The city didn’t buy the Fongs property; It paid a ransom for it.
How else to explain offering $1.2 million for a parcel valued at $369,400 on the tax rolls? It’s true that the city often pays more than the assessed value of property because it does not have the flexibility a private-sector buyer might have.
When the city purchases land, it needs a parcel at a given location to widen a highway, for example, or to complete a park. It cannot buy a cheaper parcel in a farmer’s field or move to Delafield. So, the city’s prior offer of $525,000 could be justified under the circumstances. But $1.2 million is totally out of line.
It was a bad decision made in a bad way.
On Nov. 15, the council scheduled a 6:45 pm closed meeting at which the $1.2 million price was discussed. At 7:30 pm on the same evening, at an open council meeting, the aldermen voted 5-3 to approve the purchase price.
The public had no chance to weigh in on the issue of price. Although the item was listed on the agenda, it said only, “Consider/act on Offer to Sell from Property Owner of 109 N. Main Street.“
No one knew that the city was agreeing to a $1.2 million price. Although this notification may have met the letter of the open meetings law, it was certainly a violation of its spirit.
Some council members seemed to think the only choice was to pay up or lose the property. That is simply not true.
They had the right to exercise eminent domain, a power granted government precisely for these situations in which the property owner is unreasonable in his demands. In the exercise of eminent domain, the matter is submitted to a court for final decision.
Each party submits an amount considered fair value for the property and the judge chooses the fairer amount. Had the city exercised this right, each party would probably have modified the amount considered “fair value.”
The city would probably have increased its offer slightly, and Fongs would probably have decreased its asking price. It is highly unlikely that a Waukesha County judge would have considered the property worth $1.2 million.
In Wisconsin, eminent domain can be used only in very limited ways that serve a public purpose. It is rarely the first choice of a government, but after years of negotiating, it is a fair and legal way to achieve a public good.
Bear in mind, that the city has not just over-paid for this parcel; It has virtually assured over-paying for future land purchases. The message is out there: If you own land the city needs, don’t be reasonable or civic-minded. Just hold it hostage and wait for the ransom.