were satisfied with the answers. But Finn and McNamee said the topic required more discussion.
“Essentially, it was left within committee,” Finn said after the meeting. “The intent is there has to be some further discussion moving forward to resolve some of the critical issues to ensure we don’t keep repeating this again and again.”
There may also be a vote to bring this issue to the inspector general to get an outside opinion on the transaction, Finn said.