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Published: Wednesday, 11/23/2011

Seneca Co. board OKs deal to raze courthouse

Contract for demolition is approved on 2-1 vote

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Seneca County commissioner David Sauber Seneca County commissioner David Sauber
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TIFFIN -- Despite tears and jeers from those still trying to save Seneca County's 1884 courthouse, Commissioners Ben Nutter and Jeff Wagner voted Tuesday to enter into a contract to level it.

In a 2-1 vote -- Commissioner Dave Sauber dissented -- the board contracted with B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland to tear down the building and clear the site for $373,000.

After Mr. Wagner made the motion, but before the vote was taken, Mr. Sauber asked his fellow commissioners if they would entertain a presentation by a finance attorney working with the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group. In a letter sent to the board last week and read aloud Thursday by Jackie Fletcher, vice president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, Columbus attorney Emmett Kelly detailed a proposal to guarantee the county's debt service if it takes out a loan for renovation. Both Mr. Wagner and Mr. Nutter declined the offer.

"The way that letter reads, in my understanding, is it's a maximum of one year's payment that we would have to repay anyway," Mr. Wagner said. "It doesn't amount to much, to be quite honest."

Seneca County commissioner Ben Nutter Seneca County commissioner Ben Nutter
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The redevelopment group has proposed using privately donated funds to create a backup reserve account that would cover the county's $280,000-a-year debt service if it accepts a low-interest $5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to renovate the courthouse. An unnamed guarantor would replenish the backup reserve account if and when the county drew on it.

Mr. Nutter said that to take the group up on its offer, the county would have to accept the USDA loan now or lose it.

"We're not in a position that we can [take out the loan] and it's not this year or next year or maybe even the year after that we face the catastrophic budget issue, but five and 10 years down the road, so I wouldn't entertain that option," he said.

Outspoken opponents -- and proponents -- of razing the courthouse again filled the commissioners' meeting room. Two offered donations toward renovation.

Charles Knight, a trustee of the Knight-Baldwin Foundation in Fremont, said his foundation was willing to give $50,000 to help jump-start the project.

Seneca County commissioner Jeff Wagner Seneca County commissioner Jeff Wagner
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Loretta Miller of Tiffin placed a personal check for $5,000 before commissioners, saying she was not a wealthy person but, like many county residents, was willing to help pay for renovation of the courthouse.

"I feel that destroying the historic centerpiece of downtown Tiffin would be a terrible mistake," Ms. Miller said. "For many generations we've been coming together as a community at the courthouse to mourn, to pray, to hope, and to celebrate … Our heritage is wrapped up in that building. It's not just stone and mortar."

Commissioners returned the check to her after the meeting.

Kevin Carrigan of Tiffin said it was time commissioners listened to county residents who don't want to spend any money on the old courthouse. "It's time for the building to go and to take Seneca County forward," he said.

Mr. Sauber asked his fellow commissioners to reconsider allowing members of the public to bid on and purchase architectural elements of the courthouse -- granite, woodwork, even the clock mechanism from the clock tower -- before the demolition contractor goes to work. Again, Mr. Wagner and Mr. Nutter showed no interest in his suggestion.

Mr. Nutter said afterward that the demolition bid came in lower than the estimated $564,000 because the contractor has salvage rights.

Still, County Administrator Stacy Wilson said a representative of B&B indicated he did not believe there was anything the company was planning to salvage from the courthouse in advance of demolition.

Also Tuesday, commissioners agreed 3-0 to accept bids for construction of a new 24-bed juvenile detention center, even though the price will be $130,000 more than it has budgeted for the project. The Ohio Department of Youth Services is contributing $1.8 million, while the county will be responsible for approximately $1.3 million.

"It is a bit of an additional investment on our part. However … this is an issue that has been facing Seneca County for many years, and I think it's time to be addressed," Mr. Nutter said.

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



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