CLAY COUNTY — Accusations are flying again among Clay County commissioners, this time over the potential land purchase for a future site of a new Clay County Annex building.
During a marathon June 3 meeting that lasted about four hours, commissioners discussed and considered sale contracts for two properties, one in Kansas City and one in Gladstone.
During and after that meeting, it was discovered the Kansas City property was not vetted by the site selection firm contracted by the county for $65,000 as the Gladstone property had been, and that Western Commissioner Gene Owen solicited property options and costs for the Kansas City property from his private email address and may not have discussed all options available from the developer with all fellow commissioners.
“... It has become obvious that the process to spend the borrowed $20,000,000 Clay County citizens are obligated to repay is rigged. At Monday’s Commission meeting, Commissioner Owen represented that the $2,613,026 was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, turns out not to be the case,” Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte wrote in a June 7 Facebook post about the Kansas City property.
The county entered into nearly $50 million in bond debt last year for infrastructure and amenities projects through sale of certificates of participation. Earmarked in those funds was roughly $20 million for a new Annex.
The five-acre Kansas City property, owned by Bob Becker and Chuck Calvert, is located near Brighton Creek Apartments at North Brighton Avenue and Missouri Highway 152. It comes with a sale price of roughly $2.6 million. The other property, also around five acres in size, owned by WB, LLC, is located on three tracts of land surrounding the QuikTrip at Missouri Highway 1/Prospect Avenue and 72nd Street.
The cost for the second property is $1 million less at roughly $1.6 million. The Gladstone property is affiliated with Bill Mann, a friend of Owen’s who has contributed to Owen’s political campaign for commissioner.
Owen said he has a conflict of interest as the Gladstone property owner is a friend so he would recuse himself from the vote on the project.
“Since I’m not voting on it, I don’t know how I’m trying to rig it,” he told the Courier-Tribune Tuesday, June 11, in response to Nolte’s accusation.
Owen said he didn’t think fellow commissioners would approve the Gladstone property so he sought out information from the Kansas City developer’s real estate agent. According to copies of emails provided to the press by the developer, Owen sent the emails from a Gmail account and not his county email address.
“I don’t think anyone is going to vote for the Gladstone property,” he told the Courier-Tribune.
Nolte said more information should be considered such as if the need for easy access and visibility of the facility outweighs higher property costs. Nolte also said it seems like millions of public dollars are burning a hole in some commissioners’ pockets and thinks prices should be negotiated before a contract is approved.
Becker expressed concern about his property not being given fair consideration.
“We submitted three properties. Mr. Owen said he only wanted to see the most expensive options,” the developer said.
During the June 3 commission meeting, residents in attendance questioned the motives behind Owen’s property search. Jesse Leimkuehler, who operates Belvoir Winery in Liberty, asked if and how Owen knew both property developers and asked why no appraisals of property were sought before sale contracts were considered.
Calvert said although he and Becker were Northlanders, he didn’t know Owen personally and had not contributed money to any of his election campaigns.
Owen said the Kansas City developers have a great piece of land but he thinks the Gladstone property is the best option for several reasons including it’s the cheapest, the owner is willing to buy the old Annex from the county and because county employees will not have to pay an earnings tax as they would in Kansas City.
“How better can it be?,” the western commissioner posited.
Becker said it seemed property representatives in Gladstone had more information to work with than he did and that he would be willing to work with the county to find a property in his site area that worked better for the county, adding, like the Gladstone developer, he too would be willing to buy the old Annex if needed.
“We’re Clay County residents and as Clay County residents, we want to be treated fairly,” added Calvert.
Owen said the site selection committee brought six options to commissioners to consider but only one, the Gladstone property, was viable in his opinion because of its high visibility, a key focus for the western commissioner as he said many county residents have trouble finding and accessing the current Annex, located off Northeast 48th Street in Kansas City.
“Nobody knows where the Annex is. Most people don’t even know we have a western Annex. I want one on a major highway, somewhere that people can identify with. … I’m not interested in behind buildings, behind restaurants, behind stuff. I want it on the road, I want it with high visibility,” he told the Courier-Tribune.
Nolte said price negotiations should have been done in closed sessions before discussing contracts in open session and that appraisals should be sought and reviewed before contracts are voted on.
“I don’t think the most expensive spot or a palatial Annex is needed,” he said. “I have very, very serious issues that this is in the best interest of the county.”