No art in this deal

To paraphrase John Goodman as Walter Sobchak in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 crime comedy “The Big Lebowski”: “Just because we’re taxpayers doesn’t mean we’re saps.”

Walter got irate when he thought a funeral director demanded too much money for a crematory urn. Instead of overpaying, the bereaved Sobchak buys a coffee can at a nearby supermarket, empties it and uses that to transport his friend’s ashes to be scattered in the Pacific.

The recent decision by Santa Rosa commissioners to offer $850,000 for a 19-acre Avalon Boulevard site on which to build a new county courthouse strikes us as too much, too soon. Walter would question this deal and we should too.

For starters, there are at least two candidate properties that Santa Rosa could build on without an initial six-figure investment.

One is a six-acre parcel that the county already owns near the Public Works Department on Pine Forest Road. That site is favored by District 5’s Lane Lynchard and the Milton City Council, among others.

What’s more, there’s another property near Peter Prince Airport being offered gratis by Milton attorney Jennifer Byrom.

The majority of the commissioners sniffed at those two tracts and then snubbed them—reasoning that they would require more investment in infrastructure or the purchase of additional acreage.

Maybe, but in both cases the commissioners decided against so much as assigning county staffers to perform the due diligence necessary to make an informed decision.

Instead, without any thorough analysis, commissioners voted to make the $850,000 offer to the owner of the Avalon Boulevard parcel. The owner is Pensacola businessman Jerry Long, who bought the land in 2009 for $550,000 – and is seeking to roughly double his investment with an asking price of more than $1 million.

Well, the commissioners’ opening offer isn’t exactly lowball: a 55 percent profit margin.

One commissioner assured us the county won’t pay more than a fair price that will enable Long to make a reasonable profit. Another told our reporter that he “can’t fault” Long for trying to make money on his property.

We can’t either. But the commissioners are supposed to be working for the Santa Rosa County taxpayers. They should put our interests ahead of a Pensacola businessman who has been waiting for eight years for someone to come along and make him an attractive offer.

We’re not suggesting that the new courthouse be built on the real estate equivalent of Walter Sobchak’s coffee-can crematory urn. But we wonder at the wisdom of making a landowner from the next county wealthier without first asking him if he’d take less money before making an $850,000 offer.

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