A businessman who tried to lease back to the Town of Wabana a water dispensary facility his company mistakenly acquired in a land purchase deal with the town says Wabana Mayor Gary Gosine threatened him during a recent conversation.
Jim Bennett, owner of Beachstone Enterprises Inc., said that when he told Gosine he would shut the water off if the town left him with no choice, Gosine threatened him.
“He said, ‘You shut that down and you are going to need a bullet-proof vest,’” Bennett said. “That threat from the mayor was ridiculous. AlI I did was buy property legally and now they are trying to burn me at the cross.”
Bennett said he doesn’t think the mayor meant it literally — he did not make a complaint to the RCMP — but said it’s another way the town is trying to send him a message that they are going to do everything they can to punish him and his company, and try to run his manufacturing company from the island community.
Gosine, reached in Corner Brook where he is attending the Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador conference, admitted to lashing out at Bennett with those words, but said Bennett approached him at a bad moment and it was an emotional outburst.
“He caught me down to the hospital,” Gosine said. “I don’t think he’s a fan favourite within our town. And for anyone to try to take a drop of water from a citizen, to deny anyone a drop of water. …
“We never sold him the water shed in the first place. It is not his to own. It’s (the town’s) and we now have it in the hands of our lawyer.”
Beachstone Enterprises had purchased the old fire hall property from the town to use for its manufacturing of cabinets and furniture. When the company received the deed to the property, it discovered the purchase included the town’s nearly $400,000 Advanced Drinking Water System that is housed in a building next to the old fire hall. The system is described as a small-scale water treatment system that pumps and treats water from the municipal supply and stores the water for residents to collect at their convenience.
The system was installed by the town a couple of years ago, cost-shared 90/10 by the provincial government and the town.
In July, Beachstone angered the council when it sent a lease offer document to the town for access to the water system. The terms called for “rent” of $3,000 per month, a $50 per-day late fee should the rent not be paid on time and a security deposit of $2,500.
The town’s position was that neither side intended the water system be included in the sale, and the town asked Bennett to sign a deed of rectification to return the system to the town.
When Bennett refused, Gosine said all options were on the table to reclaim the water system for the residents of Bell Island, including taking the case to Newfoundland Supreme Court and expropriation.
Gosine said Thursday the legal work is ongoing.
Bennett said that since the issue developed he has been ridiculed on social media by many residents of Bell Island and accused of being “money hungry” for trying to lease the system back to the town.
Bennett said residents are not being given all the information.
He said he has tried on numerous occasions to get a meeting with the town, and with local MHA David Brazil, to try to work out a fair solution.
“No one has talked to us since this problem. No one came to a meeting. No one is willing to talk about a solution,” Bennett said.
“All we’ve been trying to do is to give the darn thing back. But now that deal is dead. We’ve been completely embarrassed by trying to help and by the reaction we’ve gotten.”
Gosine, however, said he has spoken with Bennett on more than one occasion.
“He has tried to get about three or four different offers out of us,” Gosine said. “And our lawyer said to us, make no comment. So, it is in the lawyer’s hands right now.”
Bennett said a concern for him and his company is that of liability. He said if someone has an accident at the water dispensary, his company could be sued and so he has to pay for liability insurance.
“The only reason we sent them that original (lease offer) letter … because we had been trying to contact them before to let them know they have to pay us money for insurance, but they wouldn’t even return phone calls,” he said. “So we knew that would get their attention, and it did.”
Bennett said he had the land surveyed again to ensure everything was “on the up and up.” He said his company “100 per cent” owns the land and the water facility building.
“My lawyer said that what I should do is give it back and we’ve tried to give it back for three months,” Bennett said.
“What I feel is going to happen is that … we need to shut it down to get a reaction. And then you will find David Brazil jump out into the light and try to save the day or try to make me out a villain or something like that. That’s how these people work.
“The public doesn’t really know the whole truth. These people had every opportunity to sit with us, and talk with us. They are just not being responsible to the people of Bell Island.”
Gosine said the whole fuss is the result of an extra “s” in the original sale document, as in “buildings” instead of “building.”
He said the town still acts as if it controls the water dispensary in that it is paying for liability insurance, for any breakdown repairs and other needed maintenance.
He said some town residents became worried on Tuesday when the water system was temporarily shut down. But that wasn’t by Bennett doing it, he said. The town had shut it down so it could replenish the water tank.
“So it wasn’t shut down by him,” Gosine said. “If he shuts down the water he’ll be charged with something. It’s not his to turn off.
“We are hoping to hear something from our lawyer soon on this.”