Portage County's commissioners and municipal court judges have agreed to use $7 million from the sale of the county's nursing home on the new municipal courthouse being built in Kent. The money will be repaid through annual payments from a special court fee judges put on the Kent municipal court six years ago.
The agreement gets the county out of a bind -- it could not pay off the $6.7 million left on the nursing home bonds without a hefty penalty since the debt was refinanced just two years ago to reduce the interest rates and the payments. And the county had to find a new capital project on which to spend the money in just two years.
Early this month, the county received $7.6 million on the sale of The Woodlands at Robinson facility. The county will hold $500,000 in an escrow account for any unknown post-sale expenses.
Auditor Janet Esposito said new capital is defined as a project that has not currently incurred debt through bonds or notes. Commissioners had intended to use The Woodlands proceeds to fund a new sludge drying facility in Streetsboro for the county water resources department. But when the nursing home sale was delayed, the plan fell through.
Municipal Court Judge Mark Fankhauser said he was concerned that taking the money would cause taxpayers to say judges were breaking a promise to not use general fund money for the project.
"We said it would be paid only by fees on criminals -- no taxpayer dollars would be used," Fankhauser said.
"You can pay interest on it, if that makes you happy," said Commissioner Kathleen Chandler during Tuesday's discussion.
For the past six years the municipal court has been collecting a special fee to defray the cost of the new court building to be built in the 300 block of East Main Street in Kent. Esposito said the collection has averaged $567,662 per year. The courts have used the fund to pay for courthouse expenses and some personnel costs.
When it was refinanced in 2010, the bond on The Woodlands was reduced in repayment time, interest rate and annual payment. Payments have ranged from $562,822 to $579,550.
Since both the court fee and bond payments are variable, commissioners noted the county general fund might have to be tapped to make up any difference between the funds available and the payment due.
Judge Barbara Oswick said judges are committed to paying off the debt without affecting the general fund.
"We're going to pay as much as we can to pay it down as quickly as possible," she said.
With no other capital projects ready to go, commissioners Chandler and Maureen T. Frederick agreed to use the money for the courthouse project. The courts will then repay the county general fund plus the going STAR Ohio interest rate.
Commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio continued her objections to the courthouse project and to using The Woodlands proceeds. Marsilio said there has been discussion about a new "pod" to house prisoners at the county jail. She has also said the courthouse design is too large and too expensive.
The courthouse project, now estimated to cost $10.4 million, is expected to open in January 2014.
Last week, commissioners accepted bids for the structural steel and concrete for the courthouse.
Cleveland Cement Contractors was winner with an alternate bid of $852,600. Rittman Inc., doing business as Mull Iron, won the steel contract with an alternate bid of $780,600.
JoAnn Townend, head of purchasing for the county, said site work has been finished and final construction bid packages will be going out soon.
"So, by the end of February, we will know the total hard costs of the construction," Townend said. Those hard costs cover the construction of the building and the surrounding parking lot and sidewalks. It does not include the "soft costs" of furnishing and equipping the building.
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