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Published: Friday, 12/5/2008

Seneca County reviews plan for port to fix courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Seneca County commissioners yesterday got their first look at a draft agreement that would allow the local port authority to renovate the county's 1884 courthouse and lease it back to the county.

The Seneca County Courthouse Development Group also gave commissioners the estimated average monthly lease payments the county would be responsible for if it chooses to transfer ownership of the courthouse to the port authority.

The "best-case scenario," which factored in the receipt of $3.2 million in state and federal grants toward the $7.3 million project, would cost the county $41,715 a month for 20 years.

The "worst-case scenario," which took in the chance the port authority would get no grants, would cost the county $74,412 a month for the same period. "The worst case that we're talking about is $7.3 million, which I don't think is realistic because we do think if we're going to renovate it, we're certainly going to get grants," Jerry Arkebauer, a port authority consultant and member of the development group, told commissioners.

Mr. Arkebauer also presented an estimated average monthly payment of $39,176 over 20 years if the county were to demolish the 1884 courthouse and build a new, smaller one using general obligation bonds.

While the cost to the county would be lower, he said, the county would have to come up with cash up front, would not be able to take advantage of grants, would wind up with a smaller courthouse, and would use up its capacity to issue general obligation bonds.

The board took no action, saying it needed time to study the proposal, ask questions, and get legal advice before making a decision on whether to proceed. Franklin Conaway and other representatives of the development group agreed to return Thursday to answer the commissioners' questions.

"I want to emphasize that this is a draft and we look forward to your ideas, your criticisms, your suggestions with respect to the agreement and everything that's in it," Mr. Conaway said.

He said commissioners would be given more information "early next week" detailing a second proposal that would have a limited liability corporation own and restore the courthouse, then lease it back to the county.

David Carroll, an attorney for the development group, said that option is expected to be the least expensive because a private entity could take advantage of state and federal historic tax credits for the project. Still, the draft agreement presented yesterday pointed out that the county would have to "bear the cost of investigating the LLC alternative together with the cost of investigating and selecting appropriate investors."

Commission President Dave Sauber said County Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., received a copy of the group's proposal Tuesday but did not have time to examine it. After reading his own copy, Mr. Sauber said he was uneasy with a clause that said once the county transferred the courthouse to the port authority and agreed to a six-month lease, that lease would be "automatically" renewable for another six months. The temporary lease period - during which the county could back out of the deal and regain title to the courthouse - was initially described as the time the development group would need to apply for grants and confirm costs and plans for the building space.

"My concern is, in a year, we're still waiting to see if we have grants. We're still waiting to see if we are moving ahead. We are still waiting, and that's not acceptable," Mr. Sauber said.

At a separate meeting yesterday, the Sandusky County-Seneca County-City of Tiffin Port Authority unanimously approved a resolution to participate in the courthouse project if commissioners endorse that option.

"We're looking forward to this project, and whatever you three decide we're ready to go," Tom Miller, a member of the port authority board, told commissioners.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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