Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Land swap under microscope

Mayor tells staff to review controversial plan

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Mayor Sam Katz has ordered Winnipeg's chief financial officer to review the proposed fire-hall land swap, insisting he still has questions about a controversial plan vigorously defended by city officials.

On Tuesday, the first day after the summer break, Katz asked CFO Mike Ruta and chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl to review the financial aspects of a proposed three-for-one land swap to determine whether it is a good deal for taxpayers.

"There are still some things that in my opinion are not 100 per cent clear," Katz said, referring to a plan to swap the former No. 12 Station on Grosvenor Avenue, the soon-to-be-decommissioned No. 11 station on Berry Street and a parcel of vacant land on Mulvey Avenue East to Shindico Realty, in exchange for a Taylor Avenue property where a new fire-paramedic Station No. 12 stands.

This fall, council is expected to either approve the swap or pay Shindico $990,000 for its Taylor property. In the past two weeks, councillors have complained angrily they knew nothing about the plan, which was negotiated by fire-paramedic Chief Reid Douglas, in consultation with the city's real-estate division. Sheegl said he was aware of the discussions "at 50,000 feet."

On Friday, Katz asked administrators to make the completion of the fire-hall report a priority. But after receiving briefings about the plan on Tuesday, the mayor also ordered a separate financial review about the plan, which calls for Shindico land assessed at $461,000 to be traded for a Grosvenor station assessed at $302,000, a Berry station assessed at $213,000 and 1.16 acres of a 4.2-acre Mulvey Avenue East plot assessed at $1.054 million.

While city assessments may vary widely from property appraisals, there remain questions about the city's valuations. For example, Douglas has said the city did not take the proximity of the Osborne bus-rapid-transit station into account when it appraised the Mulvey land.

Shindico, meanwhile, continued to advertise an undeveloped portion of its Taylor plot as a home for future office space, which suggests the entire parcel may not be part of the deal. The company's president wouldn't comment Tuesday.

"I need to know, and I think everybody needs to know, what taxpayers are getting for their dollar," Katz said. "You have several pieces of property as part of a potential land swap and I think it's extremely important to know what the values are for each of these, so that way the CFO can say we're getting a fair deal, a great deal or a terrible deal."

On Friday, Sheegl, Ruta and five other senior city officials told reporters the city followed all of its procedures when it put together a plan to build four new fire-paramedic stations -- the replacement No. 12 Station on Taylor Avenue, a new No. 27 Station in Sage Creek, a rebuilt No. 18 Station in Charleswood and a replacement No. 11 Station under construction on Portage Avenue at Route 90.

Sheegl and Ruta said city staff did not inform council about the decision to award Shindico the contracts to build the stations because the original request for proposals to design and build up to four stations wound up becoming four contracts of varying scope, each under the $10-million threshold that requires council approval.

Katz said he understood the explanation but insisted that didn't excuse city staff for failing to inform the protection and community services committee and other councillors about changes to the fire-paramedic replacement plan.

"Elected officials should know what's going on," Katz said.

Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck, who chairs the protection and community services committee, said she's still waiting to be briefed about the proposed land swap. That may come as soon as today, when executive policy committee gets together following the hiatus.

Katz said Ruta can consult with city auditors in his review of the land swap. But the mayor did not join Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi in calling for a full-blown audit of the city's real-estate division.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2012 B1

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