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You can’t blame Huntsville taxpayers for shaking their heads this week at news that so far the legal fiasco between the municipality and former tenant Hunter-Rutland (Blackbird Boats) has put the Town in the red by roughly $249,000.
The ordeal has the makings of a made-for-television movie; a nightmare, not a comedy. From a tenant who happens to be a retired lawyer and who also happens to be friends with the mayor at that time, to a new mayor, who, when he wins, evicts the tenant for arrears of rent and utilities, to the current mayor, who sees his role as one of cleaning up the mess and manages to put an end to it all by negotiating a settlement, albeit an expensive one, but a settlement nonetheless. The saga has spanned four terms of Council and three mayors.
The ordeal began when the Town, under the administration of former Mayor Hugh Mackenzie, rented space to Blackbird Boats in the former MTO building which at the time was owned by the municipality. Blackbird fell into arrears on its rent and utilities and was evicted in 2007 during former Mayor Claude Doughty’s administration. We know now that the rental arrears plus interest amounts to $21,911.71, which the Town will be writing off.
At the time of eviction the tenant left a CNC router on the premises, which it reportedly intended to remove at a later date, but instead the Town sold it for $6,500 in July 2008 and the funds went to the mayor’s golf tournament rather than being applied to the arrears. Allegedly, sometime in 2009, the tenant inquired about the router and was told the Town had no knowledge of it. Economic Development Officer John Finley went on the record stating as much, which landed him in hot water. Police were involved. The router was eventually found and Finley was charged with perjury and obstructing a peace officer. His case and legal fees are still outstanding. The Town is footing Finley’s legal bills unless he’s convicted. As per Huntsville CAO Denise Corry, the municipality has a bylaw in place that protects its employees unless they are convicted of wrong-doing.
In terms of the missing router, the Town, under the administration of Mayor Scott Aitchison and after years of legal wrangling, has finally thrown in the towel. The Mayor and Council figured settling would be cheaper than having to incur more legal costs going back to court to determine cost. They settled with a payout of $116,500. That sum includes a set amount of $13,500, which was ordered by the Court of Appeal when the Town tried to appeal the Judge’s initial decision on the matter and lost.
Somewhere along the way, the Town’s insurance company intervened. It allegedly tried to unsuccessfully broker a deal and then washed its hands of the matter with a payout of $58,000 to the Town.
Town CAO Denise Corry, who did not become involved with the file until 2014 (legal bills started coming into the municipality in 2011), presented Huntsville Council as best she could a detailed list of costs to date involving the civil suit and failed attempts at settlement. In the end, save for what’s to come as a result of Finley’s legal battles, it has cost taxpayers $226,776.82, plus the $21,911.71 rental arrears write off.
News of the cost comes at a time that the municipality is struggling financially.
Corry, who referred to the situation as unfortunate, was asked what lessons she would be taking away from the ordeal.
“I think it’s important to make sure all the checks and balances and all of the levels of risk are established before a decision is made,” she noted.
Finley is expected back in court on February 9, 2016.