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Ohio counties make courthouse preservation a priority

Shrinking budgets make it tough for renovation plans

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    Seneca County's 1884 courthouse site sits barren. Commissioners voted 2-1 to pay $408,000 to raze the historic building earlier this year rather than restore it, a task that would have cost $8 million and involved a low-interest federal loan and the sale of bonds. The county still needs space for juvenile and probate courts and still has no plan.

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The Paulding County Courthouse, in Paulding, is the beneficiary of a heritage fund established in 2009. The fund accepts donations and conducts fund-raisers to build up cash to earn interest income to aid with courthouse maintenance.


Second of two parts

PAULDING, Ohio -- If Stan Searing had his way, the state of Ohio would help counties shoulder the cost of preserving their historic courthouses, and counties like his -- where residents have started raising money for the cause -- would be first in line.

He and his wife, Barb, created the Paulding County Courthouse Heritage Fund in 2009. It accepts donations and conducts fund-raisers to build a pot of money that one day will create enough interest income to help county commissioners with maintenance projects at the 1886 courthouse in downtown Paulding.


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"It's growing. It's getting there," Mr. Searing, a former county administrator, said. "At first, we said there might be enough to polish a doorknob. Now, it's getting large enough to replace the door."

"Like any endowment, the idea is to encourage it and allow it to grow for the future," he said. "It's probably not something Barb or I will see becoming too huge in our lifetimes, but we think the courthouse is so valued by the residents of the county that it eventually will grow to assist in maintaining that beautiful building."

With money tight at the state and local levels, some counties say they cannot afford the expensive repairs their courthouses need.

Others are getting creative about finding ways to pay for renovation. Few expect the state to come in and offer financial assistance as Texas has done. Since 1999, some 62 Texas counties have gotten matching grants from the state to restore their courthouses.

"I don't think there's any money anywhere," said state Rep. Rex Damschroder, (R., Fremont), whose district includes part of Seneca County, which in January became the first Ohio county since 1974 to deliberately tear down a historic courthouse.

Money -- of the lack thereof -- was cited as the main reason that two of three commissioners voted for demolition, which cost Seneca County nearly $408,000. The county still needs space for its probate and juvenile courts, and still has no plan to create that space.

"I got my marriage license in that building 40 years ago," Mr. Damschroder said. "There's a lot of history that goes on in a building like that. [The demolition] really hurt me, but I'm not a Seneca County commissioner. I'm not going to fault them."

He said more than state funding, the effort to save and restore historic courthouses needs willpower.

"It's a mind-set, No. 1, that people have to get into if they want to save our heritage and history," Mr. Damschroder said. "I think once the desire is there to do it, people will figure out a way to do it."

Courthouses of Ohio: Green markers indicate standing courthouses, yellow means endangered, and red means demolished.

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Franklin Conaway, a preservation consultant from Chillicothe, Ohio, who spearheaded the effort to save the Seneca County Courthouse, takes that notion a step further.

"I think there's a much bigger and deeper problem," he said. "And that is the failure of our educational system to teach the importance of architecture in general and our courthouses in particular being representative of the fundamentals of a free society and how a common memory is established by developing a respect for what previous generations produced and additionally how important it is that we understand why previous generations spent so much money and time and energy in constructing such beautiful and important buildings."


Seneca County's 1884 courthouse site sits barren. Commissioners voted 2-1 to pay $408,000 to raze the historic building earlier this year rather than restore it, a task that would have cost $8 million and involved a low-interest federal loan and the sale of bonds. The county still needs space for juvenile and probate courts and still has no plan.

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When Robert Batchelor became Coschocton County Common Pleas Court judge in January, 2011, he took a good look at the court's docket and filing fees before deciding how the courts might help restore and maintain the county's 1875 courthouse.

Since 2001, Ohio law has allowed the courts to charge fees designated for a special-project fund, which among other things may be used for "the rehabilitation of existing facilities."

Judge Batchelor raised the fees, which he sees as a "user tax" for the courts.

"It was my opinion, and still is, that we serve a lot of corporations from outside of Coshocton County -- businesses that file foreclosures, collections actions -- that need the courthouse as much as the residents of Coshocton County, so that's really who's paying the new special-projects fee," he said.

The fees raise about $35,000 a year for this rural, east-central Ohio county, which has just 36,000 residents.

"I might spend $10,000 or $20,000 at a time to deal with some immediate cosmetic needs," the judge said, explaining he recently had the court's original leather juror chairs reupholstered. "This takes time and it takes money. This could work into hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we're doing it little by little, room by room, because that's what we can afford. That's OK. That's the way we used to do things in America."

Counties that have renovated their courthouse without raising taxes and, in some cases, without even borrowing, said that's just how they did it.

Ottawa County Commissioner Steve Arndt said his county spent nearly a decade and close to $7 million restoring and updating its 1901 courthouse in Port Clinton.

"We did it from 1997 through 2005, and we paid as we went, similar to what you do at home," he said. "You identify what needs to be done and start chipping away. We did this, and we have no debt on it."

Fulton County restored and updated its historic courthouse in Wauseon between 1994 and 2004 one project at a time with money from the general fund, County Administrator Vond Hall said. In 2000, all county offices except the courts were moved out of the building into a new administration building next door.

"For almost a century and a half, the history of this county has been centered in this building and its court system," Mr. Hall said. "There are certainly no plans to do anything but maintain and use this historic structure that is owned by the county residents, used by the county residents, and maintained for the county residents."

Stan Graves, who headed the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, said counties awarded state grants to help restore their courthouses must come up with a portion of matching money. Some tap foundations and local corporations. Some do it the old-fashioned way with bake sales and chili cookoffs.

Most importantly, he said, all must have a long-term plan for renovation starting with projects that are going to save money down the road, such as new windows, a good roof, and other energy savings. "Counties need to look at these buildings in a systematic, long-term way with a phased-in approach," he said.

Stark County's Beaux Arts-style courthouse in downtown Canton had not been well-maintained for decades when commissioners undertook an $11 million renovation in 1992. To help pay for the project, they enlisted the support of charitable foundations.


The 1901 Ottawa County Courthouse in Port Clinton underwent a restoration costing close to $7 million, starting in 1997 and ending in 2005. County Commissioner Steve Arndt said the project was paid for as it went along, 'similar to what you do at home.'


"The foundations contributed the majority of the funding -- approximately $6 million -- for the renovation," said Stark County Court Administrator Marc Warner, adding that the courthouse today "is a beautiful, historic building."

Darke County in west central Ohio removed the clock tower on its courthouse in the 1970s because it was in poor repair, and a citizens committee raised enough money to have a replica tower installed in its place.

Other counties have taken out loans to get major work done at their courthouses, though some have raised taxes for the work, and a few have been successful asking voters to pay for the projects.

Henry County voters approved a 1.4-mill bond issue in 1995 that raised $4.4 million to restore their well-loved courthouse in downtown Napoleon.

In 1994, Miami County commissioners raised the local sales tax 0.25 percent for five years to pay for $4.4 million in interior and exterior renovations at the county's 1888 courthouse in Troy, Ohio.

Lake County in the northeast corner of Ohio took out a 25-year loan to finance a $13 million expansion and rehabilitation of its 1907 courthouse in 2005.

Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb said his county will issue bonds and use some federal stimulus money to pay for $4.7 million in improvements at its 1876 courthouse in Newark, Ohio, and other county buildings. The project, which got under way this summer, includes major upgrades to the heating and air-conditioning systems.

Two Ohio counties -- Fayette and Columbiana -- tapped the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program for low-interest loans to help pay for renovations at their courthouses. Seneca County had intended to borrow $5 million through the USDA at 3.75 percent interest as part of an $8 million plan to restore its courthouse before a souring economy capped off with a drastic reduction in state funding to local governments killed the project.

Dave Douglas, community program director for the USDA's Rural Development program in Ohio, said the loan program is restricted to communities with populations of 20,000 or less. Tiffin, with a population of 17,900, qualified, and the agency was satisfied that Seneca County could repay the money over 30 years.

"I think we're a viable option," Mr. Douglas said. "We do have funding, and our interest rates are fairly low right now. We can usually do a good term for a courthouse because the life of the facility is so long."

Still, county commissioners across the state said they may love their courthouses, but they can't always justify using badly needed dollars on buildings rather than services or employees.

Carroll County Commissioner Jeff Ohler said the bell tower on his county's 1885 courthouse needs to be replaced or refurbished -- something estimated to cost around $1.4 million. Just tearing it off could cost $400,000, he said.

"I'm sure there will be some people who, if we tore it off, would say, 'Why would you do that?' Our response is if we didn't, we'd probably have to go out and ask for some kind of tax levy," he said. "I hate to tax people for something that doesn't generate a service or income for the county."

As Mr. Ohler put it, some things are nice. Some things are necessary.

"If we had a lot of money, would we consider replacing it? Possibly, but by the same token personally if you had $1.4 million, is it the best use of county funds to use it for that or better to develop infrastructure in the county to attract jobs?" Mr. Ohler asked. "It's always a fine line."

In Hamilton, Ohio, where Butler County moved nearly all its offices and courts out of the 1889 courthouse over the years, Probate Judge Randy T. Rogers has stayed put.

"I was given the option and I wanted to stay in the courthouse. This is a great building," said Judge Rogers, who is chairman of the Butler County Courthouse Restoration Committee and president of the Butler County Courthouse Historical Society.

The historical society is a nonprofit agency based loosely on the Supreme Court Historical Society. "It is a vehicle that if someone was of the mind to, they could contribute to the restoration of the courthouse," Judge Rogers said.

He said the courthouse, like most, needs ongoing work, but the restoration committee has prioritized its needs and the county has been addressing them one at a time. Commissioners recently spent $38,000 to replace the interior lighting in the building's rotunda. Restoring some deteriorating exterior steps and the building's sandstone facade are among the next projects in line.

In Paulding County, Mr. Searing said private dollars can't and shouldn't do government's job, but fund-raising can help, in part by demonstrating public support.

"It's far easier for county commissioners to spend scarce dollars if indeed you can demonstrate there are people out there who think it's important," he said. "If you wait until the thing has been closed for six, seven years and the commissioners are considering tearing it down and then you decide to raise money, well, where were you?"

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: or 419-724-6129.

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