State Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) wants counties to have more flexibility in how they maintain public buildings. With deep cuts in state and federal aid,and an economy that continues to slog along at a snail's pace, counties could benefit from his lease-buyback legislation.
Gov. John Kasich says local governments should be more creative about how they balance their budgets. When he and the Republican General Assembly pushed a bill to restrict the ability of public unions to collectively bargain, they said it would give local government an important tool to reduce costs. Mr. Wagoner has proposed a creative option and useful tool for counties to upgrade outdated public buildings without incurring long-term debt.
Mr. Wagoner's legislation would allow counties to sell public buildings to private developers, who would modernize the buildings to county specifications. The county would lease the space back from the developer and have the option of buying the building back when the developer has made a profit, in no more than 40 years.
Public universities and regional transit authorities already have this ability, so there are models to demonstrate to lawmakers the benefits and potential pitfalls. Lucas County has been the concept's primary promoter, because it would like to use this option to renovate buildings housing county agencies at 3210 Monroe St. and 701-711 Adams St., both in Toledo. The County Commissioners Association of Ohio also supports the legislation.
The lease-buyback option also could help Lucas County officials restore the former Lucas County sheriff's residence at Jackson Street and Spielbusch Avenue. The three-story Renaissance Revival building is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it has suffered from neglect in recent years.
And the bill would provide Seneca County the means to restore its 1884 courthouse, if the county commissioners could be convinced to give up their stubborn desire to tear down that county's most historic structure.
Care will need to be taken that private ownership of public spaces doesn't make officials and visitors less secure, restrict public access to offices and officials, or make government less transparent. If selling the buildings puts them back on the property tax rolls -- an open question -- so much the better.
Mr. Wagoner's proposal had been included in the state budget debated last spring, but it was omitted from the budget bill approved by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Kasich on July 1.
Lawmakers can and should rectify that omission before another piece of Ohio history is allowed to crumble or be turned into rubble in the name of austerity.