Sale of the Wiarton District High School Properties

I have a confession. I ran into some sort of a wall this week after a quest for information about the sale of the Wiarton District High School properties from the Bluewater District School Board to the Town of South Bruce Peninsula, and town council’s acceptance in principle of a bid from one of its members to purchase the same properties for considerably less than the town is paying. 

Counc. Jay Kirkland, wants to build seniors housing on the 11 lots involved. His plans include incorporating part of the original, 113 year-old limestone school building, the same three walls council plans to put a Heritage designation on, likely next month. The rest of the school will be demolished at the school board’s expense under the Agreement of Purchase and Sale it signed with the town last February. The purchase price in that deal is $600,000. Kirkland has offered the town $230,000.

The board has built a new blended (elementary and secondary combined) school in the Wiarton area. Students are scheduled to move in soon.

There are two closing dates in the purchase agreement between the town and the board for the old high school properties on both sides of McNaughton Street. The first is Dec. 31 this year for the five lots on the west side, used as the school’s sports field. Aug. 31, 2006 is the closing date for the other six lots, including those now occupied by the school building. Mayor Carl Noble signed the purchase agreement for the town along with town clerk Bill Johnson.

Noble told me this week in an interview the deal with the school board is more complicated than it looks. “On the surface it appears to be relatively simple. But it’s not.” He said it has to be looked at in the context of issues surrounding the fate of the school and whether or not a new one would be built in Wiarton. They go back to the term of the previous council, when he was also mayor, and led to a decision by that council to contribute $600,000 to the building of the new school to help persuade the school board to keep it in town. That decision was carried on by present council and accounts for the $600,000 price tag attached to the purchase of the high school properties. At one point the town was looking at paying a nominal $1 to obtain title. At most the town ended up paying the equivalent of $270,000 if one takes into consideration its offer to pay for the cost of installing sewer and water infrastructure, which were estimated at $330,000. Instead, the board opted to do that work itself, he said. In effect, “They took their $330,000 out of the $600,000,” he added.

“People are well aware we as a town were going to donate something to the school in our municipality because we didn’t want to lose it,” Noble said. “Had we lost (the high school) we might as well have kissed Wiarton good-bye.”

The town has already paid the purchase price for the first closing date in the purchase agreement, in addition to the $30,000 deposit it put down. The $270,000 cheque, dated Nov. 3, 2005, is described as “new school contribution” on a Cheque Distribution Report prepared for council.

At its Oct. 24 meeting, in a recorded voted, council formally accepted Kirkland’s conditional offer to pay $80,000 for the lots on the east side of McNaughton, and $150,000 for those on the west side.

Kirkland declared a conflict of interest and temporarily left the meeting. Councs. John Close, Yvonne Harron, Stan Hoath and Mayor Noble voted in favour. Councs. Gwen Gilbert and Pat Varley were opposed. Two other councillors, Brian Fulford and Mark Wunderlich, were absent when the vote was taken.

The minutes say acceptance of Kirkland’s offer is “subject to senior staff meeting with Jay Kirkland and clarifying the details in an appropriate agreement of purchase and sale including timelines and any municipal conditions necessary to meet legislated municipal requirements.”

Among those requirements for the sale of any “surplus” municipal property is a Certificate of Compliance signed by the municipal clerk. A proper appraisal of the property has to be done. An appraisal obtained by the town last February did not include the two lots occupied by the old school building; therefore, it didn’t meet the legal requirements. So, senior municipal staff recently requested a new appraisal for all 11 lots. The first appraisal said the market value of the nine lots was about $334,600. The second appraisal, dated Nov. 25, 2005, has been received at the municipal office. It puts the market value of the 11 lots at $421,000. It also notes typical developer costs for similar land could effectively slice 25 to 35 percent off the top of that value.

Noble was surprised when I asked him Wednesday about the second appraisal and why council had not waited to see it before formally accepting Kirkland’s offer in principle. He said he wasn’t aware there was a second appraisal, or even that one had been requested. “Who would have requested an appraisal?” he asked. “I don’t recall any updated appraisal being requested.”

Noble defended council’s acceptance of Kirkland’s bid, especially considering it was the only bid received after the town advertised twice for development proposals, in late May, and again in September, and even contacted some potential developers directly. The fact that Kirkland’s plans include use of the three walls slated for Heritage designation is another big plus and reflects what many people have wanted all along, including some members of the Friends of Wiarton’s Historic School committee, the mayor said.

The committee’s chair, Alex Murchie has objected. He wants the entire limestone building preserved. In a Dec. 1 Sun Times news article he admitted his views are his own, supported by some members of the friends group.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself here. I started out by confessing I had run into a wall in my search for information. I don’t mean I ran into resistance from the various people I contacted. On the contrary, everyone I contacted was quite accessible and cooperative. I had no trouble getting town-hall access to information that is supposed to be readily available to the public, including journalists, under the Ontario Municipal Act.

I’m wondering if the wall I ran into is in my own head. Maybe the old noggin isn’t working as well as it used to. I look at the facts, comments and explanations I’ve been given and they just don’t add up. I’m baffled, flummoxed.

Like the Mayor said, “on the surface it appears to be relatively simple, but it’s not.” He can say that again, and if I’m not mistaken, he just did.

So, I’m hoping, dear reader if you’re still with me, that you may be able to help me figure it out.

Having said that, here’s more:

I talked to Counc. Kirkland. I asked him about the perception someone might have that he was getting some kind of sweet deal from the town, considering the price it’s paying for the properties, and council’s acceptance in principle of his $230,000 offer.

He seemed genuinely surprised when I referred to the purchase agreement between the town and the board signed last February. “I never, ever knew there was a purchase agreement saying we’re giving the school board $600, 000,” he said.

Kirkland said it was always his understanding the present council was following through with an arrangement the previous council made with the board, whereby the town was making a contribution toward the cost of the school.

He didn’t remember a memo to council last Feb. 28 from Pat Stock, the town’s Manager of Financial Services. It brought council up to date on the status of the purchase agreement, saying, “All required documents relative to the above sale have been signed by the required Town and School Board officials as of February 23, 2005 in accordance with By-Law Number 23-2004.”

By-law 23-2004, moved by Counc. Kirkland and seconded by Counc. Fulford, was approved by council on April 13, 2004. It authorized the “Mayor and the Clerk to sign the necessary documents regarding the purchase of property from the Bluewater District School Board.” At the time an earlier version of the agreement to buy the high school properties for $600,000 was before council. But for some reason that deal did not close and a new agreement was drawn up.

Dean Currie, the Bluewater board’s Superintendent of Business, and one of two people who signed the purchase agreement last February on the board’s behalf, told me the $600,000 price did not include any incentive paid by the town to keep the school in the Wiarton area. It was considered to be a “reasonable” price to get for the property, especially considering the cost of demolition which would be “around $200, 000,” Currie said.

Counc. Gwen Gilbert said she voted against accepting Kirkland’s offer in principle because “I was concerned about the perception, I was concerned about the incomplete appraisal presented to us.” She said a new appraisal wasn’t requested until she contacted the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, after the Oct. 24 council meeting. She said Kirkland’s offer also failed to meet the requirements set out in the town’s advertisement for development proposals.

Why do I have the feeling I’ve just scratched the surface here?

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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