Manitoba

No leasing fees, taxes paid on ballpark parking lot for years: officials

A piece of city-owned land at the centre of controversy at Winnipeg's city hall this week was being used by the company leasing it free of charge for several years before tax and lease payments were required, CBC News has learned.

'Oversight' called 'not intentional'

Canwest Park, home of the Northern League's Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball team, opened in 1999 just north of The Forks and east of Portage and Main. ((CBC))
A piece of city-owned land at the centre of controversy at Winnipeg's city hall this week was being used by the company leasing it free of charge for several years before tax and lease payments were required, CBC News has learned.

City officials confirm that the minor-league baseball team, whose majority owner is Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz, used the land near Canwest Park for parking between 2001 and 2004 without paying any taxes or lease payments on it.

In 2001, the city worked out a deal with the non-profit company Riverside Park Management, which wanted to rent the land to the Winnipeg Goldeyes for fan parking during approximately 50 games per year.

Under the deal, the city would lease the land for the parking lot and the ballpark to the company for $1 a year, and the company would pay the property taxes on the land. 

But Ray Klassen, manager of the City of Winnipeg's real estate division, told CBC News that the city did not legally establish the parking lot's parcel of land until 2005 because of many construction projects going on in the area.

Because there was no legal assessment, Riverside Park Management had "no obligation" to pay taxes or lease payments on the land from 2001 to 2004, city officials said.

Therefore, it's possible that Goldeyes fans were charged to park on the land, even though Riverside Park Management was paying virtually nothing for the land, Klassen said.

Klassen called the situation "an oversight" and said it was "not intentional."

Renewed calls for blind trust

More than 284,000 fans attended 44 games at Canwest Park in 2008. ((CBC))
The news comes on the heels of a controversial decision by the city's executive policy committee on Wednesday. The committee, considered the mayor's cabinet, agreed to forgive Riverside Park Management $233,000 in outstanding property taxes levied on the land since 2005, and to amend the lease for the land to reduce future taxes.

Throughout the debate over the parking lot, Katz has rejected all claims he is in a conflict of interest, arguing that although he owns the baseball team, he has no connection with Riverside Park Management. Company documents obtained by CBC News show Katz left his position as director and president of Riverside from 1997 to April 2008.

The mayor, who sits on and appoints councillors to the seven-member executive policy committee, recused himself from the discussion and vote on the matter at Wednesday's meeting.

But at least two city councillors have renewed calls for Katz to put his business holdings in a blind trust while he holds office.

Blind trusts 'unadulterated nonsense': mayor

During the 2004 mayoral campaign, Katz said he would put his interest in the Goldeyes in a blind trust. But after consulting with city officials after the election, he said the move was not required.

He maintained that stance Wednesday, arguing that Winnipeggers are aware of his stake in the ballpark.

"I'm not convinced there's an individual who voted for me — or who did not vote for me — that did not know that I started the Winnipeg Goldeyes, did not know the battle with city hall to build the ballpark. This is not hidden in a closet. This is upfront. Everybody knows that," he said.

Katz also questioned the value of blind trusts, a financial arrangement in which a person hands control of and information about assets or investments to a trustee, typically to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.

"A blind trust, in my opinion, is one of the most fraudulent acts of all, because who are you kidding that an individual turns his entire business over to somebody, and never, ever speaks to him, meets with him, never talks to him," Katz said.

"I think everybody here knows that's unadulterated nonsense, so let's not pretend."

Winnipeg's full city council will debate and vote on the land lease and taxes matter during a meeting next week.