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Pinellas reforms land buying in wake of Jim Smith scandal

CLEARWATER — One question raised by last year's Jim Smith land purchase scandal was: What will Pinellas County officials do to reform the way the county buys and sells land?

Pinellas commissioners now have a three-part answer, though not one that addresses every criticism made of the county as a result of the Smith controversy. So far, officials plan to:

• Consolidate county real estate functions to operate more efficiently and independently.

• Improve the computerized information available on real estate properties and transactions.

• Give the county administrator more authority to approve an increased range of real estate actions.

But on Tuesday, county commissioners decided not to take up Commissioner Karen Seel's suggestion to create an ombudsman so county employees can speak up without fear when they feel someone higher up is playing politics on a real estate deal.

Seel suggested creating an employee ombudsman last year. "An employee should never have any hesitation about contacting a commissioner if they think anything is unethical or improper," she said then.

But when Seel asked about the ombudsman idea Tuesday, interim County Administrator Fred Marquis quickly rejected it.

"I would have a real problem with that whole concept," he said. "Don't build in a system of bypassing the chain of command."

Instead, Marquis said, some improvements officials plan to make to the Real Estate Division would take care of that.

Nor did the commission address two central problems identified in the purchase of Smith's land and in many other county land purchases, said private-sector appraisers who have worked for the county. One is that outside appraisers often are given inadequate information to estimate the property's value. Another is they have said some appraisals are rushed.

In June, commissioners voted unanimously to buy Smith's undeveloped land along Brooker Creek for $225,000 — nearly four times the 2006 assessed value assigned the property by Smith's own office.

The purchase came after top county officials who had talked to Smith took a direct interest in a proposed purchase. It also followed an appraisal of Smith's land that was done in just over two weeks.

The outside appraiser based his conclusions about Smith's property on a site plan, not a survey, and urged county officials four times in his report to do more study on how wetlands on the site might affect its value.

But the report of a committee appointed by the county in response to a grand jury investigation of the Smith purchase does not address how much information appraisers should get when working for the county.

In his report to commissioners Tuesday, committee chairman Andrew Hines, a former Florida Power CEO, said he would "hit the highlights."

The five-member panel consisted of Hines, St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler, St. Petersburg Housing Authority Commissioner Deveron Gibbons, Mark Mahaffey, who heads the Mahaffey Co., which has real estate interests statewide, and retired real estate executive Stephen Meyers.

Commissioners on Tuesday were unanimously appreciative of the committee's work.

"The piece that's most important as we move forward is that all the real estate functions are in one place," Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "You really did hone down to what the biggest issues were."

The improved information technology will give commissioners, staff and the public the information they need, she said. And she predicted the increased delegation will make commissioners' jobs easier.

•••

Before approving the suggestions unanimously, commissioners had some questions.

"One of the things that seemed counterintuitive was the delegation aspect of it," Commissioner Ken Welch said.

In response, Hines said "time is money." So he firmly believes in delegation and holding the one with the responsibility accountable.

Welch said that with better data reporting, he could be comfortable with more delegation.

"Were there areas where the committee varied in its recommendations from the consultant?" asked Commissioner Bob Stewart.

"Not of any consequences ..." said Hines. "By and large, we go with the recommendations of the consultant."

The county hired UGL Equis for $252,000 to review county real estate practices after the Smith controversy. The consultant recommended consolidating county real estate functions into one department and set out a three-year plan for improving how county real estate employees work and share information.

Since the Smith purchase, the county has already adopted two procedural reforms. Officials compare appraisals done on parcels of land with the properties' tax assessment. And whenever the county considers buying land from an elected official or a county employee, the status of the owner is publicly disclosed.

Stewart also wanted to know about the time frame of 36 months and what the budgetary effect of adopting the suggestions would be.

Marquis said it would take about 36 months to get training and other tools in place for employees. But the consolidation of real estate functions is already well under way and will be completed in 30 to 45 days. And two attorneys will work exclusively on real estate work.

The consolidation will allow the county to move more quickly to dispose of excess real estate, Marquis said.

Actions required to make the suggested changes are already in the current budget, he said.

"If anything, we'll be able to cut a few positions," he said.

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Pinellas reforms land buying in wake of Jim Smith scandal 04/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 11:54am]
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