College of Western Idaho board chairwoman apologizes for land purchase ‘mistake’

The College of Western Idaho’s board erred in not considering the assessed value of a 10-acre former car lot or requiring an independent appraisal before buying the site west of Downtown for a Boise campus, CWI’s chairwoman says.

Mary Niland insisted Thursday that the community college did not overpay when it agreed last week to buy the former Bob Rice Ford dealership property at the corner of Main Street and Whitewater Park Boulevard along the Boise River. The college agreed to pay $8.8 million. That’s more than twice the value assigned by the Ada County assessor for tax purposes.

“If I had it to do all over again, I would have looked at the tax assessment and would have asked for the appraisal,” Niland told the Idaho Statesman. “All I can tell you is we didn’t think about it. It was a mistake, and we are accountable for that.”

CWI hopes to build public support to raise an estimated $150 million bond for a permanent Boise campus and a health sciences center and student center on its Nampa campus. A bond issue would require two-thirds voter approval across Ada and Canyon counties. Niland’s apology came after the school released a survey showing majority public support for a bond.

The purchase has not yet closed. The college has six months to perform a due-diligence review of the property before taking possession, said Bert Glandon, the college president.

CWI’s attorneys say Idaho law does not require the college to get an appraisal before purchasing property, Glandon said.

Niland said she has no opinion on whether the sale should be put on hold while an appraisal is done. She said she would not be surprised if board members brought up that subject.

The board looked at several properties in executive sessions over 18 months before deciding, Niland said. Trustees looked at properties that were on the market and some that were not, but the details were discussed behind closed doors. Niland and Guy Hurlbutt, the board’s vice chairman, said they developed a good feel for what properties were worth as they narrowed their decision.

“We did our due diligence,” Niland said.

Niland is president and CEO of Witco, a nonprofit that that helps disabled children and adults. She was one of the leaders of the campaign to win voter approval of the college in 2007. She said her main reason for accepting responsibility for the appraisal oversight is that “it would be better for the college if we didn’t have this discussion right now.”

The West End site’s assessed value is $3.6 million, or $5.2 million less than the school is paying.

Hurlbutt said he didn’t think an assessment would have made much difference. “The nature of the location was superb for us,” he said.

CWI sought an urban campus near Downtown Boise that could accompany student needs. “There is no 10 acres in Downtown Boise,” Glandon told the Statesman a few weeks ago. The car-lot site is located near Downtown and close to the I-84 Connector.

While an appraisal may not be required, North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene and the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls say they obtain appraisals or some form of justifiable evidence of the land value before they buy property.

The Rice property is across the Boise River from the Riverside Hotel, which includes 15 acres and sold for $5.1 million in 2011, said Tim Tallman, Ada County’s chief deputy assessor.

Tallman said the assessor’s office is comfortable with its assessment of the property. He pointed to a review by the Idaho Tax Commission, which compares property sales prices with assessments by county assessor’s offices. Ada County assessments overall are 96 percent of market value, he said.

The college is paying about $20 a square foot, a price comparable to property at Eagle Road and Fairview Avenue, a high-use area at one of the busiest intersections in Idaho, said John Starr, Colliers International’s land services group agent in Boise.

David Wali, a partner in the Riverside Hotel, said it is unfair to compare the purchase of the Riverside with the Bob Rice property. The hotel sale was four years ago, and prices have gone up, he said. Wali also said he was buying a business, not dirt.