By Steve Schultz
Winnebago County Board member, District 3
The foxes are full and out of the henhouse in a series of events comprising some of the most egregious abuses of political power in recent memory. At the end of the day, no consequences were borne by the guilty parties. Life moves on, and the outrage that should have been expressed is now a footnote that few will remember. I am not at peace with that outcome, our loss.
Hawk’s Nest was a downtown restaurant owned by Church and Chestnut Development LLC that, in turn, was owned by three prominent members of our community — former Winnebago County Sheriff Don “Donny” Gasparini, construction company owner Carl Scandroli, and developer and attorney Paul Nicolosi — all have strong political ties to Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R).
The chairman assigned one of his employees, former Rockford mayoral candidate and Winnebago County Development Director Jim Hughes (now retired), to work on a project that would result in the purchase of the Hawk’s Nest property (which had closed down as a restaurant and was vacant) and to convert it into a parking lot on the southeast corner of Church and Chestnut streets.
Instead of obtaining a fair-market value appraisal (what someone would be willing to pay for this property, as is, based on current comparative properties that have sold and are on the market), Hughes gave specific criteria to the appraiser based on how much income this property would provide to the owner if it were converted to a parking lot and the spaces provided a given amount of income per space per month.
The investment value appraisal, using the inputs provided by the county employee and approved by the chairman, came back at $750,000. The additional costs to tear down the restaurant and construct a parking lot were estimated at $200,000. The total cost to purchase and convert the property to a parking lot was $950,000, using this unique and unusual approach to valuing the property.
Here are the flying chicken feathers: the assessed value of this property was $175,000. A fair-market value appraisal was never obtained, so we do not know for sure what value an appraiser would have placed on the property (a closed restaurant/bar) if that appraisal was ever done. The way this transaction was handled ensured a maximum value to the property/development owners — known donors to the Hughes and Christiansen campaigns, as well as the Winnebago County Republican Central Committee (See sidebar). I know my party has better standards, and I’m proud to be a Republican.
However, the deal was a flagrant departure from everyday county practice regarding the valuation of property purchased by the county.
When the purchase of the Hawk’s Nest property was presented to the Finance Committee the week before it would be voted on by the whole board, it was on a handwritten page that was accompanied by a verbal explanation of the many items on that page that would all be included in a $4 million bond issue. When the committee asked whether an appraisal was obtained on the Hawk’s Nest property (assuming it was a typical fair-market value appraisal), they were assured that it was.
One week later, the full board approved this purchase as part of the larger package of property acquisitions and improvements. Only three board members voted against this package and proposed bond issue — Kay Mullins (R-6), Kyle Logan (R-4) and myself. Lynn Strathman (R-1) was absent. Their reasons varied from concern about taking on more debt to the short notice supplied for a significant item, to concerns about other contingencies that may or may not happen in the future to make the deal a good one for the county. None of the board members, even those who voted against this package, knew the underhanded way the Hawk’s Nest transaction was handled at the time they cast their votes.
When some of the details regarding this came out in an article in the daily paper in the days following the vote, there was an immediate outrage felt by the board members. As more information was obtained, the outrage grew, particularly in the person of John F. Sweeney (R-16).
While many of these same members had voted on sweetheart deals for politically connected people or companies, this was too egregious even for them. This deal crossed a line; even for those very comfortable in a good ol’ boy county where all our people/businesses are loved, but not all are equal.
When confronted by the board members regarding these new facts, the chairman doubled down on his position. He wrote an article for the daily paper explaining that the real culprit was the lack of parking in the downtown area and even obtained another appraisal (using the same inputs and unusual terms as the first one, again at the county’s expense).
At this point, most regular citizens might define these actions as “borderline criminal.” Some more liberal folk would use the word “corrupt.” But not in our county. Shoulders in authority shrug with a knowing grin, and they do not rock the politically-correct henhouse because they would like the inertia returned when their turn in the chicken coop comes.
As positor of the Natural Law and the 13 colonies’ representative in British Parliament, Edmund Burke knowingly said, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
A little time passes, and a few flag-waving, ribbon-cutting, baby-kissing events later, all is forgotten and forgiven. Just roll out a few new initiatives to distract people; go to the tried and true formulas of patriotism, new plans for new and better days; and then take credit for anything that looks remotely positive in our county.
Oh … where did the Hawk’s Nest deal land, you ask? Well, the board approved a new deal where the old owners could keep the property, the county would pay $125,000 toward the parking lot conversion (which they will get back 15 years from now from the owner) and would receive guaranteed monthly income from the county and RAVE (orchestrated by the county), which makes the original plan to purchase at $750,000 look like a sucker’s bet in comparison.
You remember the comedian whose favorite line was “Only in America”? It always brought a big laugh. Well, we have our own version … “Only in Winnebago County.” But any citizen/taxpayer who follows the trail of this deal is not laughing; and maybe someday, something will truly be done. Yes, this is a call to all good men and women.
Steve Schultz is a member of the Winnebago County Board, representing District 3 in Roscoe, Ill. Editor and Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this article.
From the April 16-22, 2014, issue