Opinion

Appraisals should be required when public entities purchase property | Editorial

Public entities don’t have to obtain an appraisal before purchasing property.

That was news to a spokesman for the Washington State Auditor’s Office, a state lawmaker, and undoubtedly many local officials who have always operated under the assumption that appraisals are needed.

And it’s something that must change or the public will risk losing tax dollars on irresponsible land deals made in secret.

The lack of any such appraisal requirement regarding the purchase price of property for public purposes recently came into the spotlight when Whidbey General Hospital leaders started looking into the possibility of selling a 4.5-acre property in Bayview on South Whidbey.

The South Whidbey Record, after submitting a public records request, learned that the hospital purchased the property in 2008 for $2 million without obtaining an appraisal, even though the assessed value at the time was $618,000.

While hospital officials will get an appraisal if they decide to sell the property, as is required by law, they concede that there will likely be a financial loss if they move forward with the sale of the land, for which they no longer have any use.

The decision-making process for purchasing the land from Verlane Gabelein at that price is unclear. All of the commissioners and leading hospital officials involved in the deal, then- chief executive officer Scott Rhine and chief financial officer Doug Bishop, are no longer with the district.

Some of the discussions regarding the purchase were held in executive sessions, meaning there are no minutes or records of the discussion.

All of this illustrates the potential pitfalls in the current system.

The hospital’s board of commissioners should acknowledge that the former members of their board did not act responsibly when they neglected to get an appraisal.

Just because the law didn’t require one doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do.

The current hospital board should also adopt a policy regarding land acquisition to ensure funds are spent wisely in the future.

It’s common sense.

As for the larger picture, state Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, was among those surprised by the gap in the law. She is vowing to look into the issue and possibly find a legislative fix.

Hopefully she moves forward in earnest.

Some may argue that public officials must be able to negotiate the price of property or risk losing to private sector bidders.

Perhaps some flexibility is needed, but, currently, public officials could conceivably decide — in closed-door session — to pay just about any amount for property, regardless of its true value.

Potential for abuse, corruption or incompetence in this process is too great.

 

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