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St. Petersburg leaders support purchase of home owned by relative of top official

ST. PETERSBURG — While city officials defend the purchase of a home owned by a relative of a top city administrator, representatives from other governmental agencies said Friday that they follow different procedures designed to save taxpayers money.

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. They justified the price by relying on an appraisal that was completed 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.

"I don't see any circumstances where we would use a 2-year-old appraisal," said Paul Sacco, director of real estate management for Pinellas County. "Two years would be a long time to go without getting a fresh appraisal."

A majority of St. Petersburg City Council members reached Friday said they weren't concerned by the purchase, saying they trust the intentions of the officials involved. Only one, Karl Nurse, said he was alarmed and wanted a review of procedures.

"It doesn't look to me, in hindsight, we would say this was careful spending of money," Nurse said. "It would have made more sense to do that appraisal. Getting boom prices for houses sold in 2009? The rest of us would like to do that." The county property appraiser puts the current market value of the house at $24,000.

Sacco said Pinellas County wouldn't buy a property with an appraisal older than six months.

"If you get out past a year, you run the danger of not knowing the market," Sacco said. "You could end up costing the taxpayers money."

Tampa officials, who like Sacco wouldn't comment specifically on the St. Petersburg case, said they generally follow similar procedures.

"Best practices, in the industry, is six months," said Herb Fecker Jr., manager of the city of Tampa's real estate division. "If (the appraisal) is more than six months old, then the comparable sales aren't current."

Hillsborough County also generally relies on more recent appraisals, said Anthony Haynes, an acquisition manager.

"I can't remember a situation where we used an appraisal that was older than a year," Haynes said. "If we're condemning property, the appraisal can't be older than six months."

But neither Pinellas, Hillsborough nor Tampa has specific guidelines that prohibit the purchase of property with older appraisals, the officials said. State statute doesn't require cities or counties to use appraisals of a certain vintage, either.

And according to Bruce Grimes, St. Petersburg's director of real estate and property management, sometimes other factors must be considered when buying property. In the case of the home the city bought in December, he said officials were trying to quickly buy up the last pieces of property to make way for a park and were concerned a second appraisal, with an unwilling seller, would slow it down.

Grimes said the city doesn't use eminent domain, a tool that allows governments to legally take property by paying the appraised value for it. He and Mayor Bill Foster said that sometimes acquisitions can cost more if they are settled in court. And part of the responsibility with buying property is ensuring the sellers aren't left destitute, he said.

"The goal is to obtain land as inexpensively as possible without causing damage," Grimes said. "We're not trying to take things away and leave people in a worse position."

The City Council approved the purchase on Dec. 3 without discussion. The staff report council members had before voting explained that the $80,000 price tag was what the appraiser deemed the property was worth. It didn't mention that the appraiser reached his conclusion in October 2007 when the housing market was more robust.

Still, council member Jeff Danner supports the city's philosophy of looking out for sellers' interests when buying property.

"The person you are relocating can't do anything with their appraised values now," Danner said. "You don't want to put them out on the street."

Danner and council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said they don't object to how the city handled the purchase and were satisfied Davis didn't exert any influence.

"It's a nonstory," Curran said.

Council member Steve Kornell, who joined the council in January, said he didn't want to comment until he was fully briefed. He would not say if he was going to request a review.

Acknowledging that he's no real estate expert, council member Bill Dudley said he was concerned about whether everyone is treated the same.

"If this property is an exception, where they went away from normal procedure, I have a problem with that," Dudley said.

Davis doesn't oversee the real estate department, which acquired the property. He said he never influenced the purchase of the property, and he orally told city officials of his potential conflict. He didn't, however, put this disclosure in writing.

"He should have done that," Dudley said. "I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, but he's been in city government long enough to know that these things will pop up."

Nurse said Davis should have done a better job of removing himself from the deal.

"If you are at the bottom of the totem pole, how can it not go through your mind that you need to treat (the aunt) very well?" Nurse said. "It doesn't require the boss to say, 'This is my aunt and I need to get everything that I can get for her.' We need to address the broader issue.

"At the very least, he should have put something in writing," Nurse said.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg leaders support purchase of home owned by relative of top official 08/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 10:25pm]
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