UPDATE: May 8, 2015
In the shadow of controversy surrounding a ten-acre parcel of land, west of Boise's downtown, coveted by the College of Western Idaho, CWI Board of Trustees met in special session May 8 and agreed to seek an appraisal of the land's value.
Ada County Commissioner David Case had sent a letter to CWI trustees, urging them to renegotiate the terms of its agreement to purchase the 10 acres for $8.8 million after it was learned that the land had an assessed value of $3.6 million.
CWI Board Chair Mary Niland insisted Friday that trustees, "Believe the value we have established under the Agreement will stand up as a fair price." She added, "The property at Main and Whitewater Park Boulevard appears to be the best long-term investment specific to serving our students."
CWI officials said they had 180 days from the the April 23rd agreement to complete due diligence on the property "and can terminate for any reason during the 180-day examination period."
UPDATE: Wednesday, May 6, 10:30 a.m.
Ada County Commissioner David Case has issued a friendly warning—in the form of a letter—to College of Western Idaho Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees Mary Niland, urging the Board of Trustees to renegotiate the terms of its purchase of 10 acres in West Boise.
In the letter, dated May 5, Case described the parcel as having the potential to help CWI establish "a strong presence in Boise," providing a "nice enhancement to long hoped-for development of Boise's West End," but "there are limitations on what the public will endure."
"It is your fiduciary responsibility to protect and spend their property taxes wisely. To pay more than double the assessed value seems a clear violation of that fiduciary responsibility, and the trust of our tax-paying citizens," he wrote.
Two weeks ago, CWI announced the purchase, but it later came to light that the board had paid $8.8 million for the parcel from the Rice Family LLLP at approximately 2.5 times the undeveloped land's assessed value of $3.6 million. Boise Weekly readers later learned that members of the Board of Trustees had not looked at the published assessment of the land—readily available on the Ada County Assessor's website—or conducted a land assessment of its own prior to making the purchase.
Case's letter to Niland advised the Chairwoman to cancel the purchase agreement with Rice Family LLLP and, if desired, renegotiate the purchase using an assessment and current appraisal "as central points in the process."
And in a further wrinkle, according to Ada County Board of Commissioners Chief of Staff Larry Maneely, the 10-acre parcel is on the Boise River floodplain, and 20 percent of the property rests on the Boise River floodway, where no structures can be constructed. Maneely told BW that land on the floodplain must be elevated above the floodplain level prior to beginning construction.
"...Insurance will, I am advised, be extremely expensive," he wrote.
When asked about Case's letter, CWI Board of Trustee member Emily Walton and CWI communications director Jennifer Couch both told BW that they would have no comment.
ORIGINAL STORY: Wednesday, May 6
The College of Western Idaho was riding a wave of goodwill in late April, after it announced the purchase of a 10-acre parcel at 3150 W. Main St. in Boise's West End neighborhood. That wave broke in early May when the public learned that it had paid $8.8 million for the land, formerly owned by the Rice Family LLLP, even though that land had been assessed at $3.6 million in 2014. The public was further shocked to learn that CWI board members hadn't obtained a new assessment of the property or looked at previous assessments before voting unanimously to purchase the land.
The online response was one of disbelief.
"Keep on digging on this, BW—we need to know the whole story. We may choose to no longer support CWI, if they had no valid reason to pay more than twice the value of the property. Transparency is in their best interest," wrote Facebook user Phyllis Osborn on Boise Weekly's page.
"How did it not occur to a single member of that board to ask for an appraisal? You don't have to be an expert in real estate to want a third party opinion on a fair price," wrote Facebook user Whitney Rearick.
Checking the Ada County Assessor's website for a property's assessed value is free and takes seconds, and in the wake of media coverage surrounding details of the purchase, CWI Board Chairwoman Mary Niland told The Idaho Statesman that it was "a mistake" not to ask for a new assessment of the land, which would have cost the college $2,000-$3,000.
It's likely she and other board members will have further explaining to do at an open CWI board of trustees meeting slated for Monday, May 18, at the community college's administration building in Nampa. CWI is also seeking a $150 million bond in Ada and Canyon counties to build a permanent Boise campus and expand its facilities in Nampa, details of which will be presented at the meeting. The nuts and bolts of the land purchase are almost sure to come up as well.
CWI officials have already offered legal justification for why they didn't seek out a third-party assessment of the property. The rationale centers on Section 33-2107 of Idaho Code, which grants boards of trustees of junior colleges the power "to acquire and hold, and to dispose of, real and personal property, and to construct, repair, remodel and remove buildings," without reference to property assessment.
That is a marked departure from another section of state statute, which requires—in clear terms—that school district trustees secure property assessments before any acquisition or disposal of real property.
The difference strikes University of Idaho Associate Professor of Law John
Remel Rumel, who specializes in education law, as "a very strange omission." The law as it applies to K-12 school districts is tailored, but broad when it comes to junior colleges. Remel Rumel said he could think of two reasons why there might be such different rules concerning how the boards of trustees for K-12 school districts and those of junior colleges acquire land.
"There's two ways to look at this: The Idaho Legislature intentionally left [rules] out [concerning junior college boards of trustees], which is really rather counterintuitive,"
Remel Rumel said. "The other possible explanation is a mistake in the drafting: That they simply didn't include that additional language. When I look at it, one would think [getting a land assessment would] be a prudent practice."
Community colleges acquiring land without obtaining a land assessment is extremely rare. Between North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho—through which CWI is accredited—there has been a single instance in which CSI obtained a parcel without getting an assessment first: A land swap in 1998.
Members of the CWI board of trustees have steadfastly said that the purchase was a good move for the college. Since its creation in 2009, the college's enrollment has grown rapidly—10,217 students were taking classes for credit this past fall semester and an additional 10,480 non-credit students have enrolled in classes at CWI's Nampa and Boise campuses. Many of CWI's facilities are leased and the community college pays about $2.2 million in rent every year. Board Member Emily Walton told Boise Weekly that despite the difference between the assessed value of the land, which abuts the Boise River on Fairview Avenue, and the price paid for it, the parcel met CWI's size and accessibility objectives. She described the price paid for the 10-acre parcel as "reasonable."
"There's not a lot of options in Boise for a 10-acre lot we can put a community college on," she said. "We looked at what's available and looked at some comparable properties around there."
The Ada County Assessor's database shows an undeveloped 0.805-acre lot at 2525 W. Fairview Ave. was assessed in 2014 at $298,000—roughly in keeping with the per-acre assessed value of the property purchased by CWI.
Walton said convincing the public to support a bond to build a new Boise campus is the college's "next job," but if social media pushback against CWI in the wake of purchase details is any indication, that project may face more resistance since the land buy was first announced. Writing on BW's Facebook page, user Lois McClure-Smith wrote that CWI is "disorganized and possibly incompetent. Do NOT ask for my money when you attempt fundraising for this debacle."