Could Camas be the Grinch?

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category icon Columns, Opinion

By Rep. Liz Pike, Guest Columnist

In its Dec. 6 issue, The Post-Record ran a story about the city of Camas acquiring real property, including a purchase of the building formerly occupied by Bank of America (BofA). The article left out a few very important details that leave this writer wondering if the city is the Grinch who stole Christmas. Here are those previously omitted facts.

According to my sources, on Nov. 19, the Camas City Council gave approval to City Administrator Pete Capell to execute a purchase of the BofA building at a price of up to $1.3 million. During the week of Nov. 26, the city warned the sellers of the property that Camas was prepared to use their power of government condemnation as early as Dec. 3 in order to acquire the property. The city also promised a tax preference to the seller in order to sweeten the deal. Through condemnation, the seller would be allowed to defer capital gains taxes owed to the federal government for up to three years.

During that week, I was contacted by a constituent representing a private group also interested in purchasing the BofA building. They were rightly concerned about the city’s use of condemnation as a lever to force the sellers into a transaction with the city. In so doing, the sellers would enjoy a tax deferment not available in a transaction with any non-governmental purchaser.

On Nov. 30 in an effort to finalize the sale, the sellers informed both interested parties they would sell to the highest bidder with a cash offer, and that sealed bids were due on Tuesday, Dec. 4, at noon. My constituent offered the seller a $1.68 million cash offer on Nov. 30.

It appears the city of Camas, in its ambition to acquire the property at any cost, decided to act on its previous threat of condemnation. On Monday, Dec. 3, city officials contacted the seller with the following message: The sellers must sign an earnest money agreement with the city by 3 p.m. that day for a price of $1.6 million or else the City would immediately file condemnation on the parcel for $1.325 million, forcing the sellers to accept the lowest price from the city, even though the city was not the highest bidder.

In so doing, the city used its condemnation powers to unfairly compete on the open real estate market. While Camas city leaders believed they may have been on technically legal grounds to use condemnation in order to acquire the property, the city’s actions might be construed as unethical. Using the threat of condemnation to transact a real estate matter smacks of extortion and may have put the city in a position of extending potentially unlawful tax preferences.

There are many gray areas. Clearly, a functioning bank building that was recently vacated by a national bank does not qualify as a blighted, uninhabitable property worthy of government condemnation. It was also not the last parcel available for a new city hall building.

Keep in mind the real estate appraisal of the BofA building came in at a higher value of $1.325 million compared to a sales price of $535,000 in 2017. Why is the city spending citizens’ tax dollars to pay an additional $275K over the appraised value? Where does the significant amount of money come from for the city to renovate the BofA building for its purposes? At a time when the city grapples with how to pay for more fire and police officers, where does the new millions of dollars come from to pay for this property and the historic Leadbetter House also recently purchased by the city?

Industrial giant Georgia Pacific has drastically reduced its downtown workforce and will likely close the paper mill soon. UL Laboratories is moving out of Camas to a new location in Vancouver. Sharp Microelectronics is gone. Its large land holdings have also been removed from the tax rolls following a purchase by the Camas School District.

Is it wise for city leaders to take another valuable downtown property off of the tax rolls, leaving an additional budget deficit for the city? It’s compelling that newly-minted Mayor Shannon Turk recently acknowledged in Lacamas Magazine that “the city has a public relations problem … and a lingering perception that the Camas City Council is a good ‘ol boys network.” This is one of the most underhanded government tactics I’ve seen and it casts a dark shadow on the elected leaders in our community.

Rep. Liz Pike is a three-term member of the Washington State House of Representatives. She serves on local government, transportation and labor and workplace standards committees, and will retire from her seat at the end of 2018.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Post-Record did not “leave out” or omit facts regarding the city’s threat of condemnation in its Dec. 6 article on the city’s recent property purchases. Rather, reporters were gathering information about the condemnation threat, but only had “off-the-record sources” when Pike submitted her column Nov. 10. A story in today’s Post-Record (A1) has more insight into why the city felt compelled to bring up condemnation, quotes from one of the property owners and information about the other party involved in this real estate bidding war.