Bay Minette Mayor Robert “Bob” Wills is blaming his political opponents for recent questions he’s received about why a city board spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase two residential homes from a trust established by his relatives. 

In 2013, the North Baldwin Utilities board, which Wills has served on since his election in 2012, sought and received an attorney general’s opinion about buying real estate. It concluded the public utility could purchase property to “provide temporary lodging for visiting consultants” if the NBU board found it “necessary or convenient.”

Less than two weeks later, the board voted to spend $830,000 on two homes in the Steelwood subdivision — a “secluded, lakefront residential community” in Loxley, according to promotional material.

Those properties were purchased from a trust in the name of Wills’ late father-in-law, Thomas William “Bill” Mitchell — a trust managed by another NBU board member, James H. “Jim” Robertson.

The $830,000 purchase was split between a $230,000 down payment and six annual payments of $100,000 plus interest.

Jason Padgett, NBU’s general manager, told Lagniappe the board never obtained an appraisal for either property before they were purchased. Instead, he said, NBU reviewed the value of comparable properties and discussed the value with builders and real estate agents familiar with Steelwood.

According to the Baldwin County Revenue Commission, the property on Lakeview Drive was valued at $297,800 the year before NBU purchased it for $415,000. The second parcel, located on Waterview Drive, was listed at $314,600 the same year.

Regardless of the price, it’s the connection Wills and Robertson have to the properties that has recently been raising questions about a possible conflict of interest. However, Wills said he had no hand in connecting NBU to the properties or to the trust established by his in-laws.

“There were contractors who were looking at [the South Alabama Mega Site] that knew my brother-in-law, Tom Mitchell, had some houses in Steelwood and suggested NBU purchase one or more of those,” Wills said. “I knew we had four or five houses down there, but that’s how the contact was made.”

When it came time for NBU to vote on purchasing the property, Wills said he “excluded himself from any conversation” about the transaction and abstained from voting as well. Minutes from an NBU meeting on May 29, 2013, do indicate both Wills and Robertson left before the remaining three members approved the purchase.

With a municipal election Aug. 23, Wills said “there’s no question” the recent interest in the three-year-old real estate transaction is being pushed by his political challenger, former Mayor Sonny Dobbins.

“I was the county’s attorney, the city’s attorney and the board of education’s attorney for 18 years. I’ve never done one thing, and wouldn’t, to benefit myself or do anything untoward,” Wills said. “It perplexes me this is being brought up.”

Mayor Robert Wills will face a challenge from Sonny Dobbins during an Aug. 23 municipal election in Bay Minette. (Jason Johnson)

Mayor Robert Wills will face a challenge from Sonny Dobbins during an Aug. 23 municipal election in Bay Minette. (Jason Johnson)

While Dobbins denied making any effort to bring up the homes in Loxley, he did express some concern about NBU’s operation. As Bay Minette’s mayor from 2000 to 2008, Dobbins successfully pushed to increase the number of NBU board members from three to five, which included a seat automatically reserved for the sitting mayor.

“We did that to get more people involved because they were expanding their service, but also to have the mayor sit on the board so the council would know what was happening,” Dobbins said. “I don’t really know exactly what’s going on over there now, but if they’ve got enough money stashed away to buy resort properties, their rates and fees are too high.”

When asked, Padgett said the purchase of the properties was set in motion when state and local officials began discussing incentives that could be offered to potential developers of the South Alabama Mega Site.

In a prepared statement, Padgett said “NBU decided to take the lead on providing executive housing and office space.” To provide those incentives, NBU purchased the homes in Loxley and spent an additional $280,500 on office space on in Bay Minette that currently has five tenants.

However, after four years, Baldwin County’s $32 million Mega Site remains vacant, which means there has been little need to temporarily house interested executives. In the meantime, Padgett said NBU has been renting the properties by “word of mouth” without “a formal lease.”

“Since shortly after the purchase, both cottages have had long-term renters who have a month-to-month agreement,” he said. “These include a retired hospital administrator and business executive. In the event of an industry prospect needing the space, those homes can be vacated within short notice.”

Padgett said both tenants have since left but said their rent, which was collected through monthly invoices for more than a year and half, went into NBU operations.

Lagniappe asked all five members of the Bay Minette City Council if they were aware of how the properties in Loxley were purchased or how they’ve being utilized, but only received a response from District 5 Councilman Chris Norman.

“I do not recall a discussion or a vote during a council meeting concerning properties that were purchased by NBU in Loxley,” Norman wrote. “Consequently, I have not been informed by NBU on who may be renting properties in Loxley.”

According to the 2013 AG opinion that greenlighted the utility service’s foray into real estate, NBU would need the City Council’s approval to “dispose of the property by sale, lease or otherwise.” However, it doesn’t mention anything about temporary rentals.

“They don’t have to give us approval to purchase, buy, lease or do anything,” Padgett said. “When you dispose of assets, you’re supposed to go before City Council, but that’s something we’re looking to get clarification on now.”

Attorney General’s Opinon