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Demolition site of the Seneca County courthouse Demolition of the Seneca County courthouse can be seen through a second floor window of the Seneca County Common Pleas Court in Tiffin, Ohio.
Demolition of the Seneca County courthouse can be seen through a second floor window of the Seneca County Common Pleas Court in Tiffin, Ohio.
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Published: Wednesday, 2/8/2012 - Updated: 3 years ago

Seneca County weighs options for courts

Proposals center on keeping costs down


TIFFIN — Seneca County commissioners and Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz said Tuesday they were committed to finding the most financially feasible way to house the county and municipal courts.

Options discussed included renovating and adding on to the former East Junior High downtown, building a new city-county justice center on the site of the demolished 1884 courthouse, and leasing a new courthouse from the local port authority.

“We’re only limited by our imagination at this point,” said Ben Nutter, president of the commissioners.

Unlike the county-owned 1884 courthouse, the privately owned East Junior High School property at Market and Jefferson streets would be eligible for the state’s historic tax credit program if it was renovated for a courthouse, Mr. Nutter said. He said it’s worth investigating.

“Maybe we can come up with a way to make that happen — to take advantage of tax credits,” Mr. Nutter said. “Obviously it’s a much smaller building than the former 1884 courthouse so it could be done … for less money. Maybe it’s something we build to just house juvenile [court] and the municipal court, and common pleas court stays where it’s at.”

Since 2004, when the 1884 courthouse was vacated, common pleas courts and the clerk of courts have been housed in an annex building that was designed for the juvenile and probate courts. Juvenile and probate courts, meanwhile, remain in the cramped former Carnegie Library building across the street. It is not accessible to the handicapped.

Representatives of the Sandusky-Seneca-Tiffin Port Authority also spoke to the board about options it could offer the city and county if it owned the courthouse and leased it to them as “a neutral third party.”

“You would design it. You would bid it. You would issue contracts for construction of the building for acceptance upon completion by a unit of government — the port authority,” said Jerry Arkebauer, president of Arkebauer & Associates of Sylvania and a port authority consultant.

A pile of rubble lay were the 1884 Seneca County courthouse once stood in Tiffin, Ohio. A pile of rubble lay were the 1884 Seneca County courthouse once stood in Tiffin, Ohio.
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Although financing the building through the port authority could carry an interest rate 0.25 to 0.5 percentage points higher than general obligation bonds the county could issue, Mr. Arkebauer said there are benefits that might outweigh the added cost. The county has a limited capacity to issue general obligation bonds.

“We could own the building, lease it to the county and/or the city, save the sales taxes on the construction materials, and we would not obligate the county to do general obligation bonds,” he said. “You would simply have a lease with the port authority.”

Mr. Arkebauer pointed out that although state law that governs port authorities now permits projects to be done without requiring contractors to pay prevailing wage, that exemption does not apply to port authority projects that have a public purpose, such as a courthouse.

Commissioner Jeff Wagner said that was disappointing.

“I thought that was your biggest selling point,” he told Mr. Arkebauer.

Mr. Wagner reiterated his preference for paying for a new courthouse with cash — something that could take several years of saving — but Commissioner Dave Sauber said he wasn’t willing to wait.

“I believe we need to push ahead and design a plan and work together with the city of Tiffin and make sure our judges are on board, our prosecutors are on board, and start that process now because the cost of inflation, the cost of materials, we know interest rates will be going up. They can’t stay at this low level forever,” Mr. Sauber said.

Mr. Nutter agreed that the county needs to begin making plans and investigating whether a joint court building with the city makes the most sense “the sooner, the better.”

Tiffin bought the former Salvation Army building with plans to convert it to a municipal court, but Mayor Montz said City Council has all but abandoned that idea because of the high cost of renovation.

Also Tuesday, County Administrator Stacy Wilson said MKC Associates, a Mansfield architectural firm that is overseeing demolition of the 1884 courthouse, said it could design a landscaping plan for the soon-to-be-vacant courthouse site for $12,000. She said local landscapers who were contacted for estimates said they needed to know what the commissioners want at the site before they can provide a price.

Former Fostoria Mayor John Davoli also addressed the board in his new capacity as director of the North Central Ohio Regional Council of Governments. The group, which hopes to enlist members from as many as eight area counties, including the townships, school districts, and municipalities within them, would help members reduce costs by sharing services and purchasing power, Mr. Davoli said.

He invited commissioners to join the group, which has been formed by the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center based in Tiffin.

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

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