Some officials believe the city was shut out of a county demolition project for political reasons, while county officials say the city is protesting prematurely.
City Planning Director William Cowan sent a letter to county commissioners May 30 voicing his concerns about the Moving Ohio Forward grant program and a bid packet distributed by the county Development Department.
Cowan said he was not aware the final selection of properties slated for demolition had been made, learning "by chance" when Deputy Service-Safety Director Dan Galeoti informed him.
Galeoti, who owns a demolition company, received a packet offering his company the opportunity to bid on the demolition project, and the packet included a list of 44 properties.
Cowan asked for a packet and discovered no city properties were included on the list, nor were any properties in Salem, Wellsville, Salineville, Hanoverton and a few other communities, although each had submitted lists of properties they wanted to see demolished under the grant program.
Included in the bid packet, with the number of properties to be demolished, were Columbiana (3); Leetonia (4); Center Township (3); Liverpool Township (4); Middleton Township (6); Salem Township (1); East Palestine (4); Butler Township (5); Knox Township (1); Madison Township (5); Perry Township (3); and West Township (5).
Although concerned the city had not been included, Cowan said he is most concerned that those properties earmarked for demolition in the bid packet do not meet his interpretation of the program's intent.
"Being familiar with Moving Ohio guidelines, many of the properties that you have approved for demolition are far removed from the purpose of the program, and that is to rid neighborhoods of blighted abandoned residential properties caused by, or that were part of, the housing bubble collapse that occurred in 2007 and 2008," Cowan wrote.
After speaking with the Attorney General, Cowan said they concurred that the program's guidance documents are "vague and not specific enough to prohibit you from including seemingly ineligible structures in your demolition packet."
Nonetheless, he said those choices left him with unanswered questions, such as whether demolition orders been issued on the properties, whether volunteer demolition agreements had been signed for them, how the program was "sold" to those who did sign the agreements, and whether selection of properties was politically motivated.
The county was awarded a $500,000 grant to assist county communities to rid blighted properties from their neighborhoods, and Cowan said the homes submitted by the city meet the intent of the program and are "in just as bad condition, if not worse, than those shown in the bid document photos," adding, "The only difference between the houses selected by the county and those submitted by (the city) is our vacant dilapidated houses are usually and literally an arm's length away from an occupied house."
He emphasized that two of the city's most recent fires started in vacant dilapidated structures and spread to adjoining properties, resulting in two fires destroying six houses.
Cowan offered a lengthy list of the properties chosen and why he believed each does not meet the criteria set down by the grant program.
Among those are an outbuilding on Pittsburgh Street in Columbiana that he said appears to be at the rear of an estate; a vacant house located on 126 acres of land in Center Township purchased for $451,300 and not abutting any other property; a building on Butler Township Trustees property adjacent to their garage on Slater Road which was just purchased in March; a building with no abutting structures on the old Crockery City Farm of 134 acres; a structure on Goshen Road owned by a man who owns 40 other parcels in the county and who live in a $215,000 home; and three separate parcels owned by the same man in West Township, including an abandoned farm house in a rural setting with no abutting residential properties.
Cowan also listed several properties included in the bid packet he believes do meet the criteria, all of which are in residential areas, abutting other structures. The city had already performed title searches and finished all legal requirements for the properties they submitted for consideration.
"It's very bothersome to me," Cowan said about the situation, saying he was advised by Greater Ohio Policy Center officials that they depend upon local authorities to make sure all properties chosen meet the program's intent.
"The purpose of the project is not to tear down vacant houses on farmland," Cowan insisted.
At this week's City Council meeting, Councilman Sherrie Curtis mentioned Cowan's letter, saying he had "done a lot of work on this" and was upset about the outcome.
Councilman Ray Perorazio suggested that, perhaps, the city was left off the list due to retaliation over recently winning a $6.2 million lawsuit against Buckeye Water District, which ended up involving county commissioners.
Commissioner Mike Halleck said Tuesday the lawsuit "has nothing to do with it, although that would cross people's minds."
Halleck added, "I think their concern is premature. Perhaps they would have been better served to have a meeting in the commissioner's office. Someone went to an awful lot of trouble and wasted a lot of gas to find these properties," referring to the detailed list in Cowan's letter.
Both he and Commissioner Jim Hoppel and Development Department Director Pam Dray said there is another round of demolitions that will be funded, and the city will be included in those.
"There's a whole other list to come. It's guaranteed (East Liverpool) will be listed," Hoppel said, adding that each entity had the opportunity to choose which properties it wanted demolished, since they "know their areas better than we do."
Halleck pointed out, "There really are no criteria" properties must meet to be considered.
Of the $500,000 available for demolition, $150,000 has already been spent on asbestos abatement, and Dray said another 23 are being tested.
"There's no doubt East Liverpool will be included in another round. We did not exclude East Liverpool. We just couldn't do them all at the same time," Dray said, although Cowan said Tuesday that, in speaking with state officials, he was advised additional funding is not guaranteed.
Commissioners are expected to award contracts for this first list of demolitions at their meeting today.