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Published: Friday, 10/26/2007

Courthouse razing delayed; Seneca County leaders defer demolition pact until March 17

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN A week after Gov. Ted Strickland asked Seneca County commissioners to refrain from doing anything irreversible to the county s 1884 courthouse, commissioners yesterday called a timeout on demolition plans.

In a resolution passed by a 2-1 vote, the board said it would not take any irreparable action before March 17 so state officials would have a reasonable period of time to determine how much state funding was available to help renovate the courthouse. The commissioners specifically agreed to not award a demolition contract before March 17.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger, who supports renovation, ironically was the one who opposed the resolution. He said he was uncomfortable with the deadline.

I admire us for looking and listening to Columbus, however, to my understanding, the state budget will not be fixed until June or possibly July of 2008, Mr. Bridinger said.

Mr. Nutter said he was confident the governor would have a good idea of how much financial support Seneca County could count on by March. And, he said, regardless of how much state support is offered, he would want to ask county voters to approve using local tax dollars for a renovation project, something that could be done on the March 4 primary ballot.

That set off a lengthy discussion on how the county could pay for its share of a renovation project.

Mr. Bridinger said he would not want to go to voters but would prefer to earmark 0.25 percent of the county s sales tax for the courthouse, which he feels is a more fair tax than a property tax. He pointed out that commissioners voted in February to make an emergency 0.5-percent sales tax permanent without seeking voter approval.

Commissioner Dave Sauber said he had discussed financing options with the county s bond counsel and was told the county could get a better interest rate if bonds issued by the county were backed by a voter-approved property tax. He said the county would not have to collect that tax, but could pay off the debt with revenue from the sales tax already in place.

If it fails and we find it was really close, we could put it back on in November, Mr. Sauber said, reiterating that he wanted to solicit bids for demolition so voters would know the true cost to raze the old courthouse.

We may find demolition will cost $1.5 million. That $1.5 million could be put toward renovation, he said, adding, I don t think anyone on this board wants to tear down the courthouse.

Mr. Nutter said he would not choose the more costly option of renovation without getting voter approval.

While both Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber said the March 17 deadline could be extended if necessary, Mr. Bridinger still voted against the resolution.

Mr. Bridinger then read a letter signed by four of the six county residents who have sued commissioners in an attempt to stop demolition. The letter asked that commissioners put demolition plans on hold until the state budget is finalized in June.

We are now in a position to unite our community and build a consensus about the preservation of our heritage and the positive impact restoration will have on economic development in our community, they wrote. This offer of assistance from the state government may be a win-win-win opportunity for everyone.

Mr. Nutter responded that commissioners agreed to delay demolition plans and that he did not want a special interest group that is costing the county money to defend its lawsuit to dictate policy about the courthouse.

Preservationists attending the meeting had mixed reactions to the commissioners decision to postpone demolition for now.

It s good as far as it goes, said Jackie Fletcher, one of the six plaintiffs. But it isn t going to give the state the respect we were hoping for because they will not have a chance to finalize anything.

Jim Rhodes, who frequently speaks out in favor of saving the courthouse, said commissioners want to put something on the ballot before they even know what funding assistance might be available.

It shows they are not willing to cooperate, he said. They want to do it their way.

Rayella Engle, who also is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told the board that asking voters to approve a tax but promising not to collect it was very confusing and, in her opinion, an end-run to try to get the people to defeat a tax so you have another reason to tear the courthouse down.

Mrs. Engle urged the commissioners to use this time to apply for grants, tax credits, low-interest loans, and other assistance to renovate the courthouse. By not doing so, she said, they are sending the message they don t want to save the courthouse.

Mr. Nutter said after the meeting that delaying demolition plans and putting the issue to a vote of the people would give commissioners some definitive answers.

Now no one can say it was just two commissioners making this decision for the whole county, he said.

Shortly after commissioners approved the resolution delaying demolition, James Schmidt of MKC Associates of Mansfield, talked to them about demolition bids.

MKC was hired on Monday to prepare bid specifications and drawings.

Mr. Schmidt said he expected to have proposed bidding documents to the commissioners by mid November and potentially could advertise for bids in December and open them in early January.

Mr. Sauber suggested MKC aim for early February for a bid opening and ask that bids be good for 60 days, which would take the county into April. He said he was eager to find out what it would cost to raze the building, but he did not want to have to go out for bids twice if the county winds up demolishing the building.

In other action, the board agreed to boost by $10,000 the $100,000 already allocated for Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor, a Columbus law firm representing it in two lawsuits involving demolition of the courthouse.

The commissioners had been expected to allocate an additional $15,000, but that would have put the county over the limit state law allows commissioners to spend for outside legal services either for a particular matter or on an annual basis. Commissioners are not permitted to spend an amount that exceeds the county prosecutor s annual salary, which in Seneca County is $112,552.

Mr. Bridinger said he asked that the extra allocation be reduced from $15,000 to $10,000 to keep the amount under the legal limit.

Also yesterday, Tiffin attorney John Barga, who represents the six residents suing the county, filed a notice in Seneca County Common Pleas Court that he intends to depose several members of the local media, as well as former Commissioner Joseph Schock and Paul Harrison, executive director of the Seneca Regional Planning Commission.

He also intends to question Robert Weaver, editor of the Tiffin Advertiser-Tribune; Christopher Dixon, publisher of the Advertiser-Tribune, and Sandra Whitta, a reporter with the Fostoria Review Times.

Mr. Barga also asked visiting Judge Charles Wittenberg to schedule a hearing on his motion to disqualify Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor, the law firm hired by commissioners to represent them in the courthouse lawsuit.

Mr. Barga contends the firm was not lawfully employed by the board and that the county prosecutor is legally bound to defend the board.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.



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