Meadville Tribune

September 9, 2013

Commissioners: Talon project may be dead

By Jane Smith
Special to the Tribune

VERNON TOWNSHIP — Despite the fact the county has spent in excess of $3 million to renovate the former Talon building on Arch Street to move the courts and court-related offices there, it appears that may not happen.

Speaking at a “Conversation with Commissioners” forum Monday night at the Vernon Township Municipal Building before a crowd of about 20 people, two of the three Crawford County commissioners said they can’t support the move. 

The Tribune-sponsored forum was designed to allow the trio to update the public about various issues and address other subjects. Pat Bywater, executive editor, noted commissioners had inherited the situation from a previous board, but asked when this board was going to make final plans for the building.

Commissioner Chairman Francis Weiderspahn Jr. said he was prepared to make his decision. Noting the projected cost has risen from the initial $25 million to $32.5 million, he said, “I can’t go to the county taxpayers,” noting it was “too high” for them to fund. He later clarified that to say he believes that there are better solutions such as using property near the courthouse. “We would be better off spending $10 million around the courthouse instead of $30 million at Talon.”

Commissioner Sherman Allen, who voted for the project, said something must be done, noting the poor working conditions in some of the courthouse offices. The county is paying the Economic Progress Alliance $300,000 in rental fees a year and also is paying rental fees for storage space and other county offices such as Domestic Relations. He said the county has to “bite the bullet” and do something, adding he believes he was elected to do what he thinks is right.

Commissioner Jack Lynch said the committee that studied the proposals on behalf of the county gave some options — with costs ranging from $48 million to $62 million. Before making a decision about borrowing funds, he said, the county will have to learn what its bond rating is, noting several years ago it was not good enough to borrow that much money. “I don’t think doing nothing is an option.” Lynch also noted the county currently is spending in excess of $700,000 for repairs at the courthouse. “If Talon is not an option, we have to figure out something ... something should have been done 20 years ago.”

Following the forum, Lynch said he is “very leery” of all the Talon-site option, but stressed that although $3 million has been spent, he believes it can be recouped in some manner. He noted there may be other options around the courthouse for further development.

Asked by Tribune reporter Keith Gushard if they would consider drilling gas wells on county property such as the county forest near Titusville and the county home near Saegertown, all three commissioners said yes. Weiderspahn said commissioners have met with a forester to develop a management plan for the forest, noting nothing has been done with the forest since the mid-1980s. He said funds from the harvesting of timber would be used for further research on who owns the mineral rights there. 

Weiderspahn said Allen has previously suggested a gas well on the county farm property, noting the gas could be used to reduce expenses at the three county facilities which run “24/7” — the county jail, the county care center and the Quality Living Center.

Allen agreed, noting in the past some gas companies were offering to pay property owners $500 an acre, but the county did not pursue it. He said although it would probably cost half-a-million-dollars to drill the wells, “it could pay off,” adding it’s something to look into.

“Yes, I’m very interested,” Lynch said. “There is absolutely no reason we could not,” he noted, also referring to the research Weiderspahn had discussed. He, too, agreed that it is something that should be pursued.

Asked whether the county is willing to do something to make improvements to properties that aren’t sold at the Tax Claim Bureau sale and have been left in bad conditions, Allen said there is a legal question that has never been answered. The properties in question are “county held,” not “county owned,” he said. If the county would make improvements, it could be considered to be the owner and held liable.

He said if the county were to maintain the properties, the school districts and municipalities (all of which receive some of the tax money) should have to help pay the maintenance costs.

Lynch said the county “could not afford” a management plan for the various properties. He is interested in helping expedite the process of getting the properties back on the tax rolls.

Weiderspahn noted the county treasurer has been more aggressive in preparing properties for judicial sales than in prior years and that will help move the properties back on the tax rolls as well.