2 commissioners firm on razing courthouse

The Seneca County Courthouse in Tiffin, Ohio.
The Seneca County Courthouse in Tiffin, Ohio.

TIFFIN -- Despite pressing budget problems, two of three Seneca County commissioners said Thursday the county should reject a no-cost plan to mothball its historic 1884 courthouse and instead spend an estimated $400,000 to demolish it.

Commissioners Ben Nutter and Jeff Wagner held firm to their position that it's time to remove the downtown landmark. Board Chairman Dave Sauber once again said he's unwilling to spend that much of the county's badly needed funds on demolition. He favors the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group's proposal to lease the building for $1 a year, pay all costs to mothball and insure it, replace windows to improve its appearance, and create a maintenance fund for expenses.

"At this time, with our budget situation, I'm not willing to spend those funds and turn around and ask people to give up their jobs -- layoffs or however we deem to balance the budget -- to tear down that building when someone is willing to work with us with a lease agreement and pick up all the costs associated with that building, and we would not have to expend any general funds," Mr. Sauber said.

Mr. Nutter responded that no county employees have been laid off so far, and the county has money set aside in a courthouse fund that would pay for demolition.

"That's one-time, stale money, so budgeting that money to something like reoccurring salaries is not wise financial practice, and I won't do that either," Mr. Nutter said.

Although relatively silent during the hourlong meeting with the development group, Mr. Nutter said later that the proposed lease contained "very kind offers from some very good people," but that he feared the county would be "pot-committed" after the group spent money on windows and other expenses.

"All of the things that the group has presented are very important, but the underlying factor here are the economics have changed," he said. "While those things are important, they pale in comparison to the long-term stability of Seneca County in providing services like justice, law enforcement, EMS, and other services to its citizens."

During the meeting, David Carroll, legal counsel for the development group, asked commissioners what public purpose it served to spend nearly a half-million dollars to raze a building that would cost $22 million to replace. The county will end up with a very expensive park, he said.

"Total cost to taxpayers -- about $22.5 million for a park," he said.

Mr. Carroll presented an amended-lease proposal that allows commissioners to terminate the lease after five years if they determine it's in the public interest to do so. The previous proposal said the lease only could be terminated if commissioners intended to renovate the courthouse.

Mr. Carroll told commissioners he was willing to work with County Prosecutor Derek DeVine to settle on an agreement that benefits the county and those who want to preserve the courthouse.

Mr. Sauber directed County Administrator Stacy Wilson to ask Mr. DeVine to review the amended-lease agreement.

While Mr. Nutter and Mr. Wagner said they were OK with Mr. DeVine reading it over, both said they did not think any changes in the document would change their minds.

Ironically, Schooley Caldwell Associates' design for the courthouse's renovation received a merit award Wednesday night from the Columbus chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Franklin Conaway, president of the development group, told commissioners.

"That award was presented because this plan meets and exceeds every standard set forth by the Ohio Supreme Court to meet current court needs," he said.

Pleas by the public to reconsider demolition seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Franco Ruffini, deputy State Historic Preservation officer, who attended the meeting, said afterward that the commissioners' attitude is puzzling.

"I echo the whole question of what is the public good that comes from demolition at this point, particularly with regard to the pocketbook? What is the benefit? There is none," he said. "It's like paying to throw something away."

Mr. Conaway declined to comment on his strategy, saying only that he would be back before the board Tuesday.

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