Elmer City Admonished for Land Deal

In The Star – Online there was an article about how the State Auditor’s office issued a “finding” that the town of Elmer City improperly “gifted” real estate to its town clerk Renee Tillman.  The small parcel of land was adjacent to property already owned by Tillman.  Okanogan County assesses the land at $5,500.00, but the town of Elmer City sold it to Renee Tillman for only two hundred dollars.  The city did not have it appraised first and did not put it out for public bid. Audit Finding A copy of the report by the State Auditor is online here.  The State Auditor’s only comment is “we recommend the town refrain from making gifts of public funds.”  

Under the Washington State Constitution Article VIII, 7, it is provided that: No county, city, town or other municipal corporation shall hereafter give any money, or property, or loan its money, or credit to or in aid of any individual, association, company or corporation, except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm, or become directly or indirectly the owner of any stock in or bonds of any association, company or corporation.

In deciding whether a public expenditure is a gift under the constitution, the state supreme court focuses on two factors: “consideration” and “donative intent.”  See the 1997 case of King County v. Taxpayers of King County.

The issue of “consideration” is whether the government received adequate compensation for the property.  The town of Elmer City sought to justify its actions by explaining: “The Town of Elmer City would no longer have to maintain the property; the property was of no present or foreseeable benefit to the town. The property then would be placed on the tax rolls.”   Under this rationale, it would make sense for cities to get rid of a lot of property wouldn’t it?  The point is that Elmer City owed it to the taxpayer to get as much as they could for that parcel of land.  It is hard to imagine that all they could get for the land would be $200.

The issue of “donative intent” references whether the intent of the government was to make a gift or do a favor, or if the city simply showed bad judgment.  Unfortunately it simply looks bad when a city makes a deal with its own employee and does not allow the public to even make a bid.

I think a lot of attorneys who practice municipal law would recommend that the parcel of land be returned to the city, and then be resold at public auction.  If no one bids more than $200 than the clerk who purchased the land is in no worse position than she would be already.  However, if the land is really worth more, than the taxpayer really does deserve full compensation.  In times of dire budgetary conditions, the public does not like to read about such deals.  And the public wants to make sure such deals do not occur in the future.

The State Auditor’s report does not mention the acreage of this parcel that Elmer City sold to Renee Tillman for $200.  A person can look up more info on this parcel online here.  This link is to the public records that are online courtesy of Okanogan County’s online land records.  The land in question had the Parcel ID number of 0700020701.  From the link to the county records, a person can see a map of the parcel in question.  Can this be right?  This map in question shows a pretty sizable parcel of land right in town.  Did Elmer City really sell this for just $200?

2 Responses to “Elmer City Admonished for Land Deal”

  • Bill Black:

    What the map that you linked to does not show – nor has any or the written material related to this particular instance described, is that the piece of ground in question is a sandy hillside that abutts the highway. Whether it would be possible to build a structure on that piece of ground is seriously questionable. It is obviously difficult enough to keep that particular piece of ground maintained, if anyone has paid attention as they have driven by. (And if you HAVEN’T driven by, it might be worth your time before you comment on this matter…)

    We all know that there is a difference between our property’s ASSESSED value (for tax purposes) and what it is actually WORTH on the real-world real estate market.

    I don’t know that I would pay $25 dollars for a sandy hillside butting up to a highway that I couldn’t build anything on….

    How about you???

    I am not condoning the PROCESS that occurred in this instance, as it sets a bad precedent, but if we look at this from the bigger picture point of view, it is probably a situation of “addition by subtraction” on the city’s part.

  • Thanks for your comment, and I agree with some of your comments. I agree the map by itself doesn’t tell us much. But even if you can’t site a house on the land, that doesn’t mean the property doesn’t have significant value for a roadside espresso or fruit stand, or for parking, or for storage units, or even for a billboard etc. I would almost invite someone to take a photograph of the site and post it. But the valuation should be done by a license appraisor, after all, rather than us. And maybe afterall the parcel is worth less than what the county assessor says it is. But I totally disagree as to what “the big picture is”. The big picture is that we absolutely need checks and balances governing what happens to government property in this country. Otherwise all sorts of corruption could go on and you might as well move to [insert country of your choice]. I am not trying to pick on the employee who bought the property. There were elected officials (who the voters entrusted) that allowed the checks and balances to break down.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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