LISBON - Columbiana County commissioners bristled at a suggestion by an East Liverpool official that politics had something to do with selecting which homes are being demolished with a state grant.
Commissioners said it was individual cities, villages and townships that decided which homes they wanted to be demolished, and East Liverpool Planning Director William Cowan knew this when he went public with a letter he sent to the board questioning whether the choice of properties was "politically motivated."
"I have all the respect in the world for Bill Cowan and consider him a friend ... (but) I question the way he presented this," said Commission Chairman Mike Halleck.
Cowan was upset that East Liverpool appeared to have been left off the list of communities with homes to be demolished, but commissioners pointed out the project was being done in two phases, and those communities omitted from the initial round would be included in the second phase.
"No one is ignoring East Liverpool," Halleck said, speaking at Wednesday's board meeting.
Pam Dray of the county development department is in charge of the program for commissioners, and she recalls telling Cowan and East Liverpool Deputy Safety-Service Director Dan Galeoti that demolition was being done in phases and that omission from the initial list "didn't mean we're not going to do East Liverpool's properties, but we just hadn't gotten to them."
Meanwhile on Wednesday, commissioners awarded the demolition contract for the first phase of homes to Galeoti's company, Extreme Demolition & Trucking, which submitted the lowest bid at $196,500. It was Galeoti who reportedly made Cowan aware that no East Liverpool homes were on the first-phase list, setting in motion his letter to commissioners.
A $500,000 grant from the Ohio Attorney General's Office awarded the county last year is paying for the demolition and asbestos removal from the chosen properties. The money represents a portion of what Ohio received from a nationwide settlement with five mortgage companies sued by the state for fraudulent and deceptive lending practices.
The money came pretty much with no strings attached other than it had to be spent on razing dilapidated and abandoned properties that "detract from existing home values and create a toxic breeding ground for crime."
Commissioner Jim Hoppel, an East Liverpool High School graduate, said they decided to share the money among every city, village and township that submitted homes for demolition, with the promise the first five homes on each list would be demolished.
A total of 179 homes were submitted to be demolished, with half submitted by East Liverpool (53) and Salem (46). There is only enough money to demolish 67 homes.
Hoppel said they chose to spread the money around this time rather than focus on any particular area, unlike in 2010 when the county received $700,000 in federal stimulus money to demolish 244 abandoned/foreclosed homes, with East Liverpool and Salem getting funding to demolish 80 homes each.
"If you talk to the state they made it clear that this is to benefit the whole county," Hoppel said, adding East Liverpool and Salem make up 21.7 percent of the county's population. "They represent their communities. We represent the whole county."
Halleck agreed. "East Liverpool has about 10 percent of the county's population, and we're not going to forget about the 90 percent."
In addition to wondering whether the selection process was politically motivated, Cowan questioned most of the homes selected for the first phase, saying few were in neighborhoods, many were in remote rural areas far from another residence, and one appeared to be a structure that is part of an "estate." He also questioned whether some of the property owners appeared financially able to demolish the homes themselves, such as the Salem-area real estate agent who lives in a $215,000 home and owns 40 properties.
Hoppel said you would need to ask the communities why they submitted those homes for demolition. "We did not get involved in the selection process," he said.
One of the homes questioned by Cowan is owned by the Butler Township trustees and located next to the township garage. He said the property was just purchased in March.
The list of five homes submitted by West Township trustees included three owned by Trustee Glenn Whiteleather. Dray said she checked with the state about the appropriateness of including Whiteleather's homes, "and they're all right with that."
The 44 homes to be demolished in the first phase are in Columbiana, East Palestine and Leetonia plus Butler, Center, Knox, Liverpool, Madison, Middleton, Perry, Salem, St. Clair and West townships.
Hoppel said they should be ready to seek demolition bids for the second round of homes within two to three weeks. That phase consists of a combined 23 homes in East Liverpool, Salem, Wellsville, Salineville and Hanoverton.