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Wilder's Lease Gambit Has Legs, Lawyers Say

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Wilder's Lease Gambit

Has Legs, Lawyers Say

The mayor of mixed messages is at it again. With his latest threats to run the Richmond School Board out of City Hall, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder is telling schools officials to jump and roll over at the same time. And according to some lawyers, school officials might need to learn a few new tricks.

Just days after making an appearance before city teachers last week to talk reconciliation, Wilder has reiterated his call for the School Board to vacate its offices at City Hall by an unspecified September deadline.

Then Wilder sent schools officials, through the city's real estate services office, a bill for $141,149.50 for their use of City Hall space from July to September.

"Everybody says pay your money into the court," says John Anderson, a Richmond lawyer with Spotts Fain PC, who specializes in commercial real estate and business law. "They should not fail to make a lease payment -- whatever that payment will be — or they will clearly be in default under whatever lease exists."

Defaulting, Anderson says, would give Wilder the right as landlord to kick them out.

In 2005, City Council created its first written lease with schools, which have occupied the City Hall space since the 1970s, setting a lease amount of about $560,000 a year. But recently, council approved a new lease, setting payments for the use of six floors at City Hall at $10 a year.

Wilder's office has never signed any of council's leases with schools. But throughout his term, bills have been dutifully sent by Real Estate Services and dutifully paid by schools officials.

Members of the School Board don't necessarily agree that they need to do anything to protect their interests against Wilder's latest action. And they may simply lack the money to do so anyway. In the current budget, City Council included no money for schools to continue paying its previous $560,000 lease.

Coming up with the money would require a budget amendment, which council would have to submit to Wilder, an action that one chuckling council source called "unlikely."

The plan is "to follow the ordinance that has been presented by City Council," School Board Chairman George Braxton says. "Everything from our reading, City Council controls real estate and City Council has directed administration to take an action."

Daniel Gecker, a local real estate lawyer and member of the Chesterfield County Planning Commission, says Wilder may have precedence for his actions in seeking to remove schools, though it would be up to a court to decide the sticky issue of whether he or the council controls city property.

"If it were between private parties, they would have [an unwritten] lease that renews quarterly," Gecker says, suggesting that the regular billing and payment schedule shows an agreement between the two parties existed in the past. "But the city could say at any of those quarters, 'I'm not renewing,' and force the tenant to depart."

Either way, he agrees that money should be paid somewhere, whether into an escrow account or directly to the city real estate department. S



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