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They asked, and they received



Published: Sun, April 20, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)




Why did Girard officials pay $2.51 million for Girard Lakes? Because that's what the property owner wanted.

Why is Youngstown paying $1.5 million for the land between Market Street and South Avenue bridges for the so-called arena project? Because that's what the property owners want.

Faced with such a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, should Girard have called the owner's bluff? Definitely. Wasn't there a risk of losing the property? Hardly. Should Youngstown be calling the owners' bluff? Absolutely. Isn't there a risk of the city's losing the property? Get real.

For that reason, if for no other, the two deals warrant close scrutiny. The willingness of elected officials -- they're supposed to be stewards of the public treasury -- to spend public dollars so arbitrarily is unforgivable.

For Girard, it's too late. The lakes were bought in 1995 from Consumer Ohio Water Co., and the city had to borrow the money. In 12 years, when the principal and interest on the loan are paid off, $4.7 million from the public treasury will have been expended. Talk about a Vegas-style gamble. In 1995, Vincent Schuyler was mayor and Louis Adovasio was a member of city council. Schuyler and Adovasio are challenging the current mayor, James Melfi, for the Democratic nomination in next month's primary.

Schuyler points out that when he took office the idea of Girard's buying the lakes had been firmly planted and that he merely picked up where his predecessors had left off. He also insists that city council was very much a part of the decision and his administration got the green light from lawmakers to seal the deal.

Development potential

The former mayor contends that the development potential of the land surrounding the lakes and the possibility of the city's being able to have its own source of drinking water justified paying what the owner wanted.

When asked why, if the lakes were such a gold mine, Consumer Ohio would want to sell the property, Schuyler responded that the company did not have the customer base for the drinking water; the city did. Girard now buys its water from other communities.

But in offering that explanation, the former mayor revealed the fallacy of the argument that the city had no choice but to pay what Consumer Ohio Water demanded. The company, which supplies drinking water to many communities in the Mahoning Valley, was stuck with property that it couldn't turn into a major asset and there weren't potential buyers lining up with checkbooks in hand. The only possible buyer was the city of Girard. The mayor and council should have known that and played hard ball on the price.

Why didn't they? City taxpayers have a right to know.

But while it's too late for Girard, Youngstown still has a chance to force the owners of the downtown property to settle for less. Other than city government, there isn't a buyer for the former steel mill land.

Where did the $1.5 million price come from? Nobody in city hall is admitting any direct knowledge.

Who's to blame?

Mayor George M. McKelvey says that once city council members, led by James Fortune, finance committee chairman, publicly announced that the arena would be located between the bridges, his hands were tied. Even though the board of control, made up of the mayor, and finance and law directors, is solely empowered to enter into agreements, the three officials were not part of council's decision, the mayor says.

Fortune, on the other hand, insists that lawmakers did not usurp the board of control's authority -- it would be illegal for lawmakers to negotiate the purchase of property, he says -- and only expressed their preference for where the arena should be located. As to the price, he says the mayor and his finance director, David Bozanich, could have entered into negotiation with the owners.

So, where did the $1.5 million figurecome from? It was listed on a purchase option taken out several years ago, but was not based any formal appraisal that would meet the standard for spending public dollars.

Unless it can be shown that the price is based on a legitimate, objective appraisal, the McKelvey administration and city council risk being the targets of a federal investigation since it is federal money that is being used to buy the land.

Youngstown has been granted $26.8 million by Washington to build the convention and community center.




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