ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster has ordered an audit of the purchase of a house owned by the aunt of a top city administrator after it was learned the city paid more for it than other homes in the area.
In December, St. Petersburg officials paid $80,000 to buy a house owned by the aunt of Goliath Davis, the senior administrator for community enrichment. The house's current market value, according to the county property appraiser, is $24,000. It's in a neighborhood where the average sale price is $16,000.
Foster, who wasn't mayor at the time of the transaction, had defended the purchase as a fair one. He had denied there was any favoritism in the deal even though the purchase price was determined by an appraisal done in 2007, before real estate prices saw their worst plunge. An e-mail obtained by the St. Petersburg Times showed that the use of the 2-year-old appraisal was intentional.
Now Foster said he wants that transaction, along with a random sample of other purchases from that period, to be reviewed by City Auditor Brad Scott. He also said he wants the city's legal staff to draft a new policy that requires all property purchases to be backed with appraisals no older than six months.
"Under my administration, it's important that the public knows we are good stewards of their money," Foster said. "The audit is to assure them that all the t's were crossed and the i's dotted with the transactions that were done late last year."
While Foster said he wasn't acknowledging that he had concerns of wrongdoing in the deal, he did say that he does believe using a 2-year-old appraisal isn't the best practice. "I want a policy that would not have appraisals that dated," he said. "I just want to make sure the appraisals are an accurate reflection of fair market value."
Other agencies, including Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, and Tampa, said they typically buy property with an appraisal no older than six months. They said they wouldn't buy land using an appraisal that old.
After the Times reported the deal this month, city officials stood by the purchase. The only City Hall criticism of it came from council member Karl Nurse.
Foster said Nurse told him he wanted changes, but Foster assured him he was already planning adjustments of his own.
Last week, Nurse spoke with Foster at the Florida League of Cities conference in Hollywood. He said he told Foster that the council should know when the appraisal was done. The material the council was given when they approved the deal didn't include the appraisal date.
"I just think we should go into this with our eyes open," Nurse said. "We were operating under the assumption that the appraisals were current. If we pay more than the current appraised value, we should know that upfront and decide later to pay a price that's higher than what the property is worth."
Nurse said he was pleased with Foster's plan to require updated appraisals.
"I'm going to assume this will be a fair review of these transactions," Nurse said. "I like the fact that he's doing this. But how could you say anything else but that the appraisals need to be current or that the city needs to disclose when they are done? That should already be done."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.