By Ben Nutter
As the current president of the Seneca County commissioners, I would like to take a few moments to clarify what the residents of Seneca County have, or have not, voted on with respect to the future of the 1884 Seneca County Courthouse.
May 7, 2002, the voters were asked to approve a proposed quarter-percent sales and use tax for "... providing additional revenue for the acquisition, construction, equipping or repair of the county courthouse. ..." As is obvious from the ballot language, there is no mention of demolition of the courthouse if the initiative failed. This issue was, in fact, defeated by a majority of the voters and, as a result, the courthouse was not renovated and eventually fell into such poor condition that the commissioners closed the building for public use in 2004.
March 4, 2008 (close to six years and several new commissioners later), the voters of Seneca County were asked to approve additional bonding capacity (equivalent to raising the county's credit or borrowing limit) to $8.5 million that would have allowed for the "... renovating, remodeling, rehabilitating, restoring, adding to, furnishing, equipping and otherwise improving the county's 1884 courthouse building and improving and equipping its site. ..." Again, there is not any mention of demolition of the courthouse if this issue were defeated by the voters. The bond issue was, in fact, soundly defeated by the voters.
After the defeat of this issue, all three commissioners voted to proceed with a plan that would remove and replace the former courthouse with a new building at a cost of about $6.5 million. As part of the process toward demolition, the commissioners applied for a "certificate of appropriateness" from the city of Tiffin. A "certificate of appropriateness" would allow the commissioners to legally remove the 1884 courthouse. As most of you are aware, this issue still has not been resolved.
In the interim, a group of architects and developers began taking another look at the 1884 courthouse to see whether it was possible to renovate the building in terms of adequate design for today's judicial system and, if so, could it be done at a cost local taxpayers could afford. It is important to remember past estimates put the renovation at more than $10 million, an amount that was, and is not, possible for the residents of Seneca County to absorb.
Recently, the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group Inc. presented the commissioners with a renovation design plan that would serve the judicial system well into the future. I never have doubted it was "possible" to renovate; however, I always have been concerned a renovation project could not be done in a cost-effective manner, as to be afforded by the residents of Seneca County. The SCCDRG has taken the most comprehensive cost analysis of the 1884 courthouse in modern times and have determined the renovation project can be completed for less than $8 million - but that is not the bottom-line cost to Seneca County.
The SCCDRG also has committed to raising $1.4 million to pay for restoring the clock tower to its original design. That amount, added to the $2 million in state funding pledged to Seneca County by Gov. Ted Strickland, brings the local amount to $4.6 million. This is significant, because the plan to remove and replace the 1884 Courthouse had an estimated cost of more than $6.5 million.
To be perfectly clear: If the SCCDRG's proposal is correct, it would be $2 million less expensive to renovate the 1884 Courthouse than it is would be to remove and replace it. To me, that is what it is all about, providing good government in the most cost-effective manner. A year ago, based on the information at the time, I believed the most cost-effective answer to our space issue was to remove and replace the 1884 Courthouse. Based on the information we have available today, it is clear the most cost-effective manner to providing appropriate space to the judicial system is the SCCDRG's plan for renovation.
The attached ballot language is exactly what was voted on, and it is clear there is no mention of demolition anywhere. The assertion the commissioners somehow unilaterally have disregarded the will of the majority of voters in Seneca County is not in any way accurate. As an elected official, I am compelled to evaluate new information as it becomes available and then make the best decision based on that information. I believe the majority of the residents of Seneca County want the commissioners to provide good government in the most cost-effective manner possible, regardless of the fate of a particular building, and that is what I will continue to do.