Lawmaker Calls for Audit of Potential Farmers Market Land Deal

August 8, 2012

Investigative Reports

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c31fd82a1fdbac7980698ffc1629374bA state lawmaker is calling for a formal audit of an S.C. Department of Agriculture proposal to pay the S.C. Ports Authority chairman millions for private property he owns at the State Farmers Market.

“It was a cooked-up deal,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York and a developer, told The Nerve in an interview this week, contending that a recent appraisal of the property owned by Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern was grossly inflated.

No one is accusing Stern or state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, who made the proposal to buy Stern’s property, of doing anything illegal. But in a June email to Weathers, a copy of which Norman provided to The Nerve, Norman described the income figures used in the appraisal as “unsubstantiated,” and the properties used for comparables as “unrealistic,” noting he reviewed the appraisal and interviewed the appraiser.

In interviews last week and Tuesday with The Nerve, Stern said the proposal to buy his property was more an inquiry, not a finalized deal, and that he wouldn’t have profited even if there were a deal. Stern,who runs a private development company, called Stern & Stern and Associates, out of a Columbia-area bank building he owns, also said he bought his parcels after the market had already begun operating.

“We didn’t set any prices,” he said. “It wasn’t where we were working on a deal – no contract, no attorneys. This was an inquiry on would I have an interest (in selling my property).”

Agriculture Department documents reviewed by The Nerve last week suggest that the state is losing money on its operations at the market and wanted Stern’s property as a means to make the market become profitable.

Weathers did not make public Stern’s connection to the market until after a May 30 story in The Nerve, nor was Weathers’ proposal for a $16.3 million expansion project at the market included in his initial budget request for fiscal 2013, or in the initial House version of the state budget.

Under state law, it takes five lawmakers to request that the Legislative Audit Council, the investigative arm of the S.C. General Assembly, consider conducting an audit of a state agency. The House speaker and Senate president pro tempore also can request audits individually.

Norman said he has support so far from Reps. Gary Simrill, R-York, and Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, for an audit request. “It’s definitely going to happen,” Norman said about the new audit request.

The LAC in April 2010 issued a critical audit of the relocation of the State Farmers Market from its former Bluff Road site in Richland County to its present Charleston Highway location in Lexington County. Among other things, the audit found that the Department of Agriculture spent more than $4.4 million to develop a new market site in Richland County before scrapping those plans.

The new State Farmers Market, which began operating in September 2010,  is described as a public-private partnership, with the Department of Agriculture operating facilities for “direct sales” from South Carolina growers, and privately owned companies having their own wholesale or retail businesses, according to the department’s fiscal 2011 accountability report.

Stern, who noted his development company owns primarily retail properties in eight states, said he was first approached by Weathers either late last year before the legislative session began, or early this year, about the potential sale of his property at the market.

Lexington County property records show Stern, through limited-liability companies he owns, purchased his parcels in September and October of 2010.

Asked why Weathers was interested in the state buying his property, Stern replied, “Because he thought those assets would be a benefit to the state of South Carolina, and I don’t disagree with that.”

Stern said he didn’t buy his market parcels, which he noted were sold by another private developer, until after the Department of Agriculture and other private developers had located at the market.

“I came in way after the fact,” he said.

But Stern’s connection to the market didn’t become known publicly until after The Nerve first reported on May 30 that the S.C.  Senate had slipped in an additional $16.3 million in its version of the fiscal 2013 budget for an expansion project at the market.

Lawmakers dropped the proposed appropriation after Stern’s connection was revealed publicly. After that fact became known, The Nerve submitted a state Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Agriculture for documents related to the proposal, which were provided last week.

In an email on May 29 – the day before The Nerve first reported on the proposed $16.3 million appropriation – Weathers instructed David Tompkins, manager of the Farmers Market, to “not engage in any unnecessary conversation on any part of this initiative.”

“Process is still very much up in the air,” Weathers wrote. “A mis-interpretation by folks both on and not on the market could be problematic. This is critical.”

Agency spokeswoman Becky Walton did not respond to a written request last week by The Nerve to interview Weathers, who has been the agriculture commissioner since 2005.

How much Stern would have made on a proposed sale is unknown, though Norman believes the Agriculture Department’s $16.3 million proposal was overly generous to Stern.

“It might be a $3 million deal – maybe,” Norman said.

Asked about his potential profit from a sale to the state, Stern said, “I wouldn’t have been making anything.”

Stern declined to say how much he paid for the approximately 36 acres he owns at the market, or how much it cost to construct several buildings he owns at the market.

In a written response Tuesday, Beth Crocker, the Department of Agriculture’s chief attorney, said her agency had no records pertaining to construction costs on Stern’s property, adding that “no public money has been expended on any private construction of improvements or acquisition of these lots at this time.”

Stern said excluding the Farmers Market, his private development company has not done any business with the state of South Carolina. He said that as chairman of the state Ports Authority, which oversees the operation of South Carolina’s ports, he does not have any conflict of interest with his involvement in the market.

“Somebody would have to tell me what the conflict is,” Stern said.

As for a possible LAC audit of the Department of Agriculture regarding the potential purchase of his property, Stern said, “I don’t know what the protocol is; I’m sure legislators are free to call for audits of any state agency.”

FARMERS MARKET LOSING MONEY?

Internal Department of Agriculture documents obtained by The Nerve suggest that the agency wanted Stern’s market parcels because the state is losing money on its own property at the market, projecting that it would become profitable with Stern’s property.

The Nerve earlier reported that in his original budget for fiscal 2013, which started July 1, Weathers asked for an additional $600,000 as a “supplement to market operations,” noting that, “When moved to its new location, the market lost significant revenue from wholesale vendor rent.”

Among other things, department documents and Lexington County property records reviewed last week by The Nerve show that:

  • Stern, through a company he owns called Stern Market Properties, LLC, in September 2010 – about the time the market began operating – bought four market parcels totaling slightly less than 27 acres from another private developer for $1.57 million. A large warehouse leased to several wholesale produce companies and two open-air buildings containing dozens of stalls for farmers to sell their products are located on part of that land toward the back of the market.
  • Stern, through another company called FM Building C, LLC, owns a retail building, known as the Corbett Building, on a 1.33-acre parcel at the front of the market that houses a restaurant, an exhibition kitchen, a country store and space for other agricultural vendors.The state leases that building at an annual cost of $195,000, according to Stern.
  • Stern also owns a small front gate house, where truckers pay fees to haul their produce primarily to the wholesale vendors in the market. He declined to say how much he collects annually in fees, though the Department of Agriculture estimated the agency would collect about $150,000 annually if it owned the gate house.Under the agency’s plan, that area would be redeveloped to include a welcome and information center.
  • According to an agency analysis, the Agriculture Department has a total annual net loss of about $58,000 on its operations at the market. With the purchase of Stern’s parcels, which would include leases for his buildings, the agency projects annual net income of more than $385,000. Stern wasn’t mentioned by name in the analysis, though his properties were identified.
  • Of the agency’s additional $16.3 million budget request, more than $14 million would have been used for the “acquisition and expansion” of Stern’s property, including the gate house and wholesale and retail buildings. Although Stern wasn’t mentioned by name in that breakdown, pictures of his properties were included.
  • The expansion project would include adding five full-time and three part-time staff at a total estimated annual salary budget of $174,000.
  • In April, a month after Weathers appeared before a Senate Finance subcommittee to pitch his $16.3 million budget request, three parcels totaling about 17 acres and owned by Stern Market Properties were transferred to another company owned by Stern, known as WV Investments, LLC.

DISPUTED APPRAISAL

In a May 25 report included with the documents provided by the Department of Agriculture to The Nerve,  Rosen Appraisal Associates of Columbia appraised four Stern parcels, totaling 26 acres, at the Farmers Market  and two other smaller market parcels owned by another developer, at a total of $15.74 million.

Stern said the appraisal was done at his request and was not state-authorized. Any purchase by the state would have to be based on an independent appraisal, and the purchase price would have to be at or below the approved appraisal, he said.

Stern declined to discuss specifics of the Rosen appraisal.

In a June 14 email to Weathers, a copy of which Norman provided to The Nerve, Norman said that based on his review of the appraisal and his interview of Rosen, he found the following flaws in the appraisal:

  • “Unsubstantiated ” income figures for the Corbett Building: Norman said according to Rosen, the listed annual income of $87,640 for Judy’s at the Market, a restaurant located in the Corbett Building owned by Stern, was “effective” income that “could be received” on the open market, rather than actual income. Norman also said that after walking through the Corbett Building, he could not determine “what exactly the $195,000 rental (by the state) is covering,” noting there were a number of vacant spaces in the building.
  • “Unsubstantiated” income from shed buildings owned by Stern: Norman said the majority of income from those buildings is generated from all-cash transactions, noting no leases were used in that projection.
  • “Unsubstantiated” gate income: Norman said Rosen estimated annual gate income, which is based on fees from trucks making deliveries primarily to wholesale vendors, at $225,000, a 28 percent increase from income at the gate at the old Farmers Market. Norman said the actual yearly gate income at the new market, based on his conversations with “people familiar” with that operation, is between $58,000 and $70,000.
  • “Unrealistic” properties used as comparables: As an example, Norman said Rosen compared the Corbett Building, which Norman described as a metal-sided structure with “limited interior finishes located on a secondary road with limited traffic,” to two local all-brick, “elaborate-interior” restaurants located on a heavily traveled road. Noted Norman: “Hugh, I would compare this to the analogy of trying to argue that a Ford Fiesta and a Lexus LS 460 is the same car!!”

“The bottom line is that this deal is totally UNFAIR TO THE TAXPAYER and any attempt to sell this deal by you or anyone else to the state is a COMPLETE FARCE,”  Norman wrote.

In his emailed response, a copy of which Norman provided to The Nerve, Weathers told Norman that it “appears that all of your analysis focuses on the appraisal report and not the discounted numbers I have used and supplied to you.

“You also discount or ignore my repeated statements to have this fully vetted through the state process, including getting our own appraisal.”

Weathers continued: “I also asked you to consider the intangible benefits of this proposal, which cannot be quantified as easily as an income stream validity. I see no indication of that.”

“It appears you have reached a conclusion,” Weathers concluded, “one with which I obviously am not in agreement, and borders on insult to the job I try to do for South Carolina.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org