Thursday, December 5, 2013
By Tom Bell email@example.com
A legislative panel has been asked to investigate the state's sale of three houses and 5.2 acres in Thomaston to a state official for less than half of the property's taxable value. No one else had a chance to bid on the property because it wasn't marketed.
The Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability is gathering documents related to the sale and will report its preliminary findings to the Government Oversight Committee on July 19.
The committee could instruct the accountability office to investigate the sale or ask people who were involved in it to appear before the committee and answer questions.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who co-chairs the Government Oversight Committee, said the public expects two things when the state sells surplus property: that the state will get the best price possible, and that the public will get a chance to bid on it.
"It looks as though, on first blush, that none of those two things are here," Katz said.
The property, next to the former Maine State Prison in Thomaston, was bought by Patricia Barnhart, the warden of the current Maine State Prison in nearby Warren.
The state sold the property for $175,000, which was $283,000 less than the assessed value.
Shortly after the sale closed on June 9, Barnhart and her partner filed plans with the town to develop a seven-lot subdivision. Thomaston's planning board will consider the plan on Tuesday.
The property on Ship Street Circle extends to the St. George River and offers water views. A state-owned rail line crosses the land, separating the property's road frontage from the shoreline.
Barnhart has lived in one of the three houses since the state hired her from Michigan in 2009 to run the state prison.
To help balance the two-year state budget that began July 1, 2009, the state has sold $1.5 million worth of surplus property over the last two years. The sale in Thomaston was part of that effort.
Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, who co-chairs the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which oversees the state prison, said he was unaware of the sale until a reporter asked him about it two weeks ago.
Plummer and the committee's Senate chair, Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, sent a letter to the Government Oversight Committee on Wednesday, asking that it investigate the sale.
"It is important that when state-owned property is sold off it is done in a legal and ethical manner," they said in the letter. "Unfortunately this particular transaction looks suspect and we feel the only way to absolve the individuals and agencies involved is to have a full investigation of the transaction."
Officials in the Department of Corrections and the Bureau of General Services, which was responsible for the property's sale, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Betty Lamoreau, acting director of the Bureau of General Services, said previously that Barnhart agreed to lease one of the houses to the state for $1 a year for four years. The Department of Corrections houses trainee officers in that house.
Lamoreau defended the sale and said that many properties in Maine are being sold for less than their assessed value because of the slump in the real estate market.
Plummer said the sale agreement calls for work crews from the Department of Corrections to mow the grass on the property, although it's unclear whether the crews will maintain the grass on the entire property or just the portion to be leased by the state.
"I don't think we ought to be using prison staff on private property," Plummer said. "Right now, we have more questions than answers."
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: