The Town Should Not Be in the Real Estate Business
Sometimes when I sit down to write a column I surprise myself. Sometimes it doesn’t start out as I thought it would, and often it ends in a different way than I anticipated. Today may be one of those days!
I hadn’t intended to write on Town Council issues this week but then a story on Doppler caught my eye and my attention. Council, in General Committee, by a vote of eight to one, has decided to sell what was formerly the Brunel Community Hall to the Muskoka Montessori School, which has leased the building for a number of years. The sale price is $55,698.20. The purchase still has to be approved by Council in formal session later this month.
My immediate thought was that there will be a public outcry about this, as the current MPAC assessment on the building is $238,000. Indeed, in the past few days I have heard several comments about selling a Town asset at such an undervalued price. As much as I admire the Montessori School, I too thought this was not a good deal for the taxpayers of Huntsville. But then I began to ask myself what I would do if I were on council and what in fact we did do, when I was mayor a decade or so ago.
Firstly, I agree with the mayor, that a municipality should not be in the business of owning real estate that is not used for the direct benefit of the community such as the Summit Centre and River Mill Park. It should not be competing with the private sector and it should not be holding on to buildings it no longer needs.
When our council took office in 2000, we learned that the previous council, in its dying days, had purchased the old Ministry of Transportation building in the west end of town. The transaction had not yet closed and we tried to stop it, but were unable to do so and in fact under the terms agreed to by the former council, we could not sell it for a number of years either. This restriction expired during Mayor Doughty’s tenure and the property was sold. While it was sold for close to what it was purchased for, the municipality still had to swallow costs in relation to maintenance and upkeep. During our time, we were able to sell the Public Works property across from the cemetery which was no longer needed by the Town. In both cases the assessed or appraised value was very different than what the properties could actually be sold for, but it was in the best interest of taxpayers to get rid of unneeded liabilities.
The Brunel building in question, has not been active as a community hall for a number of years. It has been leased from the Town by the Muskoka Montessori School and they have spent a good deal of money making capital improvements to the property. It is not a property the Town has any foreseeable use for.
The same can be said, unfortunately, for the so-called Waterloo Building. However good the intentions were when it was built, it has not reached the potential for which it was intended and for which taxpayers invested millions of dollars. Even Mayor Doughty, whose dream it was to have a functioning university satellite in Huntsville, a vision which would have been a huge benefit to our community, has said that the building should now be sold. Huntsville Council is currently considering this and that is a good thing.
The reality is that if and when the Waterloo Building is sold the Town will not recover a good portion of the money that taxpayers have invested. However, they still have heavy maintenance and debenture costs from which they will be relieved and they will not be competing with the private sector in terms of renting out space.
While the circumstances surrounding the Brunel Hall building are somewhat different, the bottom line is the same. The Town should not be holding on to a property they do not need. As to value, the accrued value on the Town’s books for the Brunel Hall is probably nil or close to it. The building was inherited when Huntsville amalgamated with Brunel Township. The Town certainly has costs related to the property and these should be recovered and they are reflected in the sale price. The Town will lose no money on the sale of this property.
The Muskoka Montessori School is a non-profit educational facility that provides another element of excellent educational opportunity in Huntsville and another inducement to individuals and businesses who consider investments in our community. The chances of the municipality getting substantially more money for an old structure on an unserviced lot are not great. The advantages of having a Montessori school in our community are much greater.
I believe Huntsville councillors have agreed to the proper conditions for a sale of the old Brunel Hall to the Muskoka Montessori School. On balance, I think they made a wise decision. I hope they stick with it. And yes … I am a little surprised I said that!
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