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Avoid Buying ‘Pig in a Poke’

Wheeling City Council members seem determined to buy the proverbial pig in a poke, relieving its current owner of a potential liability and placing it on taxpayers’ shoulders. City officials should reconsider.

An old warning about buying a pig in a poke, or bag, is that one does not know precisely what one is getting in the transaction. That appears to be the situation regarding land at 19th and Jacob streets, which municipal officials seem determined to buy as the site for a $14.5 million public safety building.

During their meeting Tuesday, council members heard first reading of a proposal for the city to enter into an option to buy the property, which is owned by Frank Calabrese. Reportedly, the option would extend for 90 days.

Should city officials proceed, they would pay $150,000 up front for the building, with $195,000 to be deposited in an escrow account. It would remain there while a federal loan or grant is sought for environmental remediation of the property, an absolute necessity if the new public safety building is to be constructed there.

If federal funds are provided — even in a loan Wheeling taxpayers would have to repay — Calabrese would receive the $195,000. If Washington turns the city down, the money would be used for the environmental cleanup.

At this point, however, it appears city officials are uncertain of how much it could cost to clean up the property and remove an old warehouse that sits on it.

A candidate for mayor, Jerry Jacobs, attended the Tuesday meeting and asked council members a series of questions. They included queries on whether the ground at the 19th and Jacobs site, of about three acres, is contaminated and if so, what the cost for remediation would be. Council members did not respond.

Afterward, however, City Manager Robert Herron said he will have additional information about the site at a future council meeting.

Meanwhile, without knowing what kinds of problems may be encountered at the site, city officials seem determined to press forward.

No commitments should be made with municipal funds — taxpayers’ money — until officials have adequate information regarding what it would cost to handle potential environmental problems at both the old warehouse and in the ground beneath it.

For several months, city officials have seemed to be in a hurry to close the deal on the Calabrese property. Why? What’s the rush?

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