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Published: Wednesday, 3/9/2005

Council OKs purchase of tow lot land

Opponents of Mayor Jack Ford's police tow lot initiative yesterday seized on the ethical questions surrounding the city's acquisition of a North Toledo site, but fell short in the voting on Toledo City Council.

Two ordinances to buy land and to borrow money to develop the vehicle storage operation passed by 7-4 votes.

Voting yes were Councilmen Frank Szollosi and Wade Kapszukiewicz, who voted against an ordinance to authorize the tow lot Jan. 11. Also casting yes votes were Councilmen Ellen Grachek, Karyn McConnell Hancock, Michael Ashford, Wilma Brown, and Phillip Copeland.

Voting no were Councilmen Rob Ludeman, Bob McCloskey, George Sarantou, and Betty Shultz.

Council President Louis Escobar was absent.

The administration hopes to begin receiving vehicles at the lot at Dura and Detroit avenues in July, and expects to generate a $454,000 surplus for the city's general fund this year.

Critics yesterday focused on the $700,000 price tag for the two parcels totaling 35 acres, plus $8,000 in closing costs.

Mr. Ludeman pointed out that the Lucas County auditor valued the parcels in 2003 at $558,900.

"There's an awful lot of irregularities here," Mr. Ludeman said.

The handling of the real estate deal has become the subject of an ethics inquiry of city Real Estate Commissioner Steven Best. Mr. Best allegedly used a brokerage which holds his real estate license as the city's broker in the transaction.

An ethics committee appointed to review the case met yesterday, but has not ruled. Mr. Best remained on paid suspension from his $75,000-a-year job in the city Department of Economic and Community Development, according to Mary Chris Skeldon, the mayor's public information officer. Mr. Best's duties include managing the Marina District.

City officials said they have learned that Mr. Best placed his real estate license with Century 21 Kasten Realty when he was hired by the city in August, 2003, although he stopped conducting real estate business.

John Madigan, general counsel for the city, told council that Kasten Realty was named in the purchase agreement between the city and the tow lot seller as one of two brokers that would split the commission. The seller's broker was Signature Associates. Mr. Madigan said he was not aware of Kasten having any authorized role on behalf of the city in the deal.

"To my knowledge, we had no agreement with Kasten," Mr. Madigan said.

Kasten has agreed to the city's request to withdraw from the deal and not seek its commission, officials said.

Kasten also allegedly was brought in by Mr. Best to handle a private land transaction in Sylvania Township last year for a future Jaguar dealership after Mr. Best was assigned by Mr. Ford to help find a location for the business.

Mr. Best has told his bosses he received no personal benefit from Kasten Realty's involvement in either case.

Mr. Madigan said the $700,000 price tag was below the $1 million listed price for the two adjacent tow lot parcels, and he said the county auditor's estimate "is not necessarily the fair market value."

He said the purchase is still conditioned on the site passing environmental tests.

Mayor Ford's plan is for the city to take over the storage of about 14,000 vehicles towed each year. Currently, police contract with 16 private tow companies.

According to Kevin Liber, owner of Dixie Storage Co., 5880 North Detroit Ave., the average police-ordered tow is worth about $120 to the tow operators. Without vehicle storage, future tows will be worth $55, and that may not justify staying in business with the city, he said.

Ms. Shultz claimed the tow lot will take uniformed officers off the streets. She criticized the location as not central to most city residents.

"If the city passes this ordinance today, we will file suit," vowed Toledo Towing Association attorney Joe Jordan.

He said tow operators will have to lay off 62 employees.

The Ford administration claims a central tow lot will operate with essentially the same officers who now handle towed vehicle records in the city's Safety Building. Six police officers and a supervisor would keep the lot open seven days a week.

Both Mr. Szollosi and Mr. Kapszukiewicz said they changed their votes because council has since approved a 2005 budget that relies on the revenue from the tow lot.

"I couldn't see how we could pass a budget one day and ignore it the next," said Mr. Kapszukiewicz, in whose district the tow lot would be located.

The city tow lot still has a major hurdle - approval by the Toledo Plan Commission of a special use permit, set for the plan commission tomorrow.

Also yesterday, council:

w●Appointed Gerald Dendinger, 53, as clerk of council to replace Michael Beazley, who was named Lucas County administrator Jan. 4. The position pays $80,000 a year.

w●Approved a zone change and site plan review for the Inverwest residential development at 1301 and 1302 Linden Lane.



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