Justice center options aired

February 13, 2015

By Brittany Cook - Staff Writer (bcook@advertiser-tribune.comThe Advertiser-Tribune

Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz unveiled a seven-point plan that supports renovation of the East Tower during a meeting of Tiffin City Council members and Seneca County commissioners to discuss the possible joint justice center Thursday evening.

The plan includes a $500,000 contribution from National Machinery President and CEO Andrew H. Kalnow if the center is located at the East Tower.

The cost for a joint justice center located at East Tower is about $13.9 million including an addition, contingency and soft costs. About $1.5 million in historic tax credits also are available, Montz said.

Seneca Industrial and Economic Development Corp. President and CEO David Zak said, while he cannot guarantee a total dollar figure in grants the city and county could receive, he estimated it between $600,000 and $1.2 million.

Including Kalnow's private contribution puts the estimated cost at $10.7 million and $11.3 million.

Under Montz's seven-point plan, which had not been shown to city council members until Thursday's meeting, the county would pay $8.5 million and the city would pay $2.8 million.

Montz said a city-led coalition would pay for any renovation-related overage beyond the $180-per-square-foot estimate made by Gossman Group in the East Tower Study, while Seneca County would fund any overage related to new construction beyond the $210-per-square-foot estimate.

If the project came in less than $11.3 million, the county would get 75 cents back for each dollar while the city would receive 25 cents.

Montz also proposed Seneca County sell the green space on Courthouse Square to Tiffin for $1 with the understanding the city would develop the area as a town square. The city would be prohibited from selling the property to a private investor for a set number of years.

Also under the proposal, the county would own the joint justice center at the East Tower outright after the historic tax credits expire after five years.

With all soft costs and contingencies, a center built on Courthouse Square would cost about $10.2 million, Montz said.

Seneca County Board of Commissioners President Holly Stacy said the decision is a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity and lawmakers must decide on the most efficient option.

Commissioner Fred Zoeller said Montz's proposal was "ambitious" and a "deal-changer."

Before Montz unveiled his plan, moderator Chuck Christensen outlined the recent history of the joint justice center discussion. The county and city had court needs and started discussing combining into one facility, he said. North Central Ohio Regional Council of Governments received a feasibility study grant and results were reported last March.

In December, it was announced the $500,000 Local Governments Innovation Fund Grant NCORcog applied for on behalf of the city and county had been awarded for a joint justice center project.

After Burgess and Niple completed that study, SIEDC conducted the privately funded East Tower feasibility study. Zak said Kalnow paid for the study.

Both studies - the East Tower study and the section of the Downtown Strategic Growth and Development Plan relating to the justice center - were made public at the end of January and were not seen by anyone outside of the organization before that meeting, Zak said.

The city paid SIEDC to update the Downtown Strategic Plan. Zak said the SIEDC Board of Trustees, made up of representatives from the city, county and private industry, unanimously approved the organization facilitating both studies last June.

All of the information has been public and all elected officials were aware of the details regarding funding, he said.

John Kornbluh from Burgess and Niple, the firm that conducted the study stating the best location for a joint justice center was Courthouse Square, said they interviewed people who would use the facility and compiled information on space requirements.

After collecting information, they determined what size was needed for a center and said the operational savings and efficiencies in building a joint center next to the Courthouse Annex was most beneficial to the city and county.

Kornbluh said a new building would benefit from the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and electrical capacity built into the annex.

Craig Gossman from Gossman Group, the firm that conducted the recent East Tower study, borrowed the program established in the Burgess and Niple study and looked at how that program could be integrated into the historic building.

He said they also looked at the square footage that would have to be added to make it comparable to the Burgess and Niple study.

Because they used the Burgess and Niple study, Gossman Group did not complete additional interviews regarding use of the East Tower. Gossman said if the county and city decide to renovate the East Tower, additional interviews can be conducted.

He also said one benefit of utilizing East Tower would be saving one of Tiffin's most iconic structures.

Courtrooms would be modern, he said, because they would be located in the section added to the historic building. The original building would house offices.

A secondary benefit would be saving Courthouse Square as green space.

To qualify for historic tax credits, federal and state agencies would require the addition be built to certain historical standards, said David Vottero from Schooley Caldwell Associates, which worked on the East Tower study. The addition would be complimentary to the historic building - it would aim to copy the historic building, but would show distinctly what is the historic building and what is the new building.

Gossman said the plan was created with the historic tax credit requirements in mind.

About 38 percent of project costs could be paid through federal and state credits, he said.

He also said while a government subdivision does not qualify for the historic tax credit, a building can be privately developed and would be turned over in a public-private partnership.

Zoeller said he was concerned about having the court facility governed by a public-private partnership during the five-year period of the historic tax credits. Councilman Steve Lepard said he would like to see the center run by a port authority-type program if that is the case.

Joe Brink, of Burgess and Niple, said final cost for the project would not be determined until the bidding process is complete.

Commissioner Mike Kerschner asked whether there would be unique security issues with East Tower compared to building on Courthouse Square.

Vottero said both proposals have secure areas with functional sally ports that keep prisoners away from the general public on their way to and from court.

He also said the age of East Tower would not adversely affect maintenance and utility costs because age-related issues such as old windows could be addressed.

Tiffin City Councilman Joe Hartzell asked whether county judges were unhappy in their existing facility.

Zoeller said the purpose of the joint center was to look at the savings of combining all courts. In addition, Seneca County Probate Court and Seneca County Juvenile Court have security and accessibility issues. Combining would maximize efficiencies, he said.

"Our children's children's children are going to reap the benefits of what we're talking about today," Zoeller said.

Tiffin-Fostoria Municipal Court Judge Mark Repp said after review of both studies, a new building on Courthouse Square would double court space while the East Tower proposal decreases court space.

Zoeller said if a justice center was built on the Courthouse Square, at least two-thirds of a football field would be left green.

Councilman Rich Focht said officials also would have to consider the scale of the area - while the 1884 Courthouse had green space available, it wasn't used in the ways Courthouse Square is used now.

Stacy said if the juvenile and probate courts were separated from the facility as Kalnow suggested to lower costs, she would not be in favor, as she is supportive of a single joint center.

The offer sounded "phenomenal," she said.

The county then would face costs to renovate the annex, and she said county offices could be moved into the building.

A video of the meeting is available at ncorcog.org. Comments or questions can be sent to jjc@ncorcog.org.