NORTHFIELD CENTER — Even though voters rejected a levy this past November for the purchase of a new town hall does not mean that township officials have entirely given up on the idea.
Trustees spent about two hours behind closed doors at a special meeting Feb. 24 to discuss possibly purchasing the former FirstMerit Bank building on the east side of Olde Eight Road, across the street from the Nordonia Hills Branch Public Library, said Trustee Russ Mazzola.
Mazzola said that during the executive session, Trustees met with Chris Kontur, the former bank building’s owner. Trustee Paul Buescher said Summit County Assistant Prosecutor Ray Hartsough, who serves as the township’s legal representative, as well as a real estate appraiser were also present.
"The voters said no to the tax increase, which we totally understand and respect," said Mazzola. "The issue though is we still have a daunting task in front of us in regards to the existing building."
That existing building is the current Town Hall off Brandywine Road, just south of Route 82. According to Summit County property records, it was built in 1910 and township officials have said it has a number of issues that could cost as much as $1 million to fix.
Buescher and Mazzola say no decisions have been made and purchasing the bank building is not the only possible solution.
"We were looking at the bank building and doing some further investigation on it," said Buescher. "Nobody is saying we’re buying the bank building. There’s a lot of speculation out there. We’re just investigating all options that are available to us right now and that is just one of them."
He added that other possibilities include renovating the current Town Hall, constructing a new building or finding another available building.
"It’s just, ‘Do we have all the information on all the options that are available?’"
Buescher said he expects the topic will be discussed in the open at future regular Trustee meetings. He said the Trustees also want to increase "citizen involvement" with a resolution on the agenda for the Trustees regular meeting Monday, after the News Leader goes to press, to form a building committee of residents to consider issues involving township structures, including the Town Hall.
"We all know if this comes down to renovating the Town Hall and things of this nature, we want some input on that to help us out," said Buescher.
Indeed, Mazzola said discussions over the Town Hall are part of a broader topic of township property, including the aging Route 82 fire station.
"Really, this is in the bigger scope of all our buildings," he said, adding, "There are a lot of moving parts and it’s not easy and I think that the solution is, unfortunately, it’s not going to please everyone, but I think there is a solution ultimately and it’s just a matter of getting there."
In November, voters rejected Issue 3, a 0.47-mill, 30-year levy to provide $1.4 million to purchase and renovate the bank building.
Buscher and Mazzola said one subject is whether there might be a way of purchasing and upgrading the bank building for less money.
"What we’re trying to do is look at all of our options to see if there’s any viability of the bank building in a different capacity perhaps, not spending $1.4 million on a 6,000-square-foot building," said Mazzola.
According to the final official results from the Summit County Board of Elections, the levy was defeated 901 to 373. The total of 1,285 ballots cast was less than a third of the 4,116 registered township voters. Buescher said the low turnout means a minority of township residents actually made the decision.
"I’m not leaning anywhere right now," he said. "We as a Board of Trustees have to do what is best for the community and that is all that’s on our minds. I realize the public turned it down, 25 percent of the eligible voters turned it down. We don’t know what the other 75 percent had on their minds."
Trustees say issues with the current Town Hall include asbestos and pathogenic mold, at least some of which has been mitigated; aging heating, air conditioning and drainage systems; lack of federal Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility; pest and vermin problems; difficulties in adapting a building originally designed as a community center and theater for government use; a lack of security for staff; and energy inefficiency.
Mazzola said he understands that the Town Hall is part of local history and many people feel nostalgic about it, but he believes it may be time to seek new lodgings for township government rather than renovation.
"Because it’s so old, because of the structural things, I think you’d be spending good money on a bad problem, unfortunately," said Mazzola. "And I’ve said that in many meetings."
In addition, township officials have said, the estimates do not necessarily factor in all costs, including making the building fully functional for government use, as well as the cost of relocating staff to another location temporarily while renovations are taking place.
State law is also complicating matters. It not only requires the township to get voter approval for any renovations of more than $50,000, but also only allows a levy to spread out the costs of renovation of an existing township facility over seven years, rather than 30 years to purchase a building.
Buescher said Trustees are not ignoring the positions of those who voted against the levy.
"But we still have to look at all these options that are available, including the bank building," he said. "Before we would do anything, we would let everyone know what’s going on and why and listen to their input and everything."
Mazzola said he believes the problems with the Town Hall should have been dealt with years, perhaps decades, ago.
"When I ran for Trustee, I had no intention or think this was going to be something I would have to deal with," he said.
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JeffSaunders_RP.