Year in Review – 2018
The year 2018 for Seneca County was one that featured collaboration, fiscal responsibility and the laying of foundation for future projects.
The Seneca County Board of Commissioners authorized several projects that redeveloped and revived the courthouse square in downtown Tiffin. They also took action to safeguard against future economic downturns, to improve their website and public outreach and to operate more effectively through adding personnel.
Redevelopment of Courthouse Square
The most notable project of 2018, and potentially in the history of the county, was the completion of the Seneca County Justice Center.
Commissioner Holly Stacy said the building itself serves as a true symbol of collaboration between the county, the cities and judicial officials.
“I think if any of us would have had a work timeline that encompassed everything from the cooperative agreements through the architect renderings to the financing maze to the final details of cutting the ribbon, we would not have predicted the successful outcome of the project,” she said.
The level of collaboration between entities was unparalleled in the state and across the nation.
Commissioner Mike Kerschner said the building was made possible through cooperation and collaboration.
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit,” he said.
The Justice center was paid for without any additional taxes on residents. It took about 21 months to build the structure, and the first trial was conducted in Seneca County Common Pleas Court Judge Steve Shuff’s courtroom March 26-27.
“Everyone knew it wouldn’t be easy, most predicted it would never happen, and no one disagrees that we did the right thing as a joint effort,” Stacy said. “I’m proud to have been a part of the team that helped drive this project, and I’m so very grateful for the outstanding input from the citizens and partners who truly made it all happen.”
The approximately $14.4 million facility features 36,000 square feet over four stories. The first floor includes public entry and screening, central holding and office space for the Clerk of Courts, while the second floor is dedicated to the Municipal Court. Both identical, top-two stories are devoted to the two Common Pleas Court Judges.
Along with the justice center project, a time capsule was dedicated, a state-of-the-art LED lighting system was added to illuminate the building’s cupola and sidewalks near the building were replaced.
Stacy thanked a great subcommittee of volunteers who helped to collect a “snapshot” of 2017. A refinished bookcase from the 1884 Courthouse was used to hold the capsule, which is placed in a special alcove in a wall close to the main entrance. The capsule includes everything from high school yearbooks, to plan documents, to elected official letters to their future selves. The time capsule is to be opened in 2067.
Commissioner Shayne Thomas served on the committee that helped to bring in the cupola lighting system. The lighting system has countless color combinations and has been used to mark special occasions and to invoke community pride.
“I think the addition of the colored lights humanized the justice center for many county residents,” he said.
Thomas said work on the sidewalks needed to be completed.
“The courthouse square is an important center for discourse as well as a gathering place for citizens,” he said.” Improving the sidewalks, especially at speaker’s corner around the Gibson statue, was a move to welcome the public to their civic core.”
With personnel moving from the Seneca County Courthouse Annex into the justice center, this meant a shuffling of county offices. Seneca County Juvenile and Probate Court personnel moved into the annex building, which is a part of the justice center complex, in October. The project included converting the courtrooms to operate efficiently as juvenile and probate courts, new paint and carpets and installing a server room that is to service the entire county.
Renovations, Construction and Demolition
Orange cones, bright yellow vests and the audible noises of construction crews were common fixtures across Seneca County in 2018.
In October, the commissioners hosted an event in Attica to celebrate and thank those involved with the demolition of the former Attica Eagles building. The building was a blighted property that was razed and turned into green space. The Seneca County Land Bank, Sutton Bank and several others played a crucial role in bringing down the building.
“At times our outlying communities have felt neglected,” Thomas said. “This board has taken a strong position to address that concern. Working as a team, the county in a public/private partnership was able to get demolished a commercial property in downtown Attica that had become a public nuisance.”
The commissioners worked with the American Legion Post 260 and members of the Patriot Day Salute committee to make the former site of the Attica Eagles the future home of a veterans’ memorial for Attica and Venice and Reed townships. The PDS organization donated $5,000 toward the project.
The building in Attica was not the only one demolished through the county’s land bank program. Several houses, many in the Fostoria area, were also razed due to becoming a public nuisance.
The Seneca County Land Bank received more than $4 million in grant funding from the state in 2016. Since then, the funding has been used to fix abandoned properties and attack neighborhood blight in some areas.
“The fact is, there are properties around the county that need some attention,” Kerschner said, adding that the program has been a success so far.
As of February 2019, 45 properties had been demolished through the program. The land bank has acquired more than 100 properties total and decisions are pending on those.
Another project was the redirection of the county-owned 81 Jefferson St. building that used to be home to the commissioners. The board decided to offload that property, and it was used for a public purpose. The area where the building once stood will soon feature a splash pad and park which is connected to the East Green Complex.
One issue raised by ridding the county of the building was, what can be done with the records that were previously stored there.
Commissioner Mike Kerschner said many of the records in the building were deteriorating because the building was not climate controlled and was not meant to hold paper records.
Kerschner and the rest of the board asked county departments to begin working on a records retention plan that features scanning documents and keeping electronic versions when it is legally allowed.
“We are not reinventing the wheel,” he said. “Many counties are on a completely digital system.”
Kerschner said digitizing records could be a lengthy process, but plans are in place and departments are working diligently on them.
Two other projects that were completed in early January last year were the relocation and renovation of both the Seneca County Board of Elections and Seneca Regional Planning Commissioner. The two offices, which now are both in the County Services Building, enjoy larger, more accessible spaces.
“The move by the board of elections then freed up space to offer to SRPC,” Stacy said. “Under a new lease contract, regional planning took on overseeing the space renovation. They incorporated design elements into their office that represent many aspects of Seneca County. They were able to complete their renovation, move in and formally have their ribbon cutting the same day as the board of elections.”
As counties and cities receive less financial support from the state of Ohio and funding sources that were previously offered to municipalities expire, Seneca County has remained fiscally responsible and has created safeguards to help protect against a future economic downturn.
One example of this was the establishment of the Budget Stabilization Fund, which is sometimes referred to as a rainy-day fund.
Kerschner suggested creating the fund in December 2017, and it was implemented last year.
“We can do the opposite of what other government entities do,” Kerschner said. “Instead of spending our grandchildren’s money, we can put it in a savings account.”
Kerschner said the plan is to have funding set aside in case there are economic struggles, like in 2008 nationally.
“We all know there’s going to be an economic downturn, but we don’t know when,” he said. “We are preparing for this.
In recent years, revenues have been higher than expected.
County Administrator Stacy Wilson, at the request of Thomas, accelerated the budget process this year and the budget was approved earlier in the year than it has been in recent memory. The General and non-General Fund budgets were approved Nov. 20. The capital line was finalized Dec. 4.
“The county budget must be balanced,” Thomas said. “Ensuring adequate revenue to match the budgeted expenses is a key role of the commissioners. To be more active in the budget process, we passed it earlier than usual this year.”
The General Fund budget was approved for 2018 at about $17.5 million in expenses, with revenue certified for $17.8 million.
The county also set aside nearly $900,000 of one-time funding from the state to help Seneca and other counties transition to no longer receiving Medicaid MCO money. That funding has still not been used.
With Medicaid MCO funding going away for counties, the drastic decrease of Local Government Funding and several other county revenue sources being shrunk by the state, the commissioners penned a letter intended for incoming Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration that requested that the state work harder to support its counties and cities.
In another financial matter, the county agreed to increase funding for the Seneca County and Attica Fair.
Stacy said Ohio law allows the county to provide funding to those entities.
“I’m proud to say that we made a commitment to both fairs with additional allocations in 2018 and in 2019,” she said. “The two-year promise was a great suggestion from Commissioner Thomas and will greatly assist both groups with planning.”
Media, Outreach and Personnel
The year 2018 also saw an increased dedication from the commissioners to communications and public relations.
The board authorized rebuilding its website to add more information and make it easier to access. The site includes links to agenda, indexes and video minutes for all meetings since 2016. It also provides news releases and information about county business.
The hiring of a Public Relations Coordinator has also increased communication between the office and the media and the public. The commissioners committed to a weekly radio show on AM 1600 WTTF and have also increased their social media presence.
Another form of outreach has been the launch of the countywide Wireless Emergency Notification System. The system can send e-mails, text messages or phone calls to subscribers when there is a weather event or other emergency. To sign up, text SenecaAlerts! To 69310
Other personnel additions and improvements include the addition of a new Ohio State University Extension Office agricultural/natural resources educator and the relocation of the county law library and hiring of a new law librarian.
Hallie Williams is the county’s new ag educator, and Stacy believes she has done a great job. OSU has committed to paying 50 percent of the cost of the position for three years.
“This helped the university so that they can have agricultural educators in the top agriculture counties in the state,” Stacy said. “Williams will be addressing traditional program needs and developing ag marketing-related opportunities that fit our county’s needs.
Thomas said that finding a new location for the law library fixed a longstanding issue. It is now located in the County Services Building, 71 S. Washington St.
“Finding a permanent home for the law library was a good accomplishment,” he said. “It’s been without a permanent home for a long time.”
Susan Howard was brought on to be the county’s new law librarian.
“She’s extremely well qualified and connected in the bar association,” Thomas said.
The library is used by attorneys, county agencies, judges, magistrates and residents to research the law and provide reference services. It was located on the third floor of Seneca County Courthouse Annex in a 126-square-foot area, but many local attorneys and bar association members said the area was not an adequate space.
Community Development Block Grant
There were several projects that received funding in 2018 and were completed or started in 2018 through the Community Development Block Grant.
The Homelessness Prevention Program used $34,500 to assist 71 people, $5,000 was used to further fair housing efforts, Clinton Township Volunteer Fire Department received about $60,000 for new equipment, about $33,100 was used for sewer upgrades in New Riegel, and approximately $99,922.50 was used for sidewalk enhancements in New Riegel on Perry Street, Tiffin Street, and Findlay Street.
SRPC Executive Director Charlene Watkins was pleased with the program.
“By utilizing the Community Development Block Grant, Seneca County is able to create a safer community for our citizens,” she said. “The CDBG program enables Seneca County to utilize funding to complete projects and open opportunities throughout the community that would otherwise be unattainable due to financial constraints.”
All three commissioners said they were pleased with accomplishments made during 2018, but also are hoping that steps taken last year will lay the foundation for future achievements.
“We were fortunate to have a community of collaborators,” Thomas said. “Without these colleagues, we wouldn’t have been able to move the county forward on so many fronts.”
“We can proudly look back on the checklist and know that all these projects have long-term impacts for the departments providing services to the county,” she said. “We did what was expected, our best for the citizens of Seneca County.”