North Charleston is selling city-owned land in an effort to shore up its coffers after a record payout last year to avoid a lawsuit over a police officer’s shooting of a man running from a traffic stop.
“Let’s just be open and blunt about it,” Mayor Keith Summey said. “We used $5 million out of our general fund balance to settle a lawsuit.”
In October, City Council voted unanimously to give the family of Walter Scott a $6.5 million wrongful death settlement, one of the largest related to a police shooting that caught national attention.
The death of Walter Scott, 50, was captured on a bystander’s video. After running from an April 4, 2015, traffic stop, Scott got into a struggle with North Charleston officer Michael Slager. The officer said Scott grabbed his Taser during the scuffle. As Scott started running again, Slager fired eight shots, hitting him five times. Slager is awaiting trial on a murder charge.
The S.C. Insurance Reserve Fund, which backs many governments in the state, contributed $1 million to the settlement — the maximum allowed by law — and the rest came from the city’s $18 million fund balance.
To recoup some of that money the city is putting four properties on the auction block at 6 p.m. Aug. 4 in council chambers. The largest is a tract of undeveloped land on Noisette Creek, not far from other properties the city acquired to preserve green space along the creek. The lots include 17 acres on South Rhett Avenue, zoned multifamily residential; 5 acres on Mazyck Road, zoned multifamily residential; 5.5 acres on Melbourne Avenue, zoned general business; and .25 acres on Durant Avenue, zoned single family residential.
“Property values are higher than they’ve ever been,” Summey said. “We don’t know how long they’re going to stay there, so if we’re going to get rid of this property, now is the time for us to do it and utilize the opportunity to replenish some of the funds that we have spent.”
City Council first discussed selling the tracts in May. At the time, the plan was to sell them outright, but afterward, city officials decided the auction was a better choice because it could bring higher sales prices.
“The law is very clear in that. ... We can do it anyway we want to,” Councilman Ron Brinson said. “And we aren’t even restricted to getting fair market value.”
There has been a lot of interest from the public, Summey said.
“As soon as we started acknowledging the fact that we were going to be selling some of these properties, we started getting phone calls,” he said. Interested parties include some city employees and at least one councilman, Todd Olds, who owns a real estate business.
“In the interest in transparency, we looked at all of this and there is no law that precludes an employee of the city from bidding on it as long as it’s organized in a very transparent way with plenty of public notice,” Brinson said.
Olds said he also asked for an opinion from the state Ethics Commission and was told it’s OK.
“Because we will rely on the staff attorney and the legal department to handle the auction and the bidding, it’s an even-steven playing field for everybody,” Olds said. “There’s no upper hand. I feel very confident … that it’s fair game. If you want to buy it, come with your checkbook and bid.”
The city plans to sell other properties in the future, Summey said. Future property purchases by the city will be done with a specific purpose in mind, he said.
“Honestly I think we have to look at the property we own and if it’s properties that we have no use for or future use for, then with the market the way it is today, this is the time for us to sell it,” Summey said.
The city is not abandoning it’s goal to accumulate land along Noisette Creek, Summey said.
“We still want to protect the frontage on the creek and eventually build a boardwalk,” he said. “A lot of these properties (for sale) are properties that we had to buy in order to get properties that we wanted.”
The reserve prices will be revealed at the auction, said Jimmy Blocker, owner of J.G. Blocker Auction & Realty, who is handling the sale. The plots will be sold with clear title and taxes will be prorated, he said. Winners will be required to pay 10 percent down and have 30 days to close the deal.
Reach Brenda Rindge at (843) 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.