Throughout history, wars have been waged over land, and this past week’s verbal combat waged between the NDP and Liberal provincial parties over the Auditor General’s report concerning the former government’s real estate asset sales certainly embraced the spirit of that longstanding tradition.
From 2013 to 2017, the former Liberal provincial government sold 21 public properties in Surrey for a total of $104,286,214. They included 19 vacant sites, Sunnyside Elementary School in South Surrey, and the former school board office.
Jinny Sims, NDP minister of citizen’s services and MLA for Surrey-Panorama characterized these as “fire sales” by the Liberals to help “produce the illusion” its budget was balanced prior to the May 2017 general election, “or collecting money so they could hand out goodies before the election.”
“They were so focused on generating revenue to meet budget shortfalls,” she said. “It seems really, really bizarre to me for a political party that talks about being such good financial managers, that they were such abject failures when it came to looking after the assets of British Columbians, which is our properties and our land.
“In Surrey, when you look at it, the B.C. government was busy selling off, all over the province, they sold off 101 properties during that period at the very time they weren’t building schools and they weren’t building hospitals and other infrastructure.”
Sims recalled that in the 1990s Mike Harcourt’s NDP government bought some property at 5750 Panorama Drive, near 152nd Street and Highway 10, as a potential site for a new hospital.
Jinny Sims, NDP minister of citizen’s services and MLA for Surrey-Panorama. (File photo).
“And then being in Surrey you’ll remember that Gordon Campbell had a press conference on that piece of property and said, ‘We will be building a hospital here.’ And then, he did it twice. He did it again. And now if you remember during the last election, I stood in the very same spot were Gordon Campbell had stood almost five, six, 10 years earlier and I said, ‘They have sold the land, where the hospital would have been built.’ Not only in Surrey they didn’t deliver on a hospital, but they shortchanged our children and grandchildren and the future because they sold the very land the hospital could be built on now.”
Sims said the current NPD government has committed to a “concept plan” for a new hospital in Surrey “and part of that is looking for land at these astronomically high prices right now.”
“You know, British Columbians end up paying for the folly of the Liberals being such poor economic managers of properties.”
Sims noted the Liberals sold the Panorama property for $20,516,000 in March 2014.
“You know how many townhouses and condos are going in there; drive by it sometime. They’re starting to develop part of it already and yet the assessed value in 2018 is $31.7 (million). That’s not market value, you know how far below market value the assessed value is, especially when it comes to commercial property.”
B.C.’s auditor general has confirmed a 2014 sale of provincial Crown land for development in the Lower Mainland was for as little as two thirds of its appraised value, but concludes there was no collusion or bid rigging involved in the sale.
Auditor General Carole Bellringer’s report on the two-year program of asset sales by the B.C. Liberal government raised 97 per cent of the appraised value of properties, except for a group of parcels on Burke Mountain in Coquitlam.
Of the 21 parcels covering 584 acres, 14 were sold to a single bidder, Wesbild Holdings Ltd., a long-time residential developer in the region. The price of $85 million represented 66 per cent of the value.
The sale of another four parcels in the same group to the City of Coquitlam for $11.8 million netted 80 per cent of the value.
At the time, local MLA Mike Farnworth said the hot real estate market and significant development already completed in the Burke Mountain area made the Wesbild deal look like a “fire sale.” The NDP traced $900,000 in donations to the B.C. Liberal Party from Wesbild director Hassan Khosrowshahi since 2000, individually and through his companies, Burke Mountain, Wesbild, Predator Ridge, Inwest, Westwood Plateau and others.
Farnworth and NDP leader John Horgan accused the B.C. Liberal government of rushing the sale to have it on the books by the end of the 2014 fiscal year, to improve their financial picture in the wake of the harmonized sales tax withdrawal.
“We did not find any evidence of bid rigging, collusion or bias during this audit,” Bellringer said in the report. “However, bias in relation to some of the sale was perceived and raised in the legislature and reported in the media.”
The report notes that the real estate marketing was conducted by Colliers International after an open bid for the job. Bellringer recommends the province’s property agency get individual bids on properties rather than group bids that took place at Burke Mountain.
The remainder of the sales in the “release of assets for economic generation” program, from 2013 to 2015, had prices amounting to 97 per cent of appraised value, the audit concluded.
Sims, meantime, said the B.C. government has already made significant changes to its Crown land sale system, and is bringing in an independent consultant to look for further improvements.
The procedure has been changed to make sure each individual parcel of Crown land is examined for value and potential use, such as a school or hospital, Sims said. She pointed to the lack of schools in the region of Coquitlam where the developments occurred.
BC Liberal Finance Co-Critic Tracy Redies, also MLA for Surrey-White Rock, said that “it’s always good to review” best practices.
Tracy Redies, Liberal finance co-critic and MLA for Surrey-White Rock. (File photo)
“The previous government marketed real estate assets that were no longer in use, not required for future use, or had no strategic benefit for government to be the owner,” Redies said.
“Ultimately, the market value for those properties is determined by what someone is willing to pay for them. Selling surplus real estate helps spur economic activity and creates jobs for the province and its communities. The proceeds from those sales also helped to fund the important health and education services that British Columbians rely on. Despite allegations by the then-Opposition, Ms. Bellringer said: ‘We did not find any evidence of bid rigging, collusion or bias during this audit.’”
But Sims charges that the former Liberal government “absolutely failed to do due diligence and to get our children – yours, mine and our grandchildren – best value for our buck.
“Can you imagine what this is going to do to the price of a hospital in Surrey?”