Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings and Safety and Service Director Mel McKenzie on Monday doubled down on their defense of aggressive code enforcement in uptown Hillsboro, with Hastings telling city council at its May meeting that there are “some stupid people in this town … keeping it from what it could be.”
In McKenzie’s report to council, he gave his account of the saga of three buildings long owned by Jack Hope recently deemed unfit for habitation, some of which are being eyed by an investor group interested in rehabilitating them.
Meanwhile, council approved legislation authorizing the city to apply for up to $250,000 in grant funds that McKenzie said could be used to save two of the buildings in question, one of which is home to a popular diner.
According to McKenzie, the diner was previously approved for a revolving loan from the city to purchase the building at 131 W. Main St., but after a plumber discovered structural problems in the building immediately to the east, home to a local AAA office, McKenzie did a walk-through of all three Hope buildings with City Building Official Anton Weissman and Public Works Superintendent Shawn Adkins.
McKenzie said he observed substantial water leakage in basements and problems with floor joists that made the buildings dangerous to inhabit, and he reported that information to the revolving loan committee, which rescinded the diner loan. McKenzie added that the committee said the diner could get the loan back if it found another building to purchase. McKenzie also said Hastings showed the diner owners five other properties, two of which were owned by him.
In researching the Hope buildings, Weissman discovered a 2015 report that said the Parker House building and the diner building were not structurally sound, McKenzie said.
The buildings were later deemed unfit for habitation.
Later, a group of investors approached the city interested in developing those properties, McKenzie said. The city met with them and outlined the steps necessary to do so, and while McKenzie said he thought the meeting went well, “I guess they didn’t see the meeting the same.”
McKenzie said the investors wanted direction on deficiencies and remedies that the city could not provide due to a state law, and “this was not the answer they wanted to hear.”
McKenzie said it is his duty as safety and service director to keep structures safe.
“The bitter feelings of a few are hurting us in the eyes of other communities because all they know is what they read, and that’s not always the rest of the story,” he said. “I’m more than willing to find a common ground. Are you?”
Hastings, who spoke after McKenzie, compared Hillsboro to surrounding communities, saying the city is missing out on “prosperity around us.” The latest water meter report shows no new water service for residential or commercial properties, but the city spent five days shutting off water at properties whose water bills had gone unpaid, Hastings said.
The mayor said some have alleged that his administration is “punishing” uptown businesses, and he said that is not true.
“This isn’t some kind of targeted effort” on the uptown area, Hastings said. The uptown area just has the largest concentration of aging buildings which require more attention than newer ones, Hastings added.
The mayor compared buying an old building to buying an old car, both scenarios having associated costs to comply with the law.
Hastings also called for Councilman Justin Harsha, the only Republican running for mayor, to assure residents that he will “uphold the law” when it comes to code enforcement if he is elected.
Harsha said the city should “absolutely … be looking into code issues,” but some residents seem to be having “sticker shock” due to the high cost of keeping buildings up to code. The councilman said the city should approach building owners with a “helping attitude.”
The mayor concluded his report by saying the city can clean up blight, prevent drug abuse and solve other problems, but “you can’t fix stupid, and we’ve got some stupid people in this town, frankly, who are keeping it from what it could be.”
In the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting, local electrician David Wolfenbarger, owner of Paradise Electric, spoke in favor of stringent code enforcement, defending the Hastings administration and asking council members if they wanted to be responsible for dangerous buildings in town.
Wolfenbarger said he has seen “serious defects” in electrical work around Hillsboro, and that it is the city’s job to ensure this does not occur.
The electrician urged locals to “stop all this mudslinging,” and said while Hope bought the Parker House and other buildings with good intentions, he has not taken the needed steps to keep it in good condition. The electrician also said Weissman did not take as hard a line as he could on the Hope buildings.
In other business:
• Councilwoman Wendy Culbreath said Auditor Gary Lewis provided council members with financial reports they have been requesting for some time. Lewis was not present at the meeting due to funeral services for his mother.
• Prior to its regular meeting, council voted 5-1 with one abstention in favor of overturning a planning commission decision to deny a duplex development on Pleasant Street. Councilman Brandon Leeth abstained. Harsha voted no.
• Robert Hildebrand, who lives near an abandoned quarry recently donated to the city, asked what the city’s plans were for the quarry. McKenzie said it would likely be used as a dump for dirt and asphalt chunks dug up during city projects.
• Hastings said the Hillsboro Planning Commission took public comments last month on Imagine Hillsboro, a comprehensive plan for the city, and accepted Tom Eichinger’s resignation as president. Monday was Eichinger’s first council meeting as council president after the local Republican party nominated him to replace Lee Koogler. Hastings said Rob Holt will be the new planning commission president.
• Councilwoman Ann Morris said the Property Maintenance and Restoration Committee recently met with the Zoning and Annexation Committee to take public comment on the Pleasant Street duplex project and discussed possible uses for the old Hillsboro firehouse uptown. Morris said the building could be sold and the revenue used for creating council chambers on the second floor of the City Building across the street. She said East Ambulance is interested in renting the fire station.
• Utilities Committee Chairman Brandon Leeth said his committee recently discussed a possible stormwater utility and possibly increasing the deposits for water and sewer service.
• Hastings said flowers donated by private parties will soon be placed uptown.
• Council heard a first reading of an ordinance restructuring the Hillsboro Police Department and Eichinger placed the matter in the Civil Service and Employee Relations Committee for review.
• Council approved legislation increasing appropriations in the police budget; authorizing applications for critical infrastructure grants; and supporting a commercial development at SR 73 and Harry Sauner Road.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570.