Provincial staffers sold land below cost to balance B.C. budget: government emails

Senior bureaucrats were under intense pressure in 2013 to quickly sell off Crown properties in Victoria and elsewhere in order to balance the B.C. Liberals’ election-year budget, government emails show.

The NDP said the documents, obtained under the freedom of information law, explain why the government rushed the sale of 14 properties on Burke Mountain in Coquitlam for $43 million below appraised value.

“The memos show clearly that staff within the various ministries were under pressure to get assets sold — land sold — so they can have the revenues in by the end of the fiscal year,” said NDP house leader Mike Farnworth.

One memo, dated May 17, 2013, states that “asset sales is a key initiative for the government to balance the budget in fiscal 2013-14.”

In another, dated June 20, 2013, a senior official stresses the urgency to sell Crown land in Victoria.

“To be part of the sale and development of over eight acres in Victoria’s beautiful Inner Harbour area is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. An opportunity that normally would warrant years of planning and preparation,” the memo states.

“Unfortunately we don’t have unlimited time — our goal is to have For Sale signs up by October 31st with sales proceeds in the bank by March 31.”

Indeed, the province announced in early 2014 that about six acres of Crown land behind the B.C. legislature, most of a large city block, would be sold and developed into government office buildings, housing, retail and commercial space.

NDP Leader John Horgan said the memos put the lie to the government’s claims that the Burke Mountain sale had nothing to do with balancing the 2013-14 budget, which was introduced just prior to the provincial election in May 2013.

“You have two levels of government — senior officials … writing back and forth to each other saying, ‘Giddy up. We gotta get this done by March 31.’ If that’s not rushing a land sale, I don’t know what is.”

Horgan noted that the province marketed the Burke Mountain properties during the slow season over Christmas and ignored the appraisers’ advice to leave the land on the market for six to nine months.

Instead, they were unloaded in three months for $85 million to Wesbild Holdings Ltd. despite being valued at $128 million.

The government put $50 million on its books in 2013-14 and the remaining $35 million in 2014-15.

Wesbild issued a statement Wednesday saying it purchased the Burke Mountain parcels through a public tender process. “We paid fair market value and fully stand by the integrity of this transaction,” the statement said.

Premier Christy Clark also said the province got fair value for the properties because Wesbild was one of six competitive bidders. She denied the deal was accelerated to balance the budget.

“We had a $350-million surplus, so that money just wasn’t necessary to ensure that it was balanced,” she said. “There would have been no rush for that reason.”

The government, however, did not know in advance that it would have a $350-million surplus.

As late as Nov. 27, 2013, shortly before the Burke Mountain properties went on the market, Finance Minister Mike de Jong was projecting a surplus of $165 million.

Times Colonist