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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2008

Source of $2M for Seneca County Courthouse is unclear


COLUMBUS - Gov. Ted Strickland confirmed yesterday he is committed to coming up with $2 million to help renovate Tiffin's historic 1884 courthouse if Seneca County voters approve a restoration plan on the March 4 ballot.

But the governor made no commitment as to where he will find it.

All signs, however, point to Ohio's capital budget, a two-year priority list for bricks-and-mortar projects that is primarily funded with borrowed money. That will require legislative approval.

"The governor certainly wants to find the best opportunity to help save the courthouse, but he doesn't want to place artificial constraints on where those resources can come from,'' Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said.

"He has not endorsed a specific source of funding, but he has committed to exploring options for state funding,'' he said. "He's made a personal commitment to Commissioner [Ben] Nutter and the people of Seneca County that if the local community strongly supports this project, he will seek $2 million in state funding.''

A capital budget bill has yet to be introduced, but lawmakers expect to send one to the governor sometime this spring. Meanwhile, voters will go to the polls on March 4 to vote on an $8.5 million bond issue to restore and upgrade the 1884 courthouse in the heart of Tiffin's historic district.

Mr. Nutter, the sole Democrat on the county commission, announced the commitment Thursday at a voters' forum.

"I have all the faith in the world in Governor Strickland to come through with his promise,'' said Commissioner Mike Bridinger, who has been on the side of restoration since he took office.

"I believe in my heart it will be catastrophic if that building goes down," he said. "That's a vital piece of our history, of our community."

Jackie Fletcher, who leads the Save Our Courthouse committee, said she was "thrilled" by the governor's pledge, but she wants more information.

"We don't know where it's coming out of, if it's coming out of the capital improvements budget," she said.

The announcement came too late for the committee to exploit the promise in brochures and advertisements promoting the bond issue. The committee's main message has been to tell voters that, bond issue approval or not, county tax dollars will be spent.

"They're going to spend $6 million whichever way [people] vote," she said.

The commissioners have promised not to collect the additional 0.72-mill property tax if the bond issue is approved but would use existing revenues to pay off the bonds that would be sold.

If voters reject the bond issue, the board has indicated it will move ahead with its original plan to demolish the historic structure.

Mr. Dailey confirmed that the governor is not looking to the first-year Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit program as the source of the $2 million.

That would be a bonus for the county because local preservationists and Commissioner Bridinger also have applied to the state for a $2 million historic preservation tax credit for the courthouse.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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