What do you get when you cast a governor trying to make a personal land deal with a neighbor who is a convicted felon, neck deep in debt and mentally challenged?
A no-win public relations nightmare.
And that’s what Gov. Peter Shumlin has on his hands. Part of it is of his own making, part of it isn’t.
On one side, there is Mr. Shumlin who has made his living putting together real estate deals. He knows the ins and outs of the business. He’s the consummate salesman and skilled at putting together options that make the real estate world hum.
On the other side is Jeremy Dodge, the abutting landowner, who was living in a decrepit house, owing $18,000 in back taxes, and facing an imminent tax sale on the home.
His neighbor, Mr. Shumlin, offered to buy the home and the 16 acres for $58,000. It had been appraised at $233,700 and then reappraised at $140,000, reflecting the deteriorating structure of the home.
On a per acre basis, the price offered for the land is above market price. The house, according to the town lister, is virtually uninhabitable. If it needs to be demolished, the newly assessed price does not reflect that cost.
In other words, it’s a stretch to call the governor’s offer a “steal.”
But the “deal” reflects what has long been the governor’s weakness, which is his penchant to be too clever by half. He takes shortcuts when he should stay on the accepted path, following accepted rules.
He made the deal as the real estate man he was, instead of the governor he is. That was a mistake. Vermonters expect their governor to be a model of public behavior; anything less opens them to the sort of rebuke he’s now receiving.
Mr. Dodge was advised by the governor to get an attorney, but he could not afford one. He was under the impression that the impending tax sale meant that he would immediately be forced out of his home. He had no money, earned less than $10,000 a year and followed behavior that strongly indicated his inability to cope with life’s details.
Money in hand seemed preferable to what he had.
What the governor should have done was to insist that Mr. Dodge be properly represented. That was the shortcut he took that he should not have.
Would that have changed the nature of the deal? Not necessarily.
The governor offered a price that reflected what he considered to be fair value. He’s not obligated to offer more than he wants to pay. If Mr. Dodge had demanded the $140,000 assessed value, he could very well be sitting on it now, still facing a tax sale, still owing $18,000, still living with an unworkable toilet, no running water and a house filled with trash.
We just would not know about it.
Mr. Dodge’s daughter has now stepped into the fray, upset with the governor, saying she only learned of the November deal in February.
She wants the “Dodge farm” back and wants the deal examined. But she also readily admits she doesn’t have the money to pay her father’s back taxes, nor has she been able to get a loan.
The emotional side of the story has been played out, as it should have been. No one likes to see someone unable to cope be put at a disadvantage by someone who can. At the same time, no one is required to pay more than they see fit, even if they are governor.
All deals are negotiable, as the governor knows. He could figure out a way to allow Mr. Dodge to keep his home, but the truth of the matter is that the Dodges should be careful for what they wish. Getting the home back doesn’t solve their problems; in fact, it may compound them.
And let’s adjust our reality setting to recognize that the public should not interpret as gospel every word uttered by Mr. Dodge, the ex-con. He has his own angle to play. The lesson for Mr. Shumlin?
When you are governor, stick to being governor. It’s easier.
By Emerson Lynn