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Published: 12/20/2011

Editorial

High court's duty

The Ohio Supreme Court has the opportunity -- and the obligation -- to do what a couple of irresponsible politicians in Seneca County refuse to do: prevent the needless, senseless destruction of the county's sound, majestic, and eminently restorable 19th-century courthouse.

Such a rescue will earn justices the gratitude not only of current county taxpayers, but also of future residents for whom a renovated courthouse can be the centerpiece of a job-creating, tax-generating economic revival that builds on the county's history and traditions.

A group of 44 Seneca County taxpayers, including a former county commissioner, sued the county board this week. They are asking the high court to halt last month's vote by Commissioners Ben Nutter and Jeff Wagner to raze the vacant courthouse. The contractor the board hired is removing asbestos from the 1884 building in downtown Tiffin -- the first step in the 60-day demolition process.

The board calls the lawsuit "frivolous" and the courthouse "dilapidated." Yet the board majority is spending $373,000 of public money, within a meager county budget, to create a gaping hole in Tiffin's town square.

The two commissioners are eager to forfeit a $5 million, low-interest federal loan that has been approved to support a smart plan to rehabilitate the courthouse proposed by economic-development specialists and historic preservationists. Private and public funding to help pay for the rest of the $8 million plan could take advantage of rock-bottom interest rates.

The nonprofit preservation group also is offering to pay the costs of mothballing and even improving the building while the county seeks financing, and to guarantee debt service on the federal loan. Invoking that option would cost the county and taxpayers nothing -- belying the claims by Mr. Nutter and Mr. Wagner that immediate demolition is a matter of urgent economic necessity.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit note that the cramped, inaccessible "temporary" court facilities the county has used for nearly eight years violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the state Supreme Court's standards for local courthouses. In a separate letter to the commissioners, Seneca County Common Pleas Court Judge Steve Shuff cites the facilities' many deficiencies.

Mr. Nutter's proposal for a new courthouse, which he implausibly asserts would cost less than renovating the old one, would take as long as five years to carry out. Renovation, which Mr. Nutter previously supported, could occur more quickly. How much longer is the Supreme Court prepared to tolerate a substandard justice system in Seneca County?

Previous state court rulings have required local governments to provide court facilities that are adequate for the effective administration of justice. The Supreme Court can and should apply that precedent to Seneca County.

Prohibiting, or at least delaying, the demolition of the courthouse will do no harm to anyone. By contrast, the lawsuit observes: "Once the 1884 courthouse is demolished, it is gone forever..."

The justices' duty is clear: Use the authority the Ohio Constitution gives them to promote an effective statewide judicial system, protect taxpayers -- and save Seneca County's courthouse.



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