Lucas County and other Ohio counties have come up with a creative way to maintain county-owned buildings despite deep cuts in state aid to local governments. But they need the cooperation of state lawmakers to make it happen.
Last year, state Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) sponsored a bill that would have allowed a county to sell public buildings to private developers, then lease them back. The developer would be responsible for maintaining and improving the buildings, which the county could buy back when the lease ended in 30 to 40 years.
Mr. Wagoner’s bill failed, but resurfaced this year as a House measure sponsored by state Reps. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo) and Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township). It sailed through the House with little opposition, but could run into rougher waters in the Senate.
Lucas County officials embraced the idea as a way to renovate public buildings without having to borrow large sums up front. Other counties agreed, and the concept won the backing of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.
Two local sites that could benefit from the lease-buyback option are the Jobs and Family Services building at 3210 Monroe St., and the building that houses offices of children services, mental health recovery, and child support enforcement at 701-711 Adams St.
It also could be used to restore the three-story Renaissance revival building at Jackson Street and Spielbusch Avenue in downtown Toledo that Lucas County sheriffs and the Sixth District Court of Appeals once called home. The 1897 structure is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it has been vacant for a decade and has suffered the ravages of tight budgets in recent years.
Lease-buyback might not always be the best option. It’s not preferable to counties being able to afford to maintain their buildings. Care must be taken that private ownership doesn’t affect security, public access to offices and officials, or government transparency.
There are questions about whether prevailing-wage rules would apply to the buildings after they’re sold. And it’s unclear whether the buildings would be subject to property taxes.
Still, lease-buyback is not a bad idea when the alternative is allowing historic buildings to deteriorate through neglect. An engineering study four years ago estimated it would cost $6 million to $10 million to renovate the Job and Family Services building. The bill undoubtedly would be higher today, and will continue to rise.
One of Gov. John Kasich’s favorite pieces of advice is that local governments need to find creative ways to stretch their budgets. Public universities and regional transit authorities already have this authority. Counties should have this tool in their toolbox as well.