Updated with Todd Wilkin comment on wastewater plant mediation.
The Finance Committee of Hillsboro City Council voted 2-1 Thursday to recommend a 60-day delay before passing a resolution to purchase two properties in the city, one of which is related to building an uptown plaza. But committee chair Dick Donley said he remained committed to pursuing the plaza.
Donley and committee member Bill Alexander voted for the delay, with committee member Ann Morris voting against the motion. The resolution is set for its third and final reading at Monday’s council meeting, but if council agrees to the committee’s recommendation, it will remain in committee at least until June.
Donley opened the meeting – which was attended by Mayor Drew Hastings, city Auditor Gary Lewis and all council members except President Lee Koogler – by suggesting that because of a judgment against the city and unknown costs associated with it, he believed the purchase of the properties should be put on hold “a couple more months.”
Donley was referring to an appeals court ruling last week upholding a judgment in favor of former Mayor Richard Zink’s administrative assistant, Kirby Ellison, over her firing in January 2012 when Hastings took office.
Court records show former Zink administration safety and service director Ralph Holt had indicated that Ellison had been moved from classified to unclassified status – serving at the pleasure of the mayor – in 2004, but the court ruled that the proper steps had apparently not been taken to officially effect that change.
The court awarded Ellison back pay and ordered her employment reinstated. Lewis this week told The Times-Gazette that the back pay and benefits could amount to about $225,000.
The resolution that had first and second readings in February and March would see the city purchase both a storage barn used by the Hillsboro Police Department and a building on Gov. Trimble Place commonly called the Armintrout building, both of which are owned by John “Buck” Wilkin.
The funds to purchase the buildings are included in the 2016 budget. In January, when the Finance Committee recommended buying both buildings, the price was quoted at $115,000. At the request of Alexander, the two items were voted on separately. The recommendation to purchase the storage barn at $50,000 was approved unanimously. The motion to purchase the Armintrout building at $65,000 was approved by a 2-1 vote, with Alexander voting against the recommendation.
Purchasing the Armintrout building would be a step toward building the plaza, since the building would be torn down to create more space and provide parking that would be lost with the closing of Gov. Trimble.
“I still want to see the plaza continue,” said Donley.
Alexander said he agreed with Donley’s reasoning on delaying the purchase, but Morris said the purchase price “is not that much money in the big scheme of things.” She said she discussed the matter with Lewis and believes other items could be “trimmed” rather than delaying the property purchases.
Morris said the city would have the money for the Ellison settlement in two years if it enacted legislation that would change the way the city bills water usage at multi-unit properties. Hastings has said that change will reap an extra $120,000 annually.
“We should go ahead with the purchase,” said Morris. “Even if everything goes wrong, we still have the money for it.” She added, “I just feel weird jumping ship” on the project “because of one person.”
But council member Justin Harsha said he agreed with Donley, saying, “I don’t feel that postponing until we find out is jumping ship at all.”
Hastings conceived of the plaza idea and commissioned a plaza committee to come up with a design. On Thursday, while saying he was amenable to delaying the property purchase, the mayor said the Ellison decision “happened to be this month,” but it could have been “something else,” and the city should not have its plans influenced by such events.
He said the property purchase is not the only expenditure the city could consider delaying. He said Todd Wilkin, the safety and service director, told him as many as five or six new hires are pending, including a police officer.
“There are a lot of things we spend money on,” said Hastings. He said he spoke with the Columbus attorney handling the Ellison case for the city, and the city should have a decision on how to proceed within the next 48 days.
Along with Morris, council members Tracy Aranyos and Claudia Klein expressed support for moving ahead with the property purchases.
“I agree with Ann,” said Klein. “It sends a bad message to citizens because this woman may or may not get some money.” She said, “We’re going to hold the whole city up wondering what’s going to happen, when?” She said she wanted to assure citizens “we’re keeping our word and moving forward no matter what.”
At the March council meeting, Lewis said the city is on track to have a $700,000 carryover at the end of the year. He said Thursday that while that is still the case, there are always variables that could impact that figure.
Hastings noted that as it stands now, the city is under an arbitration decision to pay more than $800,000 to the contractor of the new wastewater treatment plant in an ongoing dispute about engineering and construction of the project that began in 2008 and was completed in January 2013 after construction delays and design issues.
“We didn’t freak out over it,” said Hastings.
Wilkin, the safety director, said Friday afternoon that mediation on the wastewater plant dispute is scheduled for Tuesday.
Donley said several times Thursday that he supports building the plaza. “I think people want the plaza,” he said. Alexander said the plaza could be built whether or not the Armintrout building is purchased.
Hastings said he would talk with the safety director about performing other necessary plaza-related planning initiatives while the property purchase is on hold.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.