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Walters ready to tee up taxpayers again

Oh, Billy. You’ve done it again. Never underestimate the patience of one the valley’s most juiced political insiders and iconic gamblers.

Taxpayers, like sports book operators, know the feeling too well. In the end, Billy Walters always wins.

Back in 2005, Walters engineered one of his too-good-to-be-true land deals with the help of a compliant city bureaucracy too happy to look the other way. But public backlash, allegations of criminality and an outside investigation ordered by the attorney general blew the whole thing up.

So Walters waited. And waited. And waited some more. And almost 10 years to the day after he lost his chance to cash in on the valley’s housing boom by turning Royal Links Golf Club into a residential development, he has asked the city and its taxpayers to take a giant bite out of the same feces sandwich.

Billy wants to build houses on Royal Links again. And he wants city taxpayers to provide his profit.

It shouldn’t seem like a big deal to build houses on what Walters says is a money-losing, east-valley golf course, especially one that isn’t part of a surrounding homeowners association or country club. But to understand why it’s such a bad deal for the public, you have to understand what a good deal Walters got in acquiring the land for the golf course.

He bought it from the city for a mere $900,000 in 1999. But it came with a deed restriction that required the property to remain a golf course — and for good reason. The land is next to a city sewage treatment plant.

But during the valley’s housing boom, home builders could charge a lot premium for proximity to odors of excrement and methane. So Walters and the city struck a deal in which he’d pay the city about $7.2 million to lift the deed restriction, which would have immediately made his $900,000 property worth somewhere around $30 million. And to make the land suitable for homes, the city would have to turn around and spend about $5 million of that payment to reduce odors at the plant. The council, led by Walters’ friend and former attorney, Mayor Oscar Goodman, said yes.

The whole thing stunk — and not because of the sewage treatment plant. City staff sat on documents that showed former Public Works Director Richard Goecke might have greased the skids for the transfer of the land and water rights to Walters. Las Vegas police determined Mr. Goecke cost the city millions of dollars and “did commit acts which were likely criminal in nature.”

The Review-Journal’s reporting and editorializing on the subject led to a reconsideration vote. The state’s attorney general, George Chanos, ordered an investigation, and his report didn’t pull punches: “There has been a consistent pattern of political and financial favoritism granted to Mr. Walters’s business entities by the City of Las Vegas.”

Now Walters is back, proposing an offer that might be even worse than his previous one. As reported by the Review-Journal’s James DeHaven, his company submitted a letter to the city dated Nov. 10 that seeks the lifting of the deed restriction on the 128-acre course. According to Walters’ own appraisers, the elimination of that deed restriction would make the golf course worth somewhere around $25 million. For that newfound equity, Walters is offering the city a land transfer worth about $2.1 million.

I’m betting the deal allows Walters to make out even better.

Walters got your land on the cheap so he could eventually sell it for big money. The City Council will hear his plan Wednesday. And who’s leading the council? Mr. Goodman’s wife, Mayor Carolyn Goodman.

Such a feat would be nothing new for Walters, whose land deals with governments always seem to work in his favor. He’s hoping city taxpayers have short memories. The question is, do council members, too?

— Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him this Monday at 10:30 a.m. on “Live and Local — Now!” with Kevin Wall on KBET 790 AM.

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