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Published: Tuesday, 9/11/2007

Commissioners to seek designs for courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Rejecting the suggestion that they were "jumping the gun," Seneca County commissioners voted 2-1 yesterday to advertise for proposals from architects interested in designing a new county courthouse.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger, who favors renovating rather than razing the shuttered 1884 courthouse, voted against the motion, saying he was concerned that the outcome of a court appeal on the issue could halt the demolition of the old courthouse and its replacement.

"My question is, are we jumping the gun?" Mr. Bridinger asked.

"No," Commissioner Ben Nutter quickly answered.

"I think we need to move ahead," Commission President Dave Sauber replied, adding that construction costs continue to rise so there is no point in delaying. Architects will be asked to submit their qualifications by Oct. 16.

"Fundamentally, I'm opposed to delaying the functions of county government based on a frivolous lawsuit," Mr. Nutter added, referring to a complaint filed in Seneca County Common Pleas Court earlier this year by six county residents who want commissioners to preserve and renovate the old courthouse.

Following several days of testimony, the preservationists lost their initial plea for a preliminary injunction that would have prohibited commissioners from tearing down the courthouse. Last week, they filed their intent to appeal in the Lima-based 3rd District Court of Appeals and once again filed motions in Common Pleas Court, asking for an injunction to halt demolition until the appeal can be heard.

Yesterday, visiting Judge Charles Wittenberg denied their latest request for an injunction. Tiffin attorney John Barga said he will refile the request in the appeals court.

"I'm quite surprised by his ruling especially since the defendants didn't oppose the motions and the fact that he stated in his [earlier] judgment entry that irreparable harm is a certainty" if the courthouse is razed, Mr. Barga said.

Seneca County Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., said he was not surprised to see that Judge Wittenberg had denied the motions.

"There's been nothing new since the hearings that the judge would have for purposes of reconsidering his earlier decision," Mr. Egbert said. "He was, I thought, pretty clear in the initial denial of the preliminary injunction that they had several invalid legal claims and the one claim with relevance was based on supposition."

On Aug. 7, the judge dismissed the claim that commissioners did not have statutory authority to demolish the courthouse and ruled that the court did not have the authority to interfere with any decisions they had lawfully made. Judge Wittenberg did allow the plaintiffs to proceed on the claim that commissioners had violated the state's open-meetings law but ruled Aug. 28 that they had not proved any such violation occurred.

Also yesterday, county commissioners decided not to name a citizens' committee to provide input on the design of a new courthouse. Instead, Mr. Nutter suggested that commissioners hire a design firm, then hold two public forums where anyone from the county could look at proposed building designs and give their opinion.

Mr. Sauber said he supported that idea, while Mr. Bridinger said he too thought it was an appropriate way to handle the design phase "if the day comes."

Commissioners also agreed to reduce insurance coverage on the 1884 courthouse from full replacement value of $11.1 million to the actual cash value of $5.4 million.

The change came at the urging of David Brooks, managing director of property and casualty insurance for the County Risk Sharing Authority, an insurance pool operated by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

Mr. Brooks advised them that CORSA could no longer insure the courthouse for replacement value because it had been vacant for so long. He suggested commissioners insure the building at demolition cost of about $1.6 million, but commissioners said they were not comfortable with that while the building still stands.

"I think that's opening us up for a huge loss if something did happen," Mr. Sauber said.



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