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Published: Tuesday, 12/28/2010

Board defers vote on courthouse in Seneca County, awaits new member

TIFFIN -- Dave Sauber and Ben Nutter pledged their support -- and even promised to write personal checks -- for the renovation of Seneca County's 1884 courthouse, but the two county commissioners Monday deferred voting on a new resolution of support for the project.

Mr. Nutter, president of the board of Seneca County commissioners, said he did not think it was appropriate to vote on the resolution until Commissioner-elect Jeff Wagner joins the panel next week. State Rep. Wagner (R., Sycamore), who has expressed skepticism about restoring the courthouse, was elected in November to take the place of Commissioner Mike Bridinger, an ardent supporter of saving the building.

Mr. Sauber said he wants language added to the resolution that gives the county assurances that the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group will collect the $1,645,000 it has said it will raise through private donors and foundations. He does not want the county to be left holding the bag if the capital campaign is not successful.

Franklin Conaway, president of the development group, said he was confident the campaign would exceed its fund-raising goal particularly if commissioners were unanimous in their support of the project.

Mr. Conaway urged the board to approve the resolution Monday, saying a unanimous yes vote would signal its appreciation to federal officials for approving a low-interest $5 million loan for the project last week. It also would demonstrate to foundations and other donors the county's commitment to the project, he said.

Commissioners insisted they were behind the project and encouraged donors to begin writing checks.

"Let me make it clear, I'm for the project," Mr. Nutter said. "I'm in 100 percent because we can do it without raising taxes. It's the most cost-effective way to address our space needs."

Mr. Sauber said he had received a check over the weekend for $1,000 "with a letter by someone that's willing to support the campaign and he's willing to make a commitment now and I will make a commitment also of $1,000, yet I need assurances on the $1.6 [million]."

Tiffin lawyer Dean Henry made the donation, which might be the first tangible contribution to the $7.99 million project. Mr. Henry said in a letter that he was ambivalent about saving the courthouse when the most recent round of discussions began a few years ago. He had worked in the building for years and knew it was in poor condition.

Still, he said, his opinion changed when he learned the historically significant building could be restored to a functional and beautiful courthouse.

"We should not be short-sighted in our approach to this issue," Mr. Henry wrote in a letter to Mr. Sauber. "Too many times in the history of our county, short-term nickels and dimes were 'saved' only to cost us dollars in the future. Wise stewards of public funds look beyond the immediate and make difficult decisions for the citizens they represent that focus on long-term gains."

Commissioners did vote 3-0 to accept a new outline of financing for the courthouse project.

The county's $6.35 million share is to be paid for with a $5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $500,000 from the Ohio Department of Development, $500,000 from the Seneca County Common Pleas Court, and $350,000 from the county. Just last week, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) notified commissioners that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had approved a 30-year loan for the courthouse project at a fixed interest rate of 3.75 percent.

Mr. Conaway said any additional public funds obtained for the project, such as a federal Save America's Treasures grant, would be used to defer the county's share.

Mr. Wagner, who attended the meeting, asked several questions about how the financing would work and how quickly the development group expected to raise private funds.

Mr. Wagner did not say whether or not he supported the courthouse project.

Mr. Nutter said it was "absolutely appropriate" that the board waits to hear Mr. Wagner's position when he attends his first meeting as a county commissioner next Monday.

"Commissioner Bridinger's leaving the board in a couple days, and I don't like doing a resolution that would show this board as being unanimous when the board is going to change and may or may not be unanimous three days later," Mr. Nutter said. "I don't know how that helps you or hurts you. I'm just saying that's the reality we're dealing with."

Mr. Wagner declined to answer questions from a Blade reporter after the meeting saying The Blade was "a tabloid" and he does not talk to tabloids.

In other business Monday, commissioners agreed to move forward with construction of a new 24-bed juvenile detention center at a cost estimated at about $3 million. The project would be paid for with a $1.8 million grant from the Ohio Department of Youth Services and $1.2 million in local funds.

Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Jay Meyer thanked the board for its support of the new center, which will replace a 1950s building that is not handicapped accessible, was not designed as a detention center, has safety issues, and is inefficient to operate.

"This is a great day for our at-risk kids and at-risk families in Seneca County," Judge Meyer said. "I know this is something my Dad started working on years ago back when he was judge, and Judge [Paul] Kutscher worked hard on this too."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com, or 419-724-6129.



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