“In all of our negotiations with Mayor (Bill) Hereford, he only wanted to negotiate a price for the mill site and well,” said Kevin Whiteside, president of Pell City-Tifton Properties, a subsidiary of Thunder Enterprises of Chattanooga.
“As we continued to negotiate, we felt like the mill site clouded the issue, but the mayor only wanted to negotiate for the mill and well site together,” Whiteside said.
The old Avondale Mills well site is at another location, separate from the 26-acre Avondale Mill’s property the Chattanooga company bought in 2007.
Avondale Mills allowed the city to use the well as long as it provided the company’s Pell City plant with free water and paid the property taxes for the well site, about $2,000 a year. The plant closed in 2006.
The city only had to renew its contract with Avondale Mills, which would have provided the city access to the well for the next 20 years, but the city failed to renew the contract within the required time frame.
Whiteside said the city’s finances are limited, but the company offered to sell Pell City 6 to 10 acres of the Avondale Mills property, along with the well site, with money Hereford said was available to the city.
Whiteside said the company would have retained the bulk of the Avondale Mills property, located between U.S. 78 and Comer Avenue. He would not disclose how much money Hereford said the city had available to purchase the property.
“But he (Hereford) wants all the mill property and the well site,” Whiteside said. “He has jeopardized the city’s water supply over the mill property.”
Hereford disagreed with Whiteside’s comments, saying he has not jeopardized the city’s water supply because of the mill property.
“That’s obviously wrong,” Hereford said Thursday. “Whatever happens to the plant site, we will have the well. The facts speak for themselves. These are absolutely two separate things. … The well is entirely a separate matter.”
Officials say the old Avondale Mills well is vital for the city and accounted for about 28 percent of the city’s water supply in 2007.
Pell City-Tifton Properties LLC initially offered to sell the well site to the city for $1.9 million. That was the amount appraised by an independent expert hired by the company, who specializes in land/water rights.
Whiteside said the $1.9 million is a reasonable and fair amount, since the city is making about $1 million a year from the well with current water rates.
“They can pay off the well in two years with what it’s making for the city now,” he said.
City officials said after negotiations, the company lowered its offer for the 1-acre well site to $1 million.
“We were shocked to see that number represented,” Whiteside said Thursday, saying the monetary amount during negotiations was privileged and confidential information. “We may have made an offer for the well site only, but the mayor wanted it all, the mill property and well site. We weren’t just discussing the well.”
He said Pell City-Tifton Properties made multiple offers with varying land purchase combinations.
Hereford said Thursday he has negotiated with Pell City-Tifton Properties about both properties, the well site and the mill property.
“We have talked off and on from day one about the plant site,” he said. “We would like to own the plant site. It’s the heart of the city. Avondale was Pell City. Pell City was Avondale.”
Hereford said he would like the city to make a park out of the old Avondale Mills property.
For the past months, Hereford and other city officials have said the city is facing one of its worst economic downturns in modern times.
Hereford declined to say how the city would pay for both the Avondale Mills property and the well site.
“Any deal would have to be approved by the council,” he said. “We would just have to see, if we got there.”
Last month, city officials petitioned the courts to condemn the Avondale Mills well property on U.S. 231, where the active well is located.
City officials said Pell City-Tifton Properties wanted too much money for the well property.
The city hired its own appraiser, who valued the property at $310,000.
Last week, St. Clair County Probate Court Judge Mike Bowling ordered that the city would have to pay $750,000 for the condemned, 1-acre plot, the price recommended by a three-member commission appointed by the probate judge to assess the fair market value of the well site.
Monday night, the council gave the mayor the green light to appeal Bowling’s ruling to the St. Clair County Circuit Court.
At Monday night’s council meeting, Councilman Greg Gossett was the lone council member to vote against the city appealing the probate court’s ruling.
He said it was best to purchase the well site from Pell City-Tifton Properties and put the matter behind the city.
Gossett said he worries about the mounting legal bills the city would face by appealing the case, criticizing the mayor for “hiding numbers.”
“An appeal is not cheap,” Hereford responded to Gossett’s allegations.
At the council meeting, Hereford said he expects about $10,000 in legal fees to appeal the case.
He said the city must also provide the Probate Office with a check for $750,000, the amount Bowling ordered in his ruling, before the case is appealed to the Circuit Court.
Hereford said once the city provides the check to the Probate Office, the city, in essence, has bought the property and will not have to provide Pell City-Tifton Properties with anymore lease payments.
Pell City officials say the city is leasing the well property from Pell City-Tifton Properties for $2,000 while the matter is under litigation.
The city must also pay court costs, about $1,200, and another $15,000 to $30,000 for an appeal bond, Hereford said Monday night.
“We have a great relationship with the mayor,” Whiteside said Thursday. “He’s trying to do the right thing, or what he thinks is the right thing.”
Whiteside said he wanted to make sure everyone knew negotiations have not focused on the well, but all of the former Avondale Mills property in Pell City.
He said the company has tried in good faith to work with the mayor.
“The city has made it pretty clear it is going to appeal,” Whiteside said. “We felt it would be beneficial that we correct some of the information that wasn’t accurate or clear.”
Hereford said he will continue negotiating with Pell City-Tifton Properties.
“The bottom line is we have to have the well,” he said. “We do not have to have the mill site.”