Vote on Watershed Land Nixed by State
State DOR invalidates $500K transfer from free cash to buy 127 acres in Whately, says City Council’s Dec. 2 vote must be redone after city finances are certified next month.
NORTHAMPTON – It seemed last week that, despite vigorous questioning from a couple of city councilors, the Water Department’s planned purchase of 127 acres of watershed land in Whately was a done deal.
After all, the council’s 6-3 vote was enough to transfer $500,000 from the Water Department’s undesignated fund balance (free cash) account. The plan was to use that money, along with $200,000 from the department’s timber reserve account, to pay Northampton Realtor John Skibiski the $700,000 sale price he had agreed to, after long negotiations with the city.
During the Dec. 2 City Council meeting, Public Works Director Edward “Ned” Huntley explained that the property was key to helping protect the watershed that feeds the Mountain Street Reservoir in Haydenville, one of the city’s two main drinking water sources.
Councilors Eugene Tacy and Marianne LaBarge questioned the high sale price, which had been arrived at partly because Skibiski claimed there were 11 buildable house lots on the property. (To see the Dec. 7 Northampton Media story on the council’s debate, including audio, click here.)
Huntley also explained that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had told him it had approved a $302,000 grant to aid in the watershed purchase, money that would replenish the Water Department’s free cash account. The money is to come from the DEP’s Drinking Water Supply Protection Grant Program.
Also, he added, the department hopes to harvest and sell timber on the wooded property, bringing in another $80,000 or so.
In the end, Huntley’s pitch convinced six councilors to support the purchase. Tacy, LaBarge and Ward 3 Councilor Angela Plassmann voted “no.”
Bad News Arrives at the 11th Hour
A purchase and sale agreement was drawn up and needed only the parties’ signatures to cement the deal.
Earlier this week, Skibiski signed the document, and Huntley had predicted the transaction would be finalized on Wednesday night, when the Board of Public Works (BPW) would meet and its members would put their John Hancocks on the sale paperwork.
Then the bad news arrived.
The kibosh was delivered late Tuesday by the state Department of Revenue (DOR), which informed City Hall that the $500,000 transfer was not legal, since the Water Department’s free cash account had not yet been certified for Fiscal 2010, which ended this past June.
While the DOR has traditionally certified the city’s cash each fall, in recent years that action – checking all the city’s financial books for the previous fiscal year – has come in January.
Huntley delivered the negative news at Wednesday’s BPW meeting, but only after a Northampton Media reporter asked why the purchase and-sale-item wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda.
“Because free cash has not been certified,” he told the board.
Earlier that day, Huntley said, he talked with Skibiski, “and he’s fine.. . .He’s still on board and wants to sell (it) to us.”
Huntley said there were two options: resubmit the financial transfer to the City Council next month, or find some other account to shift around to seal the deal sooner, rather than later.
“Either way, it’s going to have to go to the City Council,” he said.
Mayor Admits Mistake, Vows To Resubmit the $500,000 Measure Next Month
City Finance Director Christopher Pile, who prepares financial orders for the council, was out of the office yesterday and unavailable for comment. (In an unrelated move, Pile announced last week that he will retire next spring.)
Asked what happened, Mayor Mary Clare Higgins told Northampton Media that the transfer was a simple mistake.
“Both Chris and I just missed it,” she said. “(We) should have caught it.”
Rather than juggling other DPW accounts, the mayor said, she plans to re-submit the Water Department free cash transfer after the DOR certifies the city’s books and all its free cash reserves.
“The cleanest way to do this is just to come back and take another vote,” Higgins told us.
Skibiski could not be reached for comment yesterday.
And while Huntley said again Wednesday that the DEP has promised it will award the city the $302,000 watershed protection grant, the agency had made no such announcement by late Thursday.
Councilor Tacy Vows To Fight the Land Purchase
Ward 7 Councilor Tacy said yesterday he was never opposed to protecting the watershed, but thought that the city was spending way too much money on land he believes could never be developed.
“I’m not against the purchase of the land,” Tacy told Northampton Media. “I’m against the price.”
Tacy said he walked the property and took photos, and said there was no way that Skibiski’s property could produce 11 building lots. He said the land’s street frontage is marked by a steep rocky ledge that would require blasting, making home-building prohibitively expensive.
And although he said Skibiski is a friend and a supporter, Tacy said Skibiski’s asking price is several times the actual value of the property.
“I don’t blame him for trying to get every penny he can,” said Tacy. “But that piece of land is a piece of crap.”
Tacy said the city’s appraisal of the land at $595,000 was out of whack with what he claims was an assessment by the Town of Whately of under $80,000 for the land. At Thursday’s council meeting, Huntley defended the appraisal, saying it was conducted by a reputable company and had passed the muster of the DEP in its evaluation of the city’s grant application.
When the financial transfer comes up for a vote again next month, Tacy said, he’ll do his best to convince his colleagues to defeat the measure.
“I’ll try to make an even stronger case,” he said.
© 2010 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org