EDITOR'S NOTE: This version corrects the name of Jeanne Tolford.
TIFFIN -- One of the two Seneca County commissioners who voted to demolish the historic 1884 courthouse unveiled a plan Thursday to build a new courthouse in its place within five years.
Commissioner Ben Nutter proposed the board set aside half of the county's annual carryover into a "justice system improvement fund" each January beginning in 2012. He estimated that within five years the county would have more than $3 million in the fund -- enough to construct a 16,080-square-foot building for an estimated $2.89 million.
"This plan doesn't require a loan," Mr. Nutter said. "It doesn't require donations, and it doesn't require any help from anybody outside Seneca County, and I'm referring to the state government because they have shown a propensity to A) not do what they say they were going to do, and B) cut any support that they were giving us at one point, and I no longer want to depend on them."
"I want to depend on us," he said.
A nearly $8 million plan to renovate the 1884 courthouse would have been financed with a $5 million, low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $500,000 from the Ohio Department of Development, $500,000 from Seneca County Common Pleas Court, $350,000 from the county, and $1.65 million in privately raised donations and grants.
Mr. Nutter had supported that plan until earlier this year when the state legislature slashed local government funds -- a longtime source of funding for county governments.
In August, he moved to tear down the courthouse but at the time said little about how the county would address the fact that it needed a larger, and handicapped accessible, facility for its juvenile and probate courts.
With support from fellow Commissioner Jeff Wagner, the board late last month hired B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland to tear down the courthouse at a cost of $373,000.
Mr. Nutter said that even after adding in the $373,000 cost of demolishing the old courthouse and $40,000 for architectural fees, his plan would cost Seneca County taxpayers some $5.4 million less than the renovation plan. He based his construction estimate, he said, on advice from Jim Schmidt, an architect and principal with MKC Associates of Mansfield, that in today's market, a new building could be constructed for $180 per square foot. MKC Associates is overseeing the demolition, which has to be done within 60 days of the signing of the contract last week with B&B.
Seneca County's 1884 Beaux Arts-style, sandstone courthouse in Tiffin was designed by noted American architect Elijah E. Myers.
"If there is a direction and a legacy of this board, it is that we are fiscally responsible and tying ourselves to a 40-year low-interest loan is irresponsible, and that's why we're not doing it," Mr. Nutter said. "All three commissioners agree we are not doing that because we can't predict the future 10 years down the road. It's not next year that we can't make the [loan] payment. It's not the year after. It's five and 10 years down the road that I'm concerned we will not be able to make that $289,000 a year payment year after year after year."
Preservationists at the meeting immediately asked why commissioners could not set aside carryover funds to pay for renovation.
"I'm often amused and amazed when I hear the reasoning for tearing down this courthouse," said Rayella Engle, a longtime advocate for the 1884 courthouse. "If you can acquire $3 million in five years by carryovers and savings, it should be going to this courthouse."
She said she wasn't interested in a new building when the county already has a beautiful courthouse.
"This is a building that you were given to be stewards over and to see that it was saved," Mrs. Engle said. "When our forefathers built this, it was never meant to be destroyed by a wrecking ball."
Commissioners heard some new voices Thursday.
Gabi Felter, who identified herself as a local business owner, said she was "just plain [angry]" about commissioners' decision to tear down the courthouse -- a focal point of downtown.
"I take pride in my community and one of the things I take pride in is the preservation of our buildings and our community," she said.
Jeanne Tolford, who said she has worked at juvenile court, commended commissioners for making plans to build a new juvenile detention center but said she believes the $373,000 for demolition would be better spent on making safety and security improvements at the current juvenile court building.
Mr. Nutter disagreed, saying the money might be enough to add an elevator but would not address all the problems with the courts.
"I believe that removing this building and building a new building to address the needs of the juvenile court is best long term," he said.
While Mr. Nutter said he was prepared to make a motion to place half of the carryover balance in a special fund, Mr. Wagner said he would like some time to think about it.
"It sounds good," Mr. Wagner said. "I'd like to see what we have at that point and what our budget ends up being. I think the concept is good."
Seneca County had a carryover balance of $1.7 million to start 2011.
County Administrator Stacy Wilson said commissioners like to start a new year with about 15 percent of the general fund, which is in excess of $14 million, though the carryover has varied from as little as $1 million to as much as $2.4 million.
Dave Sauber, president of the board of commissioners, made no comment on Mr. Nutter's plan.
He has voted no on all questions related to demolishing the courthouse because he says he does not believe the county should spend money on demolition when finances are so tight.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.
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