Ted Siefer's City Hall: Committee balks at land sale to Dunkin' Donuts
It seems like a pretty good deal, but as far as a couple of aldermen on the Land and Buildings Committee are concerned, something doesn't smell right - and it's not the coffee.
For one thing, as was pointed out at Monday's meeting, the committee had voted seven months earlier to pursue leasing the land rather than selling it. And another thing, the franchise owner in question is Constantine Scrivanos, a supporter of Mayor Ted Gatsas and many of his initiatives, including the "virtual classrooms" that had their debut earlier this year. His family contributed $20,000 to the effort.
The buildings committee had first considered a proposal from Scrivanos back in October to buy the land, for a price to be negotiated. After considerable debate, the consensus was that leasing the land was a better option. "This way, the city gets a little bit of money on a yearly basis that goes into an account to help the park, redo the tennis courts, the track," Ward 2 Alderman Ron Ludwig said at the time. "It isn't a lot, but the city retains ownership rather than taking $100,000 in one-time money and you're done."
The lot has been assessed at roughly $100,000.
The committee was also told by an official in the planning department that the city couldn't just sell the lot to Scrivanos's company, Matnec LLC. It had to be declared surplus and then auctioned to the highest bidder.
The committee voted, 4-1, for a motion to have the Economic Development Office discuss a "lease agreement" with Mantec.
Two months later, economic development chief Jay Minkarah abruptly resigned. Since then, oversight of economic development affairs has been shifted over to the mayor's office, under an interim arrangement approved by the aldermen.
From the perspective of Ward 5 Alderman Ed Osborne, the chairman of the buildings committee, nothing ever came of the attempt to reach a lease agreement with the Dunkin's owner, so the issue was never passed on to the full board.
Fast forward to last Monday's committee meeting. The attorney representing Mantec said the offer of $50,000 was based on the restrictions the city wanted placed on the property: that no new buildings would be built on it and the buffer space with the park would be maintained. The city's assessing chairman agreed that it was a fair price in light of the restrictions.
But Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur again argued that leasing the land was the better route. "I think we're selling ourselves very short," he said.
Levasseur told me he also didn't like seeing the attorney for the store owner approach Gatsas, who was sitting in on Monday's committee meeting, after the issue was discussed.
"I'm very put off by any appearance of any inappropriateness," he said.
For his part, Gatsas said he thought selling the lot was the most viable option, and he bristled at the suggestion that there was anything untoward about the proposed deal.
"The things Mr. Scrivanos has done for this city," Gatsas said, ticking off a list of nearly $100,000 in recent donations, to a soup kitchen, local schools and other causes.
As for whether Scrivanos' philanthropy affected his position on the Dunkin's deal, Gatsas said, "It would have no effect in my decision-making, and I think I've proved that in the past."
In the end, the building committee tabled the issue yet again.
"It was just talk, talk, talk. Nothing ever happens," Osborne said. "It's the weirdest situation I've seen myself."
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As is well known, Alderman Phil Greazzo is not a big fan of government spending, and so he was struck by a seemingly routine request from Planning Director Leon LaFreniere at a committee meeting last week.
LaFreniere wanted the Committee on Community Improvement to approve an extension of existing project accounts. The document he furnished listed about 80 accounts, the oldest dating back to 1994 - $152,103.94 for "South Willow Street Improvements."
Taken together, the accounts represent millions of dollars.
What wasn't made plain initially was that there might not be any money in these accounts; instead, the figures represent the way the city keeps its books.
Later, at the aldermen's meeting, Greazzo pressed LaFreniere as to why there would be so many accounts, apparently with so much in them.
"In many cases, these projects have been under way for some time," LaFreniere explained. "They're either placeholders or projects that haven't been backfilled with anticipated funding. For every one of those projects, there's a story that goes along with it."
This didn't satisfy Greazzo, and he made a motion, which was passed by the aldermen, for all city departments to compile lists of all existing accounts and "the money therein."
Greazzo told me later in the week that he wants to know "who's hiding money all around the city, including the school district."
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Another account will likely soon be added to LaFreniere's long list. The CIP committee on Monday agreed to spend $265,000 to repair the track at Livingston Park.
Considering the amount of debate that has gone into much smaller expenditures, the fast-tracking of the project was pretty breathtaking.
Only a month ago it was revealed that root damage had rendered the facility unusable for the Central High track team. Under the committee's plan, $177,000 will be used from the one-time account, and $88,000 is expected to come from civic groups.
So how does Mayor Gatsas feel about expending the funds for the project? After all, thanks to his family's generosity, the facilities at the park are called the Gatsas Athletic Complex.
He absolutely supports it.
"There was a discussion in my office that it needs to be done," he said. "Athletes need to be able perform and for the safety of the walkers, that's what's important."
Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tbsreporter.