TIFFIN — Before the public had a chance to make a final plea for Seneca County's 1884 courthouse Thursday, commissioners promptly ended the long-running emotional and contentious debate, voting 2-to-1 to tear it down.
At the start of their meeting, Commissioner Jeff Wagner made a motion to accept the $373,000 bid submitted by B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland, and Ben Nutter seconded it. Supporters of the courthouse later told them their decision lacked common sense and told them the loss of the historic structure would be their legacy.
After the two commissioners explained their reasons for eradicating the courthouse from the downtown landscape, Dave Sauber, president of the board of commissioners, said simply, "Everyone knows my position," and then voted no on the demolition contract.
Mr. Sauber has said for months the county can't afford demolition and ought to accept an offer by the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group to mothball the building at no cost to the county — a concept rejected by Mr. Wagner and Mr. Nutter.
About two dozen courthouse supporters — many of whom have been working to preserve the building for more than a decade — decried the vote during a public comment period after the vote, and implored commissioners to rethink their decision.
"This will stay with you. This will be your legacy to this county," warned Rayella Engle of Clinton Township. "I just don't think that you know how important this is to the people. I think you think everybody is thinking like you, and that is not true. I hope you will reconsider your vote."
Mr. Nutter said after the meeting that he doubted anyone would remember who was on the board when the courthouse was razed, but said, "If that's my legacy, that's fine. My position has been and will continue to be one of fiscal conservancy and sound business management. It's not emotional. I'm not for or against the courthouse. I'm for the people of Seneca County."
Mr. Wagner said simply, "This will be one other thing I have worked on through the years. I don't think it will be a legacy."
Loretta Miller, who identified herself as a Seneca County taxpayer, told the commissioners their decision lacked all common sense.
"Where is your plan for the future? What are you going to do for the courts?" she asked.
Both commissioners briefly defended their stances before the vote was taken. Mr. Wagner reiterated his long-held view that the county can't afford renovation, and he didn't want to leave "an abandoned and unsightly" building in downtown Tiffin. He also cited two previous "no" votes by county voters who rejected tax increases intended to renovate the courthouse.
"I will never fully grasp the passion that you have for this building and I want to respect that," Mr. Wagner told the crowd of mostly courthouse supporters. "… If you want to hate me because of that, I understand. I'm only doing what I feel is the right thing to do."
Mr. Nutter said the financing package put together by the redevelopment group, which included a low-interest $5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a $500,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Development, will not be available in a year or five years if the county mothballs the courthouse to renovate at a later date.
"Everyone knows we're not in a position to be able to execute any contracts for long-term debt at this point," he said.
He said that before the state slashed local government funding, the project seemed to be moving forward but even then it was delayed because of squabbles with the redevelopment group over whose money would be used to pay for the initial expenses to get bids on the project.
The nearly $8 million renovation plan would have returned the common pleas courts and the clerk of courts to the historic courthouse. That would have allowed the probate and juvenile courts to move into the annex building that was built for them in 2004, but became an alternative location for common pleas and the clerks office instead. The probate and juvenile courts remain in a cramped building across the street that is not handicapped-accessible.
"The only way I know of to protect our long-term financial stability is to remove the former courthouse and focus on the issue at hand, which is court space," Mr. Nutter said. "The common pleas court judges still have over half a million dollars in special projects funds that can be used to help with court systems. We have [community development block grant] money that we can use to conform to [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessibility. It's not the perfect solution. It's not what I originally wanted, but it's what we're dealing with."
David Carroll, a Columbus attorney and member of the redevelopment group, reminded commissioners that the USDA loan still is available as is the money from the state and the common pleas court, and that the redevelopment group has outlined a proposal to guarantee the county's debt service on the loan.
Commissioners did not respond to that proposal, which was formally spelled out in a letter delivered to them on Wednesday.
"We see today's vote as an unfortunate abdication of the county's legal responsibility to provide a courthouse because if you cannot afford to renovate the courthouse with the financing program we've put together, you certainly can't afford to build a new one," Mr. Carroll said.
Brenda Stultz, a longtime courthouse advocate from Seneca County's Adams Township, said it was ironic that the commissioners made the decision to tear down the courthouse at the same time Ohio is marking the 150th anniversary of its renovated Statehouse.
"I am extremely disappointed with your vote to accept the bid for demolition of my county capitol," she said. "I have been working with you for the last four and a half years and learning about how important that building is not only to the city of Tiffin but to the county of Seneca and the state of Ohio."
Former County Commissioner Janet Dell Freeman of Tiffin urged the board to reconsider, pointing to Tiffin "gems" like the Ritz Theatre and Elmwood Assisted Living at the Shawhan, which both were vacant downtown buildings but now are renovated and in use.
"I don't think you've thought enough about the future," she said. "If you don't have money to renovate now, you can do it in stages … I think you're making a mistake. I'm very disappointed."
Jim Fruth, a local attorney and president of the Seneca County Bar Association, met with commissioners briefly to deliver the results of an informal survey his group did on the courthouse issue. Of the 60 or so members of the bar, 27 responded. Fifteen said the county should renovate the courthouse or at least mothball it for now, while eight said the association should not take a position or they as individuals did not have a position. Just four were in favor of demolition.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who sent commissioners a letter last month asking them to reconsider demolition, was disappointed by Thursday's vote, spokesman Rob Nichols said.
"The governor applauds the citizens who worked to save the building for future generations," Mr. Nichols said. "Sadly, demolition now rules out the possibility of a solution later, but it is the job of local officials to decide these issues and to take responsibility for them."
Mr. Nutter, a Democrat who has blamed the Republican administration in Columbus for derailing the courthouse project, rejected claims that Ohio counties soon will reap additional revenue from the state's new gambling casinos, saying the state will just "figure out another way to take away our revenue."
Although he was ill and could not attend Thursday's meeting, Franklin Conaway, who has led the preservation effort, said as long as the building is standing, it still could be saved. He would not say what the group's next move would be.
"I think it is an absolute travesty and a usurpation of authority when elected officials use their power to intentionally destroy our cultural heritage for absolutely no reason but to show their power," Mr. Conaway said. "I really believe the result is a return to the Dark Ages for Tiffin and Seneca County. Our elected officials should not be destroying our American heritage."
County Administrator Stacy Wilson said that once the county prosecutor reviews the demolition contract and commissioners sign it, B&B Wrecking will have 60 days to raze the building and clear the site. She said the contract may be ready for signing by the board when it meets Tuesday.
If the demolition goes forward, Seneca County would be the first county in Ohio in 40 years to tear down a century-old courthouse and the only one to tear down a courthouse that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Staff Writer Jim Provance contributed to this report.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.