April 17, 2014

Old school house’s fate in voters’ hands

Danedri Thompson
dthompson@gardnernews.com

City council members had hoped voters would be able to decide whether they want to spend money to demolish the old school building in town or spend money restoring it, but according to city attorney Frank Jenkins, that probably wouldn’t be possible.

Jenkins said such a ballot question would be an advisory one.

“Tax dollars are to fund those that are statutorily required elections,” Jenkins said. “They do not do advisory elections.”

Instead, a November ballot question will ask whether council should adopt an ordinance that defines the cost and financing of restoring the building. Although the word “demolition” is unlikely to appear in the ballot question, a vote against restoring the building would likely lead to its demise.

“It seems to me that if that would fail, it would be incumbent on us to take the next step and to my mind, that would be demolition,” council member Steven Ellis said.

The school district sold the school building to the city for $1 in 1995. Since then, city officials have used it as city hall and as a civic center. However, the south side of the building – the oldest portion – is walled up and closed due to disrepair.

Estimates to repair the building’s shell last year came to more than $1 million. That money would simply bring the building to code, but would not fully finish the interior. It would cost approximately $250,000 to demolish the building.

There is no room in the budget to fund either project.

Last year, council approved a timeline to destroy the building, but rescinded the decision after residents rallied to save it. Council created a citizens committee to study the issue and make a final decision on the building’s fate.

However, when the committee was disbanded, members recommended that the council should either fully restore the building or tear it down.

Council members decided to place the issue on the ballot and let the people decide, and now city staff is working under tight deadlines to put the building’s fate on the Nov. 2 ballot.

By June 24, council members should have a firm estimate of costs to completely renovate and finish the old school building. That’s the cost voters will eventually see on a ballot.

By Aug. 13, council members hope to have a ballot question submitted to Johnson and Miami County Election Commissioners for inclusion on the November ballot.

Jenkins said the question will be similar to the aquatic center question.

Council member Chris Leaton said making a decision about the building’s fate will help the council in future decisions.

“We are at the point where we have to make a decision,” he said.
Ellis agreed.

“It’s an albatross around our necks right now,” Ellis said.

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