Les Leyne: Liberals in a hurry to sell Crown lands

Les Leyne mugshot generic“Always be closing,” was the advice ruthless real estate agent Alec Baldwin made famous in the sales-meeting scene of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.

You have to wonder if they screened the show for the “Release of Assets for Economic Generation” division during the big asset-sales program the B.C. Liberals developed two years ago. From the tone of some leaked government emails produced by the Opposition during continued argument over the program on Wednesday, it sounds like it.

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The argument over the real estate selloff started when documents came to light showing that some Coquitlam Crown land parcels appraised at $128 million were sold in short order for $85 million. The NDP accused the Liberals of staging a fire sale in order to scare up as much cash as it could in order to balance the budget. They accused the government of taking what it could get and leaving millions on the table in a mad rush to raise some ready cash.

Struggling over the course of a day-and-a-half to explain themselves, Liberals insist they got fair market value. The 14 properties were listed with a reputable firm and got a half-dozen competitive offers through an open process. The appraisal was just overly aggressive.

Day Two of the real estate rumble established pretty clearly that the rush was on when it came to closing deals.

Leaked emails show senior officials who were doing deals all over B.C. were stressing urgency.

In a note from June 2013, a month after the election, to a team tasked with selling a parcel directly behind the legislature buildings, an official said that to be part of the sale and development “is a once in a lifetime opportunity. An opportunity that normally would warrant years of planning and preparation.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have unlimited time — our goal is to have For Sales up by Oct. 31 with sale proceeds in the bank by March 31 [of the next year].”

They met the targets and sold what is now known as Capital Park for $34 million.

Another email read into the record was from an assistant deputy minister, written in May 2013, just days after the election. It was addressed to dozen officials charged with asset sales across government. It makes crystal-clear what various cabinet ministers are having trouble this week confessing. “As you are aware, asset sales is a key initiative for the government to balance the budget in fiscal 2013/14. The fiscal plan includes a net gain of $350 million from this initiative this year which we are collectively committed to achieve.”

The emails are just fragments from all the documentation behind the program. But they suggest pretty strongly that (1) the government badly needed the money to balance the budget and (2) it was a rush job.

The NDP sold its fair share of Crown land during the 1990s, but reacted with horror when the Liberals took the concept and accelerated it. Former NDP leader Adrian Dix denounced the program during the 2013 campaign.

Liberals this week have downplaying the urgency and trying to stress that selling land doesn’t just bring in cash, it creates jobs and economic opportunities. They also say the eventual margin of surplus was much higher than the $85 million collected from the Coquitlam sale. The provincewide sales target was a lot higher than that, however.

But the key issue is how much money, if any, was left on the table. The Coquitlam appraisal suggests the government could have made another $43 million if it had taken its time, allowed for orderly development of the nearby housing project and left it on the market longer.

It’s also telling that the appraisal was kept secret for months and only grudgingly released after the information and privacy commissioner intervened.

Premier Christy Clark congratulated the Opposition for finally showing an interest in balancing budgets, but said the “argument that this was part of an effort to balance the budget is very clearly wrong.”

But of course it was. And it worked. It’s just that admitting that involves acknowledging there was likely more to be made, if they weren’t in such a rush to close the deals.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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