Vander Doelen: Lawsuits threaten region
David Cooke, co-chair planning and services steering committee, Janice Kaffer, president and CEO Hotel Dieu Grace Healthcare and David Musyj, president and CEO Windsor Regional Hospital, (left to right) go before Essex County Council to ask for a levy in Essex on Wednesday, December 16, 2015. Tyler Brownbridge / Windsor Star
It s hard to believe so many Windsor residents are rooting for the success of two major lawsuits against the city and a local hospital planning committee. Either of the lawsuits could do serious damage to the city and the regional economy if the plaintiffs win. Yet a large number of people are cheering them both on as though the suits constitute a harmless sport. The first case is the infamous bingo fee lawsuit, which has been grinding through the courts for seven years. If Windsor and fellow defendant the Town of Tecumseh lose, property taxpayers in the two communities could be on the hook for up to $80 million.
The second court case is kind of a sore losers lawsuit: five landowners known collectively as the GEM Group are attempting to force the region s residents to buy some high-priced land from them for a proposed $2.5-billion hospital. Everybody wants to know the names behind the GEM Group, which is suing for $10 million. Who would sue a volunteer committee trying to do the right thing for the public? And I ll list them later in this column. Back to the bingo first. The bingo lawsuit was filed by a group of former Windsor and Tecumseh bingo hall owners and one charity the ALS Society of Essex County, later of the Ice Bucket Challenge fame. They filed the class action in 2008, alleging that the licensing fees the city and town charged the industry to do business were too high, and therefore constitute an illegal tax.
At the top of the list is Site V located behind the Home Depot on Tecumseh Road East. The location was submitted by GEM Properties Inc. and scored the most points at 904. Nick Brancaccio / Windsor Star
The second highest scoring site was at County Road 42 and the 9th Concession in Windsor, Ont. The site was submitted by Shawn O’Keefe and scored 860 points.
The third highest scoring site was at 1600 Lauzon Rd. in Windsor, Ont. The site was submitted by Farhi Holdings Corporation and scored 845 points. Nick Brancaccio / Windsor Star
The fourth highest scoring site was at Howard Avenue and Laurier Parkway in LaSalle, Ont. The site was submitted by Howard Business Centre Inc. and scored 750 points. Nick Brancaccio / Windsor Star
The fifth highest scoring site was at 4793 Eighth Concession in Windsor, Ont. The site was submitted by a person or corporation that has been blacked out for anonymity. It scored 728 points. Nick Brancaccio / Windsor Star
It s a dubious case in a province where the fees for nearly every form of licence are far too high. Eighty bucks for a new provincial health card? Are they kidding? But nobody ever claimed Ontario laws make total sense. The bingo industry is pretty much dead now. But back in the day two dozen bingo halls were doing a roaring, 24-hour-per-day business, raking in estimated $25 million a year at its peak. Some 900 local charities were part of the racket, since the profits could allegedly only go to non-profits. In reality the industry was a swashbuckling free-for-all in which nearly any group claiming to be a charity could dip into the river of money.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of competition for the licences. But once a group had one the money just rolled in. And they could spend it on nearly anything: uniforms for a sports team, trips to Europe, even beer and pizza every Friday night at the Lion s Head Tavern, if that s what your charity liked to do. The casinos in Windsor and Detroit and tighter border controls eventually killed the golden goose. And now the ghosts of the local industry are suing in a Hail Mary attempt to make one last big score. If they win, the $80 million would be taken straight out of the pockets of local families, raising everybody s property taxes for years to come.
A billboard is shown on University Avenue West in Windsor, Ont., on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, which is part of the City of Windsor and Town of Tecumseh s campaign to urge local charities to opt out of the class-action lawsuit involving bingo fees. Dan Janisse / Windsor Star
It is somewhat understandable that a group of opportunistic hyenas would exploit class-action law in this fashion. What is incomprehensible to me is that they are being cheered on by so many local residents. The protester class, I called them recently. What kind of person roots against the financial interests of their own community, and takes the side of obvious shakedown artists? Many of the same protesters also seem to be rooting for the GEM lawsuit from the jilted property owners who tried to sell a plot of land behind the Home Depot store on Tecumseh Road East for the new mega-hospital.
According to the Freedom of Information requests released by the hospital committee a few weeks ago, the people behind the GEM lawsuit include the Hearn Group, Inc., the well-known logistics company headed by Don Hearn of LaSalle; GEM Properties Inc., with George Papp of Papp Plastics named as principal; and three owners of smaller properties with Tecumseh Road addresses: Steve Vrablik, 6366 Tecumseh Rd. E.; the estate of Anne Sottosante and Marilyn McGuiness, executor, 6424 Tecumseh; and the estate of Caroline Messmer, which owns 6700 Tecumseh. The bulk of the GEM site is believed to be owned by the Hearns and the Papps. Interestingly, their property was also put forward as a potential site for the WFCU Centre years ago. It was turned down then as being too expensive as well. It s hard to see how adding a $10-million lawsuit will make it more affordable. Neither lawsuit makes logical sense. Neither appears to be in the public interest. But the people cheering them on are utterly baffling to me.