Tensions high in Washington ahead of ballot proposal vote

A screenshot from the August 12, 2019 special board of trustees meeting in Washington Township, via WBRW-TV.

by ANDREW NEAL

The debate over a Washington Township ballot proposal has been contentious in the lead up to the November 5 election. If approved, the proposal would allow the township to purchase Total Sports Park in an effort to create a new community center and recreational district.

Both sides are accusing each other of spreading misinformation and suggesting that corrupt motives may be at play.

At the end of July, the township reached a deal to purchase the 117,000-sq-ft complex on 80 acres of land east of M-53 between 30 and 31 Mile roads for $11.5 million. The ballot proposal would increase the Parks & Rec millage by .25 from its current .75 over 20 years via bond sell-off.

When the board voted to secure a deal with Total Sports, it passed unanimously, but when they voted to bring the millage before voters on the November 5 ballot, it passed 6-1, with Trustee Sam Previti voting no.

A social media firestorm erupted soon after the announcement was made, with some calling it a bad deal and others crying corruption.

Supervisor Dan O’Leary says the opposition is coming from four main sources – Trustee Previti, a second private company interested in acquiring the property, Bruce Township politicians, and his other political opponents.

A second potential offer

After the purchase agreement was publically announced in August, a second interested buyer – Bkl&m Properties – submitted a letter of intent to purchase Total Sports for $1 million more than the township’s offer, according to O’Leary. The registered agent on file for Bkl&m Properties is Washington Township resident Mike Meier, president of logistics company Venture Global Solutions. Trustee Sam Previti is the Controller at Venture Global.

“I think it was completely inappropriate for a trustee in my township to vote yes on the purchase and then no on the millage when his boss is the ultimate buyer,” O’Leary said of Previti. “Was there a relationship between the sudden turn of opinion and this desire to attack-attack-attack the deal after he approved the purchase?”

Whether there is any corruption or quid-pro-quo is not something I’m alleging,” O’Leary said, “but it’s certainly a situation which requires really good questions to be asked.”

Previti denies any relationship between himself and a second buyer and maintains that he is against the deal based on resident feedback.

“I don’t even know what Bkl&m is,” Previti said. “They’re saying I have ties to this company and that’s why I voted no, and that’s not the case.”

Previti said that it sounded like “overall a pretty good deal” at first when he voted for the Supervisor to work out a deal, but once he saw the details and heard from residents, he decided to vote no on the millage.

“In the end, I had hundreds of people contact me that they were against the deal, that they don’t like the idea of a 20-year tax with all the uncertainties,” Previti said. “I think it’s too big of an undertaking for the amount of people we have.”

Tri-Community Parks & Rec

Neighboring communities Romeo and Bruce Township have long had a Parks & Rec partnership with Washington. If approved, this deal would eliminate that relationship.

Previti says that would relinquish too much tax revenue, while O’Leary says there would be no point in keeping that relationship if Washington is the only one spending its own money.

“There’s nobody in the world who would say that would be a wise move to spend $11.5 million and say ‘Hey, by the way, you get to determine how it’s used.'”

How much is it worth?

Then there are those that say it’s just a bad deal. Washington Township resident and retired state senator Dave Jaye has been a vocal opponent of the deal, calling it a bailout for Total Sports.

“Absolutely it’s a bailout of a money-losing company,” Jaye said.

When asked why a majority of Washington trustees want to go through with the deal, Jaye said, “I, for the life of me, can’t think of a logical reason or an economic reason or a public administration reason.”

Opponents point to a 2019 appraisal of Total Sports Park as evidence that the township is overpaying on the deal.

Jaye cites Total Sports valuation at $5.4 million, adding the appraisal is a current snapshot in time, both details that Supervisor O’Leary disputes.

“Of course the appraisal was low because it was a buyer’s appraisal. We hired the company, we sent them the assumptions, because we were in negotiations with Total Soccer.” O’ Leary said. “The typical appraisal is actually based on a two-year lagging study,” adding that the new sewer system set to be completed in the next month has drastically increased the property value.

O’Leary says the land alone in the deal is worth $4 million, which would put the value of the facility at $64 per sq. ft.

“You can’t build a building for $64 a square foot… It’s about building it versus acquiring this facility and that comparison says we are doing great on value.”

He also says that the second buyer’s offer for $1 million more justifies the deal and its valuation.

“This was actually the way to have something that we otherwise could not have afforded, and the reason is building costs are out of control right now,” O’Leary said.

The “Unicorn” deal

O’Leary says that the township is in “very good discussions” with a tier-1 automotive supplier to sell a portion of the Total Sports property, on which they would build a $100 million facility and bring as many as 1,000 jobs. He claims the company was considering Bruce Township as well but ultimately decided that if they were to build, it would be in Washington.

“When they let Bruce know they weren’t going to go there, both the Bruce Township politicians and those involved in the land over there that they were looking at were very unhappy obviously,” O’Leary said.

Trustee Previti said it’s not worth the investment for a deal that doesn’t exist yet. “It’s a big investment for 20 years on a hunch that we might get a business,” he said.

Corruption accusations

What has gotten under the Supervisor’s skin most are the attacks on his reputation.

“It’s always about attacking my reputation because my political opponents are involved in this fight, and I’m the guy that was instrumental in starting the federal investigation in Macomb County.”

In 2014, O’Leary worked with the FBI to gather evidence of corruption against county officials and businessmen, including former Shelby Township engineer Fazal Khan, who was caught on video handing O’Leary $10,000 cash in exchange for a township contract. In July, Khan was convicted on four counts of bribery and likely faces a decade behind bars.

“The objective of the no campaign crowd was to get you confused and to have you either vote no or to not show up,” O’Leary said. “You can go with a proven winner that has a track record, or you can believe a group or people and a bunch of anonymous Facebook names who are out there spreading lies and misinformation.”

For his part, Trustee Previti was at a loss for words as to why O’Leary has focused much of his disappointment in the process on him.

“I have been a target of his since day one,” Previti said. “I guess it’s just politics.”