Loan weighing on commissioners

LISBON – When Columbiana County commissioners agreed in 2004 to undertake a $2.7 million renovation project conceived by the common pleas court judges, it was with the understanding no general fund money would be involved.

Instead, court fees, fines and money received by the court for handling child support cases were expected to be enough to meet the annual loan payment.

But by 2010, commissioners were contributing $25,000 annually from the county general fund, and last week they agreed to pay an additional $36,000 to cover another shortfall.

According to a July 15 letter from court operations officer Amy Ondrejko, the fees generated $101,000 this year, and the annual $25,000 contribution being made by commissioners still left theM $36,000 short, which is why the judges were asking for additional money needed to meet the $162,000 loan payment due Aug. 1.

“We agreed to help them if they became a little short,” said Commissioner Jim Hoppel. “This is not a little short. It’s beginning to be a serious problem.”

The original project was to renovate the second floor of the courthouse where the two common pleas courtrooms are located, as well as related offices and the domestic relations magistrate courts. The project also included replacing the courthouse roof, installing a new heating/air conditioning system for the first through third floors, and repair as many windows as possible.

The project was later expanded to include replacing all courthouse windows, resulting in another $844,000 being borrowed, with commissioners agreeing to pay for that loan themselves – $49,000 annually- from the county’s debt service account, which is funded with property taxes.

When the renovation project was first pitched to commissioners – minus replacing windows – it was with the understanding the aforementioned fees would be sufficient to cover the loan payments. Records provided by Ondrejko state the court became aware before finalizing construction plans the fees and child support money would likely fall short of making the loan payments, and commissioners agreed to make up the difference.

In 2010, the court approached the commissioners seeking a formal commitment to begin contributing $25,000 per year from the county general fund. According to a memorandum from Ondrejko, commissioners Hoppel and Dan Bing agreed to do so. There is no record in the official commissioner meeting minutes around that time indicating they ever voted to contribute $25,000.

Hoppel is the only commissioner left from that board and he recalled making the commitment but he is concerned the board is being asked to assume even more of the payments. “I think we need to sit down with them and see where this ends,” he said.

Commission Chairman Mike Halleck agreed. “As I’ve discussed with (Ondrejko), we need to sit down before the first of the year to decide how to proceed” when drafting the 2014 county budget, he said.

Hoppel is unhappy it has come to this because the judges promised in 2004 the fees and child support money would be enough to make the loan payment. “I realize the fees are a moving target … but they indicated to us it would be sufficient,” he said.

Halleck said the episode speaks to the need to be careful when undertaking projects that there is a reliable long-term funding source. “The question in the future is when we go out for loans we need to have fees that can be substantiated over the life of the debt,” he said.