When the Greenville City Council convenes for its regular meeting Tuesday night at 6 p.m., at least some discussion is likely to focus on the several ways that the city’s handling of the proposed purchase of the old grocery store on King Street has differed from normal procedures, several officials told the Herald-Banner.
The city administration’s failure to release, post or distribute any information about the proposed purchase – so that citizen input could be sought – and the city’s decision to bypass the board overseeing the TIRZ funds to be used for the purchase are among the aberrations mentioned in recent days by several city officials and dozens of readers.
The proposed purchase of the building and 1.34 acres at 2601 King St. for $475,000 is part of a larger project that has been discussed since at least September by council members and city administrators, officials said.
That project would have the city extensively renovate the building – or demolish it entirely and then rebuild – so it could relocate city administration offices and fire department administration offices there, according to an engineering study performed for city officials on the proposal. KSA, the consultant firm that conducted the study, wrote in their report that the total estimated cost of the project being considered would be $3.6 million to $5 million, including the purchase of the property.
The administration, for only the second time in the last decade or more, completely bypassed the TIRZ board, which normally plays a large role in proposing and furthering any proposals to use TIRZ funds as this one does.
Sue Ann Harting, the chairwoman of the TIRZ board, said she and other board members were not aware of the Council’s consideration of the use of TIRZ funds. She said the last time that the board had been bypassed on a decision regarding the fund managed by the board was the Splash Kingdom project.
Harting told the Herald-Banner that Mayor David Dreiling told her that the City Council has the authority to use the TIRZ funds.
“The council ultimately is the decision maker. Even if the board presented a project to the council, the Council could still vote it down; the council certainly has the final say,” Harting said.
The TIRZ board is comprised of city appointees, but also has members from the local hospital district, school district as well as the county, who are asked for their input on what projects would best serve the community.
“They’re bypassing the opportunity for other entities to have a say whether that project is appropriate for funding and whether it should be used for it,” Harting said. “Just because it qualifies and you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.”
Though Harting supports the development of the city’s downtown area, she said she does not agree with the price tag on purchasing and renovating the property.
She said the Council’s decision to not seek input from the TIRZ board was a “slap.”
“Considering where the land is, I can see the city acquiring the property; I’m not completely opposed to that,” she said. “But when it comes to spending millions to build new offices there – that’s a whole different ball game.”
Since the Herald-Banner reported the details of the vote on the property purchase, the bigger project that council is considering, and the engineering report, the pushback on social media from scores of Greenville citizens has been swift and clear.
But several residents as well as a few city officials have noted that the administration’s actions in the handling of the project have differed from normal procedures, such as:
— The city administration has opted to keep the property purchase under wraps until the agenda was released Friday, even though the city’s negotiated price has been under contract since early October, according to the city manager.
“The building purchase was first discussed at the Sept. 11, 2018, meeting and was discussed in executive session due the sensitive nature of being a real estate purchase,” City Manager Summer Spurlock said. “The idea of the building was brought to council because the location and the proximity to current city offices.”
Spurlock confirmed that the contract for the negotiated price of $475,000 expires on Jan. 6, which is 90 days after it went into effect.
Texas law stating that a city council may keep real estate discussions private, in executive or closed session only, bases its reasoning on allowing a city to have competitive negotiating power, so for example a news report that a city is considering buying a piece of property would not start a bidding war that results in taxpayers paying even more.
Furthermore, the law does not require real estate discussions to be kept in executive session. Once the decision is made to place such discussions in executive session, council members are forbidden from sharing them publicly.
But discussion on the contracts started in the first week of October, and there has been no legal or business purpose for keeping the proposal under wraps as public discussion could not have harmed negotiations in any way, noted one Greenville attorney who asked not to be named.
— The city administration has not shared, posted or distributed any information about the larger multi-million-dollar project being considered by the city, even as of this writing, and administrators omitted the engineering report in the agenda packet.
This led to many Greenville residents questioning “why keep it secret?” on social media and in letters to the Herald-Banner over the weekend.
Dreiling said he didn’t agree that it has been kept secret, noting that council members were advised about two weeks ago in an email from the city attorney that they could go ahead and “discuss it with anyone they wished.”
When asked whether any documents revealing or related to the bigger project had been posted on any city website, or shared anywhere publicly, or included in any public agenda, he replied, “I’m not going to go and research all the past agendas to check.”
The Herald-Banner has re-inspected all the past agendas for the past 12 months; none of them include any mention of or reference to either the property purchase, the larger project to renovate the grocery store for city offices, or even a general need to move city offices.
“I’m not aware that this was hidden by city officials whatsoever,” Dreiling responded. “ I think all the council members are considered city officials, and they had it and were told they could talk about it to everybody and anybody they want.”
When asked why neither the proposed project nor the engineering report had been distributed with agenda documents or posted to the city website or any other public location, Dreiling repeated that the council members had the report but acknowledged that it is not generally their job or responsibility to distribute public documents related to upcoming council votes on spending public funds.
“Distribution of reports such as this are normally covered in the agenda and covered during work sessions and councils,” the mayor said.
Spurlock said she also did not feel that information on the purchase had been kept secret, despite residents’ comments on the lack of transparency.
The engineering study that has yet to be shared or released to the public by city administrators cost $2,750, according to the city manager.
“It wasn’t kept a secret, all information was being gathered so that Council can make an informed decision not solely on price alone but other factors as well,” she said.
Brent Money, Place 5 council member, said the council’s consideration of the purchase is a “wise decision,” noting the property’s proximity to City Hall.
“I think anytime an organization sees an adjacent property available for sale, it's wise to consider acquiring it. That doesn't mean that the city should or will buy it, but it's wise to consider it,” Money said.
He told the Herald-Banner that the Council had asked Spurlock to hire a company to provide a report explaining the feasibility of renovating the property, in addition to finding out the potential costs behind building a new structure of the same size.
This, however, doesn’t mean that everyone on City Council wanted to limit public knowledge of the project.
James Evans, Place 2 council member, told the Herald-Banner that he has been asking for some time for the proposed property purchase and the project centering on it be brought before the citizens for their input.
“Because of my core values and belief in my political philosophy toward my position as a City Council member and with the utmost respect for transparency in government, I did request that the city inform the public of its potential purchase of real property, located at 2601 King St., as soon as possible,” Evans wrote in an email responding to questions sent to council members and city administrators. “I urge all taxpayers to attend Tuesday’s City Council meeting, express their opinions and seek answers to their questions.”
The report includes an assessment of the condition of the grocery store building, the potential costs of renovating or demolishing/rebuilding there, and then the work required and the associated estimated costs for moving city administration and fire department administrative offices to the location. [The full report by the consultancy firm was obtained and posted online by the Herald-Banner and can be viewed online at http://bit.ly/2RPuoNh.]