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The Journal Gazette

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Thursday, November 30, 2017 1:00 am


A done deal

Denied data, council gambles on North River purchase

It's safe to say no one on City Council was wholly satisfied with the process that led it to approve the purchase of 30 acres of North River property from the Rifkin family and indemnify the family from any responsibility to help clean it up.

Consider this sampling of their comments:

“It's been a tough decision from the start.” – Tom Freistroffer, R-at large

“We're getting dealt a really bad hand here.” – Tom Didier, R-3rd

“There is no 'good' vote. It's very unfortunate the City Council has been put in this position by the administration.” – Paul Ensley, R-1st

“I've had about 100 emails and probably the most pointed ones are always saying, 'What's the rush? ... There is a risk. Why are we rushing through this?' ” – John Crawford, R-at large

“In my six years in office, this is probably the most uncomfortable position I've been in.” – Geoff Paddock, D-5th

And those were the five councilmen who voted to approve the purchase.

The other four council members were even more critical, of course – especially Michael Barranda, R-at large, who delivered scathing, prepared remarks, was a “no” in the 5-4 preliminary tally, and surprised onlookers by leaving the meeting for personal reasons before the final 5-3 vote.

What dismayed both sides was the Rifkin family's insistence that no data about environmental remediation at the site be revealed until the $4.63-million deal is done. At the meeting, an attorney for the sellers rejected pleas from council members to be allowed to see that data before the vote without having to agree in advance to indemnify the family from all responsibility for the cleanup.

The property on North Clinton Street across from Science Central once was the site of a metal-recycling center, which means lots of potentially hazardous waste might have to be removed from the soil before it could be redeveloped.

City officials who have seen tests done a decade ago said the cost would be relatively minimal – no more than $250,000 – and supporters of the deal argued state environmental funds might be available to help defray the cost.

But such projections don't always match reality. Given their inability to get any firsthand information, council members – and the public – were being asked to gamble on a decision before a preliminary purchase agreement expires next week.

But the questionable arrangement that kept Fort Wayne taxpayers and their representatives in the dark loses any validity as soon as the purchase deal is signed Friday. Then, all information about the condition of the North River property should be released immediately, and perhaps the council can get a better sense of whether this less-than-transparent deal was worth betting on.

And while city control of the high-profile property is welcome after all these years, the results of the environmental tests should guide eventual development there. Taxpayers shouldn't be burdened with a costly cleanup to make the site attractive to another buyer.