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Published: Tuesday, 11/22/2011

Higher authority

Two power-tripping politicians in Seneca County are showing their contempt for their constituents, their state, and the past and future of their county in their mulish determination to tear down the county’s irreplaceable courthouse. Before they can be allowed to swing the wrecking ball, Gov. John Kasich needs to back up his support for preserving the courthouse with meaningful action.

As soon as Tuesday, the Seneca County Board of Commissioners could sign a contract to demolish the 1884 Beaux-Arts courthouse in downtown Tiffin. Within 60 days afterward, the courthouse site would become a empty-lot eyesore in the heart of the community.

Commissioners Jeff Wagner, a Republican, and Ben Nutter, a Democrat, insist that their dogmatic enthusiasm for destroying the now-vacant building quickly is grounded in economic necessity. In fact, demolition is the most costly — and unnecessary — option.

At a time of fiscal austerity, the county will have to spend $373,000 to knock down the courthouse. By contrast, a diligent and tireless group of economic-development specialists and historic preservationists has offered a credible plan to use private contributions and existing federal, state, and local funding to restore the courthouse to its former splendor.

The group offers to pay the building’s maintenance and insurance costs while it is mothballed, and to guarantee the county’s debt service on a federal loan for the project. So leaving the courthouse alone for now will cost the county, and its taxpayers, nothing. But the commission majority defiantly ignores that plan.

Destroying the building will force the county ultimately to build a permanent courthouse, although it doesn’t have the money for a new structure. Meanwhile, the county is squeezing its courthouse activities into an annex and other makeshift facilities that are not accessible to disabled citizens — a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

This month, Mr. Kasich eloquently urged the commissioners to make “good use of this solid, if long neglected, building.” But after Mr. Wagner and Mr. Nutter voted to repudiate the governor, a spokesman for Mr. Kasich offered the shoulder-shrugging observation that “it is the job of local officials to decide these issues and to take responsibility for them.”

Not necessarily. Although the courthouse is a county facility, the county court is part of a statewide judicial system mandated by the Ohio Constitution.

Mr. Kasich and the Ohio Supreme Court could demand that Seneca County immediately produce its plan to meet its legal duty to provide permanent, adequate courthouse facilities. If county officials fail to do so, the governor and high court would have ample justification to preserve the renovation option, and thus to halt the travesty of demolition.

Mr. Nutter accuses the governor of hypocrisy in calling for the courthouse to be saved while he has cut state aid to local governments. Mr. Kasich could refute such phony blame-shifting by agreeing to review the state’s contribution to the renovation plan when revenues rise, beyond the $500,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Development that already is part of the package.

But if the commissioners continue to insist on ignoring the governor, he could — and should — be skeptical of further discretionary state aid to Seneca County while the current cabal is in power.

The governor has urged local governments to look to their own resources, rather than the state, for the money they need. A renovated Seneca County courthouse would be the catalyst for an economic revival in Tiffin that would attract private business and tourism, create jobs, and boost tax revenue — the sort of outside-the-box thinking Mr. Kasich extols.

Seeking to justify his vote last week to approve a bid to raze the courthouse, Mr. Wagner whined to angry preservation advocates: “If you want to hate me because of that, I understand.” But this issue has never been about “hating” a self-important, small-time politician.

It’s about preserving Ohio’s history and using it as the basis for future growth. Mr. Wagner and Mr. Nutter are too myopic to understand that. It’s time for Governor Kasich to focus their vision.



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