EDITORIAL | Property appraisals are necessary, responsible

Public entities don’t have to get 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 been operating under the assumption that an appraisal was needed for years.

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

The lack of any such rule regarding the purchase price of property for public purposes was highlighted in April 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 recently reported, after submitting a public records request, that the hospital purchased the property in 2008 for $2 million without doing 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 admit that there will likely be a financial loss if they move forward with the sale of the property they no longer have a use for.

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

All of which illustrate the potential pitfalls with the current system.

The hospital’s board of commissioners should acknowledge that the former members of their board did not act responsibly in neglecting to get an appraisal. Just because the law didn’t require them to doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do; they weren’t real-estate experts, after all.

The current board should consider adopting a policy regarding land acquisition to ensure funds are spent wisely now and in the future. It’s just common sense.

As for the larger picture, Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, was one of those surprised by the gap in the law. She vowed to look into the issue and possibly find a legislative fix. Hopefully she moves forward in earnest.

Some might argue that public officials need to 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 a secret, closed-door session — to pay just about any amount for a property that later turns out not to suit their needs.

That opens the door to potential corruption or incompetence. It’s tax dollars, after all.


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