Hillsboro City Council members on Monday debated the cost and wisdom of purchasing a property on Gov. Trimble Place for the purposes of demolishing it, with Mayor Drew Hastings making it clear that the decision was essentially a determination of whether an uptown plaza would be built.
And, the city is in line for more major paving projects thanks to a partnership with the Ohio Department of Transportation, which will see the city responsible for only 20 percent of the cost in most cases, which it could not afford in years past, according to the city auditor.
In regard to the property purchases, one of the properties, commonly called the Armintrout building but actually owned by John “Buck” Wilkin, is part of a package deal that includes a storage barn on West Walnut Street near the Hillsboro Police Department also owned by Wilkin. The total purchase price for both buildings would be $115,000.
The resolution to purchase the buildings had a first reading Monday, with two more readings to go before a vote will be taken.
At a recent meeting of the Finance Committee attended by all council members with the exception of council President Lee Koogler, all three members of the committee – Donley, Ann Morris and Bill Alexander – voted in favor of purchasing the storage building. But only Donley and Morris voted to also purchase the Armintrout building, with Alexander voting against.
Donley, chair of the Finance Committee, told council members that he has since learned that Wilkin is only interested in selling the buildings as a package.
In his mayor’s report, Hastings made it clear that from his perspective, purchasing and demolishing the Armintrout building is a key part of building an uptown plaza where Gov. Trimble Place now exists, as well as an important component to overall revitalization in Hillsboro.
“What is really being voted on tonight is, do we want to improve and revitalize Hillsboro?” said Hastings.
The mayor said the plaza would be a community gathering spot for events, establishes the groundwork for a designated entertainment district, and encourages uptown residential living and new businesses, “which, in turn, shows a developer like a hotel that we are serious about economic development.”
Hastings said the plaza and other development efforts would send a signal that the city is doing something for young people that might give them something to do “other than trying heroin for the first time.”
But council member Becky Wilkin said she did not see the need for the plaza. She said events can already be held on Gov. Trimble by closing it temporarily. She said a similar plaza in Mason, Ohio, is seldom used.
But council member Tracy Aranyos disagreed, saying Hillsboro needs more amenities to attract people and businesses. She said the plaza would be popular with local residents as well as a venue for activities by organizations like the Hillsboro Uptown Business Association.
Morris agreed, saying, “We owe it to the people of Hillsboro to move forward,” adding, “we can’t stay stagnant.”
Council member Claudia Klein agreed with Aranyos and Morris, saying that people are always walking around Hillsboro, and they, along with visitors, would have a “perfect place” to sit, relax and talk, adding that there is no place to sit outside in the uptown area.
Council member Justin Harsha asked Hastings why the resolution was written as an emergency, which would suspend the three-reading rule and pass the measure immediately. The mayor said he did not ask that the measure be prepared as an emergency, and he expected it to go through the normal three-reading process.
Alexander asked several questions about the costs of the building and insurance liability issues if the building is torn down, especially as it relates to its abutment with a building on Gov. Trimble Place owned by Hastings, which houses the offices of The Times-Gazette.
Hastings said one building was built in the 1800s and the other in the 1930s and he doubted they were physically connected. But he said he would recuse himself from any decisions on liability because of his ownership of one of the properties.
The measure will have a second reading at the March meeting, and then be set for a vote at the April meeting. Based on the Finance Committee meeting and Monday’s council meeting, it appears that as of now Donley, Morris, Aranyos and Klein are in favor of purchasing the Armintrout building, with Harsha, Wilkin and Alexander opposed. Koogler only votes in the event of a tie, which could be possible if a council member was absent or abstained from voting.
In regard to street paving, Hillsboro Safety and Service Director Todd Wilkin reported that he, city Auditor Gary Lewis and Randy Barr, the water/sewer and streets manager, recently traveled to Chillicothe to meet with ODOT officials regarding paving projects in Hillsboro for three years beginning in 2017.
Starting next year, ODOT will pave U.S. Route 62 all the way through Hillsboro, said Wilkin. The city will be responsible for 20 percent of the costs and any “full depth repair” necessary, he said. U.S. Route 50 will be paved in 2018 all through the entire town, again with the 20 percent city match money.
Wilkin said portions of SR 138 in the city will also be paved next year and the year after. A similar agreement with ODOT for portions of SR 124 and SR 247 was previously approved by council.
Lewis said that in years past, such work was not done by ODOT in Hillsboro because the city did not have the matching funds on hand. “Now we do,” said Lewis, thanks to good financial management and decisions. Koogler noted that a substantial amount of street paving work has been done in the last four years.
Council later approved resolutions to OK the matching funds for the ODOT work.
Wilkin also reported that last year the city purchased a street sweeper that attaches to the front of the city’s loader. “The sweeper will be utilized on a regular basis to keep our streets clean of grit, trash and other debris,” said Wilkin.
Wilkin said that in past years, the city has hired a contractor to sweep the streets at a cost of around $9,000. “This pays for a one-time cleaning and doesn’t address the issues for the remainder of the year,” he said.
Wilkin said that once a routine schedule for street sweeping is established, it will be announced publicly.
On another matter, council heard again from Steven Williams, the former Democratic mayoral candidate who was one of several local residents who complained in December about a Facebook post by the mayor which some said was racially insensitive and others called racist.
Williams asked council members if they had made a decision on formally censuring or otherwise expressing their opinions on the mayor’s post. Koogler said it remains his position not to delve into the matter while a criminal investigation is under way involving Hastings, but he opened the floor for council members to express their opinions.
Aranyos, Morris and Klein agreed that the mayor’s posting was intended as a reflection of the national mood, not on Hillsboro or race relations here. Harsha said he had spoken with Koogler, and the two agreed that council should prepare a policy on the decorum expected of city officeholders. He said he still wants to hold a meeting on the subject at some point.
Alexander said he does not use Facebook and has not seen the comments. He asked Williams to supply him with a copy of the post. Becky Wilkin said council should have further discussions on the matter.
Donley said that sometimes people say things they wish they could take back. He said he agreed with Koogler and Harsha that council should establish guidelines, policies and procedures in regard to issues of decorum.
Williams said council’s comments were “a step in the right direction.”
Hastings apologized for the post in a Times-Gazette story within a couple of days, and apologized again to those in attendance at the December meeting, saying, “I’ve learned a lesson here. At 61 when you think you have all the answers, you don’t. You’re right, words can be harmful. Being an elected official is 24-7.”
The mayor made no comment Monday during Williams’ appearance before council.
As usual on Monday, the mayor and the safety director sat beside each other throughout the session. In January, they did so without speaking or acknowledging each other.
The January meeting took place shortly after a civil complaint and criminal investigation against Hastings became public, with part of the evidence detailing that when investigators interviewed Wilkin, he stated that he did not approve a $500 rebate to Hastings of a vacant property fee he had paid, despite an approval document containing Wilkin’s stamped signature.
But throughout Monday’s meeting, the mayor and the safety director chatted amicably with each other as they typically did prior to the investigation.
In other matters:
• Todd Wilkin announced that Hillsboro Police Sgt. Steve Browder was the employee of the month, with Wilkin noting that Browder has been with the department for more than 15 years, and that he was nominated for the work he performed in January.
• Wilkin reported that mediation with engineering company CH2MHill was canceled, with the company requesting an extension of the arbitration case, which centers on work done at the wastewater treatment plant, and arbitration now scheduled for June.
• Wilkin reported that the city is evaluating applications to fill the water/sewer and streets manager position held by Barr, with Barr retiring soon, and advertisements have also been placed for a code enforcement officer.
• Council heard from Noreen Gibson of Noreen’s School of Dance regarding the city sign ordinance, with Gibson requesting that council consider waiving sign fees for businesses that are replacing an existing sign, and with Koogler and Morris agreeing to look into it, and also agreeing that the city’s sign ordinance is a constantly evolving matter, evidenced by passage of an ordinance Monday to lower sign fees and permit additional sign options.
• Harsha report that he will be attending an upcoming meeting of the Festival of the Bells Committee to discuss city ideas and concerns regarding the festival.
• Koogler placed an ordinance on a zoning issue regarding historic and business districts back into committee, with council’s approval since it was set for a second reading.
• Becky Wilkin reported on a Utilities Committee meeting she held on water bill minimums and fee structures, saying she will hold more meetings on the subject.
• Donley said another Finance Committee meeting will be held regarding a contribution request from Grow! Highland County.
• Aranyos reported on a Zoning and Annexation Committee meeting regarding first floor apartments in the uptown area, with more meetings planned.
All council members were present Monday.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.