With a vote of 2-1, Seneca County commissioners have agreed to move ahead with demolition of the 1884 courthouse.
During a meeting Thursday morning, commissioners Ben Nutter and Jeff Wagner voted to accept a bid of $373,000 from B&B Wrecking of Cleveland for the demolition/salvage of the structure, as recommended by engineering firm MKC Associates. The building has been closed since 2004.
Nutter said the loss of local government funding and other potential cuts from the state forced commissioners to put renovation on hold earlier this year.
He said commissioners cannot wait five years, as proposed by Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group, because a low-interest $5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture may not be available then.
"I'm not for or against our courthouse, but I'm for our employees and I'm for Seneca County," he said. "The only way I know of to protect our long-term financial stability is to remove the former courthouse, focus on the issue at hand, which is court space. It's not the perfect solution; it's not what I originally wanted, but it's what we're dealing with."
Wagner told audience members opposed to demolition that he "will never fully grasp the passion (they) have for the building," and said his reasons for accepting the bid were twofold.
"As Mr. Nutter said, we do not have the money to renovate now, and it's highly unlikely, for the reasons he stated, we will in the foreseeable future," he said. "I don't believe we should leave an abandoned and unsightly building in the middle of downtown forever.
"Secondly, the voters have voted on this issue twice, and while the ballot language did not specifically say 'Tear the courthouse down,' that was what a lot of the voters' intent was, especially the second time. So if you want to hate me because of that, I understand. I'm only doing what I feel is the right thing to do."
Board President Dave Sauber cast the dissenting vote. In the past he has said he would prefer the board delay demolition and use that money to offset the General Fund.
"(The Seneca County courthouse) belongs to all citizens. The commissioners, you, are the stewards and the caretakers on our behalf," said resident Jackie Fletcher. "Past commissioners have not met this challenge in a respectful manner. Now it's time, it's time for this generation to do the right thing."
Other residents in the audience said they were "disappointed."
"This will stay with you, this will be your legacy to this county," said Rayella Engle. "I just don't think you know how important this is to the people. I think you think everybody is thinking like you, and that's just not true. I hope you reconsider your vote."
Engle provided copies of a published article showing the county could receive about $283,000 in casino tax revenue next year, with an estimated $1 million in revenue for 2013.
Nutter and Wagner said gambling revenue would not be a "net gain" as more funding cuts could be coming in addition to $350,000 in local government fund losses in 2012.
Commissioners could not say Thursday when demolition would begin. A contract must be finalized and approved by the county prosecutor first.
David Carroll, legal aid for the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group, said the USDA loan still is available to commissioners, as well as grants from the state, but would be lost if the building is razed. He added the county needs to provide adequate space for the courts, and if it cannot afford renovation due to the debt incurred through the USDA loan, it would be unable to afford building a new structure.
The redevelopment group has offered to mothball and maintain the courthouse with no county expense in a five-year lease agreement. An agreement also was presented to provide a reserve account which would cover the debt service for a year if the county was unable to make the payments.
Commissioners received two bids for demolition of the structure during a meeting last week, of which B&B Wrecking was the lowest. The engineers' estimate was $564,000.
In another matter, commissioners discussed a proposal to allow elected officials to take a voluntary pay cut to be appropriated to other funds, including salaries for employees. Board members favored the idea and are expected to vote on it at the next session.