PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — During a recent municipal budget workshop, city officials were accused of being “unethical” by a city councilor who was upset over the recent handling of the sale of the former home to Cunningham Middle School property at the intersection of Blake and Third streets.
Midway through the evening on Dec. 5, as councilors discussed individual ideas on what they’d like to see kept in or cut from the budget, Councilor Bruce Sargent brought up the topic of the property sale which had been approved by all but him during the Council’s Dec. 3 meeting. Sargent questioned the way the sale was handled.
“Was it advertised in the newspaper?” asked Sargent.
“I don’t think it was, but it was on the agenda for three or four meetings,” said City Manager Jim Bennett, noting prior attempts to elicit proposals on the site had been made to no avail.
Bennett said it had been put on the agenda to go with a realtor, then the next month a realtor — ReMax — was selected.
“It went out to bid and ReMax was awarded the bid. We then went to the realtor and came up with an applicable listing price. That was brought to Council and you agreed on a listing price” of $79,900, said Bennett. He indicated the realtor sent forms out electronically and returned with an offer for the full asking price a short time later.
“I don’t think that’s the same — not being advertised. I’m not sure if it’s legal but it’s unethical if nothing else,” said Sargent.
Bennett said it was legal.
Sargent called it the “biggest mistake” he’d seen as a councilor. Bennett said if the bid had come in at $15,000 to $20,000 less, it would have been refused.
“The listing price was actually about $20,000 over what we thought we’d get,” said the city manager.
Sargent had indicated at the Dec. 3 meeting that he had an acquaintance in Caribou who already had blueprints for the site and would have been interested in purchasing the property, had he been aware it was for sale. Sargent indicated his friend’s plans included immediate development of the property, while the actual buyer didn’t appear to have any immediate plans.
“You did a disservice to the citizens. You’ll likely get $5,000 a year at best” in taxes, said Sargent.
“This was an inside sale. That’s not ethical,” Sargent continued.
Bennett responded by saying “we took baby steps and brought every step to Council.”
Councilor Peter Hallowell said, “I think it would have been much worse if done the way you wanted.” Sargent had suggested starting the bid process over to allow the Caribou party to participate.
“You had three people interested. It should have been tabled. As far as I’m concerned, we threw away $60,000. In my opinion, we dropped the ball,” said Sargent.
“You have to agree there’s still a possibility everything’s going to be OK,” said Councilor Randy Smith.
Bennett said no one on staff knew the man would be making an offer at full price and that it was “the realtor’s responsibility to bring us the offer at full price.”
Sargent said the Caribou man had planned to meet with Bennett but had been unable to because of an illness. Bennett noted while the appointment was made, the man never called to cancel.
“He’s built condos in this town, has blueprints and was ready to spend $3 million. But we threw it away,” said Sargent.
“He wanted to come talk about property but didn’t indicate what exactly it was,” said Bennett.
Council Chair Emily Smith said the bid process was followed.
“What’s the big panic to drop the gavel on property that’s been there 10 years. What was the rush to get it done that night?” asked Sargent.
“It’s a done deal, what we did Monday night,” said Councilor Craig Green.
“We worked on it for two years to try to sell this property and nothing happened,” added Randy Smith.
Sargent reiterated his stance on the matter.
“We dropped the ball. Here we are trying to scrape $5,000 here, $3,000 there,” said Sargent.
Sale of the Cunningham property to CSP, LLC, which is owned by Michael and Carol MacPherson of Presque Isle, was approved by a vote of 6-1 during the Dec. 3 meeting. No plans have been publicly expressed for the site.
Correction: The headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that it was a Caribou city councilor who called the land sale unethical. It was a Presque Isle city councilor.