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Published: Friday, 12/4/2009

Commissioners say they will release money to Seneca County Courthouse group

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Emphasizing that they were not spending tax dollars, the Seneca County commissioners yesterday said they would release $80,000 to the group planning the renovation of the 1884 courthouse.

The money, which was placed in escrow by private sources, would provide partial reimbursement for the architectural and engineering work performed by the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group during the last year and a half.

"For the record, everyone needs to understand - our unions and everyone else that has to cut 10 percent out of their budget this year - that these funds are in an escrow account that we are unable to use. It's just sitting there," Commissioner Dave Sauber said. "Because I know I'm going to hear it: 'You guys spent more money.' Well, we didn't."

In September, 2008, the development group raised $80,000 from private sources to compensate the county for money already spent on plans to demolish and replace the courthouse. The money was placed in an escrow account at a local bank with the agreement that the county would receive it only if it renovated the courthouse.

Commissioners Mike Bridinger and Ben Nutter said they had no problem with transferring the money to the development group led by Franklin Conaway because it had done considerable work at no cost to the county.

"It's very expensive to figure out all the alternatives, and the taxpayer really wasn't on the hook for it so I would thank you, Mr. Conaway, and your group for engineering that," Mr. Nutter said. "I wouldn't have thought that it would have been possible a year and half ago when we were stitting in meetings with the Architectural Review Board."

Last year, Tiffin's review board denied Seneca County's application to demolish the downtown landmark saying it needed to explore all alternatives first.

Sauber Sauber
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"I didn't think you would be successful, but I certainly understand and appreciate the amount of work that was done for free on behalf of the taxpayer for what is considered to be a significant architectural building," Mr. Nutter told Mr. Conaway. "Hopefully at the end of day it will allow us to maintain our sense of cultural identity and still do it for less money than it would have cost us to remove and replace it."

Mr. Conaway yesterday submitted more than $334,000 in invoices for work performed so far, but said the group is willing to charge Seneca County $130,347.17 because the people involved believe in the project. The Columbus architectural firm of Schooley Caldwell Associates, for example, submitted an invoice for $50,143 for work that normally would have cost $150,000.

"The greatly reduced cost reflects the commitment of the professionals involved in developing the project to provide an example for others of the multiple benefits of restoration and renovation as compared to a new construction alternative," Mr. Conaway said.

If commissioners formally approve using the $80,000 in escrow to reimburse the development group, the group would only be seeking $50,000 more to cover its costs, Mr. Conaway said. It had originally proposed a reimbursement agreement for up to $250,000.

Commissioners yesterday also authorized Mr. Sauber to sign an application next week for a low-interest loan for the courthouse project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mr. Nutter said applying for the loan doesn't commit the financially strapped county to anything.

"We're getting a considerable amount of feedback from people who are concerned that we're going to borrow a large sum of money at a time when we're laying people off and that type of thing," Mr. Nutter said. "We're trying to explain to them that we're just positioning ourselves so that when and if the revenue improves we can take advantage of certain opportunities."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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