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Warren County has tried to start 2 major projects for years, but these problems are stopping them

Published: Sunday, June 17, 2018 @ 10:04 AM


            The Warren County Event Center is to be built near the entrance to the county fairgrounds in Lebanon.
The Warren County Event Center is to be built near the entrance to the county fairgrounds in Lebanon.

Warren County already is hard-pressed to come up with the money to pay for two construction projects that have been in the plans for years.

Last week, however, county officials said the work is more difficult now because of rising construction costs.

U.S. trade tariffs could worsen the problems for commercial construction in Warren County and elsewhere in the country, according to the chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

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Warren County has sought money to pay for an event center planned to replace grandstands at the county fairgrounds, and commissioners for almost a decade have planned an expansion of the county’s juvenile and probate court complex.

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Ken Simonson, chief economist for the national association of general contractors, said construction problems reflect national price hikes in building materials and goods that have prompted commercial contractors to begin raising their prices.

“Construction is really feeling the heat of rising material costs,” said Simonson. “I am concerned that the tariffs that have been announced … will push up construction costs even more.”

Still, last week in Lebanon, the county commissioners green-lighted negotiations expected to result in construction of a scaled-down version of the court facilities expansion, although staff said they had been unable to find a contractor willing to do the work for the $3.5 million budgeted.

At the same meeting, the commissioners put the brakes on the construction of the $3.8 million event center — already out of the picture for the county fair in July — while reviving an old feud with Lebanon officials that dates back at least four years. The fight is about whether any of the city’s $1.5 million share of $3 million in state funds set aside for redevelopment of the former racetrack and the areas immediately around them should be spent on the fairgrounds property.

RELATED: Warren County Fair to host another year without event center

“We’ve got a jail to build,” Commissioner Dave Young said, noting the county is involved in number of multi-million dollar construction projects. “This is at the bottom of my list.”

RELATED: State changes racetrack redevelopment rules to require Lebanon-Warren County collaboration

Event center deficit rekindles feud

Young directed staff to ask the city to help cover a deficit of almost $500,000.

“I want them to tell us they don’t have any money for this redevelopment,” Young said.

Lebanon has spent all but $403,000 of its share of the racetrack redevelopment funding through contributions to development of a new LCNB building on the north end of downtown and site work on the former city garage site just south of the fairgrounds in anticipation of redevelopment commercially or as the site of the new fire station.

RELATED: Lebanon among Ohio cities redeveloping racetracks

Both projects are within the area where the funds for racetrack redevelopment can be spent, according to state law set up after legalization of racinos in Ohio. The law came about when the new owners of the license for the raceway long operated at the county fairgrounds in Lebanon moved out to the Miami Valley Gaming racino west of the city limits, near Interstate 75.

But none of the city share has been spent on the fairgrounds, vacated by the racetrack owners when the racino opened.

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Last week, Lebanon City Manager Scott Brunka said the city council had decided to spend the rest of its share on improvements establishing an entertainment district downtown.

RELATED: Lebanon appeals to state for downtown entertainment district funds

“The City has coordinated the release of the remaining redevelopment funds with the Ohio Development Services Agency, with a final application being submitted shortly,” Brunka said via email. “The City has not budgeted for any financial contributions to the proposed event center.”

Asked about the city’s view of its responsibility to help redevelop the fairgrounds, Brunka pointed to an April 2015 resolution passed by the commissioners agreeing to collaborate on distribution of the funds and leaving it up to Lebanon leaders where to spend the city share.

RELATED: Warren County leaders debate fairgrounds redevelopment as clock ticks on state funds

Gene Steiner, president of the county agricultural society, said the city might feel some responsibility, since much of the $460,000 the project is over budget comes from stormwater management and water supply improvements required by the city.

“I think it’s an appropriate question,” said Steiner. He is president of the group that’s better known as the fair board, which manages the annual fair and the facilities where it is held just north of Lebanon’s historic downtown.

“The mayor’s been very supportive,” Steiner added. “That doesn’t mean they are going to write a check.”

Meanwhile, Steiner said he was meeting with port authority officials for preliminary discussions of the event center being developed by the port authority through a series of leases like those used to keep building costs down on projects, including the racino, while also avoiding adherence to prevailing wage laws required on public projects.

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Other options laid out last Tuesday by Deputy Administrator Martin Russell had the the fair board picking up the difference or “walking away” from the project.

Steiner said he did not like those other options, while adding that part of the problem was higher costs associated with a booming commercial construction sector.

Construction costs inflate projects

“Business is booming. Contractors have lots and lots of work to do. It is not a cheap time to do any project,” Steiner said.

The cost of materials, as reflected in a producer price index, has jumped 8.8 percent (compared to 2.8 percent for the overall consumer price index) over the last 12 months, including 2.2 percent from April to May, according to Simonson, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While recognizing higher costs could have an effect, Randall Fox, executive director of the AGC West Central Ohio division in Dayton, said the primary problem was different in this region.

“The biggest problem our contractors are having is finding quality people,” he said, adding contractors said they were slower in completing work due to the skill levels of workers they were hiring.

The AGC based in Cincinnati referred questions to economist Simonson, who said he lacked local perspective, but added that contractors from too far from the project site could hesitate to bid for contracts of $3 million to $4 million due to higher fuel costs.

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The construction company expected to build the event center, Conger, is based in Lebanon, and HGC, selected for the court expansion, in Cincinnati.

Cost overruns are showing up earlier in the public development process in cases, like those ongoing in Warren County, where a construction manager at risk is hired by the government at a set price, Deputy Administrator Russell said.

Scaled-down expansion moves ahead

The commissioners budgeted $3.5 million for an 11,000 square foot expansion of the juvenile and probate court facilities, including two new courtrooms.

Yet they agreed last week to let staff negotiate a construction contract expected to cost hundreds of thousands more, saying they potentially could save on long-term operating costs.

County Administrator Tiffany Zindel pointed to the common problem with rising construction costs.

RELATED: Warren County moving ahead with $2.5 million juvenile-probate expansion in May 2017

“They have enough work,” Zindel said. “What I’m telling you is we are not coming in at $3.5 (million).”

This after court staff, headed by Judge Joe Kirby, agreed in 2016 to downsize the expansion from 17,000 to 11,500 feet. A second and third courtroom are the cornerstones of the expansion.

“From the moment we moved into this facility in 1996, we have virtually been at full capacity. We are hopeful that negotiations are successful so that we can complete our addition, which will aid us in serving the public more efficiently,” Kirby said in an email after the meeting.

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Springboro to freeze water, sewer rates

Published: Friday, July 20, 2018 @ 3:45 PM


            Terry Morris, Veolia Water’s project manager for the Springboro waste water treatment plant, talks with maintenance technician Rick Dalton inside the upgraded facility in 2011. FILE
Terry Morris, Veolia Water’s project manager for the Springboro waste water treatment plant, talks with maintenance technician Rick Dalton inside the upgraded facility in 2011. FILE

There could be an end coming to rising water and sewer rates in Springboro.

Effective Jan. 1, the city plans to freeze rates that had been seeing annual cost of living increases, City Councilman Jim Chmiel said.

“This will help get our rates back in line,” Mayor John Agenbroad said during Thursday’s Springboro City Council meeting.

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Springboro has some of the region’s most expensive water and sewer rates, according to the 2018 Oakwood regional study.

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Customers paid an average of $303.92; $160.56 for water, $143.36, according to the study using a base consumption of 22,500 gallons (or 3,000 cubic feet) over three months.

Chmiel said the cost-of-living increase assessed in recent years would be not be charged next year.

“Unless something unforeseen happens, the existing rates will remain in effect and will not go up annually with a cost-of-living increase,” Chmiel said.

The council’s finance committee met before the council meeting.

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According to a staff report for the meeting, water fund collection revenues were up 10.82 percent over budget at the end of June. This increase is in water collections

made through utility bill payments.

Water fund expenditures were 13 percent under budget, due mainly to a decrease in use of professional services and supplies.

Overall, the unencumbered water fund balance was more than $7. 5 million. Funds unencumbered are committed to an unpaid expense.

In addition, the report indicated sewer collection revenues were up about 7 percent through June, while expenses were more than 26 percent under budget, leaving a unencumbered fund balance of more than $7.6 million.

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“We’ve been reviewing the water fund balance,” Chmiel said in a phone interview Friday. “We’re just about done paying off the sewer plant.”

Chmiel said the council would continue to review every two years.

Agenbroad said the decision reflected the city’s strong financial condition.

“It just shows you how solvent our city is financially,” he said. “We will continue to pass that onto the community.”

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Centerville names new police chief

Published: Friday, July 20, 2018 @ 3:38 PM


            Centerville has appointed Matt Brown to serve as the city’s police chief. Brown has been serving as interim chief since February.
            CONTRIBUTED
Centerville has appointed Matt Brown to serve as the city’s police chief. Brown has been serving as interim chief since February.(CONTRIBUTED)

Centerville has appointed Matt Brown to serve as the city’s police chief. Brown has been serving as interim chief since February.

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Former chief Bruce Robertson retired in February.

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Wayne Davis, Centerville city manager, said the city had been looking to fill three key leadership positions for police chief, assistant city manager and economic development administrator.

He said the appointment of Brown, who has been a member of the Centerville Police Dept. since 1998, is a result of his leadership and outstanding work as an officer.

“Matt Brown is an excellent example of some who is loyal, hard-working and smart, and who epitomizes the selflessness required of a public servant in law enforcement,” Davis said in a statement. “He is a strong and humble leader who gives of himself within law enforcement circles and within the community and region. We are fortunate to have Matt on our team, and we look forward to working with him far into the future.”

Pay range for the police chief position is $99,568-$131,172, but Brown’s exact salary was not released during the announcement of his appointment.

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Brown earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Toledo and has served in the department as a patrol officer, detective, sergeant and lieutenant.

Human Resources Manager Jennifer Brumby said there was a large response to the job postings for the leadership positions.

“As expected, there was nationwide interest in these positions, and the applicant pool for each position is large,” she said.

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Turner says Trump missed chance to send strong message to Putin

Published: Thursday, July 19, 2018 @ 3:30 PM


            U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton.

Saying “Putin got a pass,” U.S. Rep. Mike Turner says President Donald Trump failed to send a much-needed message to the world that Russian meddling in U.S. elections was unacceptable during Trump’s lengthy press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week.

Speaking on “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer on Thursday, Turner called Trump’s failure to make a strong statement “very serious.”

“We’re talking about meddling in our democracy, penetration of the election apparatus in the various states, meddling in the various campaigns,” he said. “This is something that you would want your president to be very strong on. And clearly, the president in public was not.”

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Turner’s words stand in stark contrast to those of his fellow Ohio Republicans, who have been more guarded in their criticism of Trump’s performance at the press conference. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, for example, called Trump’s comments during the press conference “troubling.”

Turner said Trump failed to take advantage of an opportunity to send a message to the world that the U.S. would not tolerate Russia meddling in their elections.

“The world knows that Putin and Russia is meddling in other countries,” he said. “We need to have the American president stand strong when we’re asking our allies’ presidents and leaders, prime ministers to stand strong.”

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He said while he was “disappointed” in Trump’s comments, he’s still satisfied that U.S. policy against Russia is strong, with the U.S. still standing strong on sanctions against Russia, still supporting NATO allies and still arming the Ukrainians against Russian aggression.

“That has not changed regardless of statements made in Helsinki,” he said.

Still, Turner said, “the importance of the president’s role here goes directly to the heart of our national security and that of our allies,” he said. “And the president needs to stand strong.”

He refused to criticize or explain the silence of fellow Republicans who have not been as publicly critical, saying, “I can only tell you about why I believe it’s important to have this dialogue. If Russia sees any weakness, they fill that vacuum, and you get instability and an impact lessening our national security.”

Turner, a Dayton Republican who sits on both the House Intelligence and the House Armed Services Committee, also took issue with Trump’s criticism during a Fox News interview of the U.S. having to defend countries such as Montenegro if attacked. Montenegro joined NATO last year.

Turner, a former head of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, said part of the purpose of NATO is mutual defense: It’s written into Article 5 of the alliance. And Montenegro, he said, has come to the defense of the U.S. – in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. He said the alliance “enhances our national security.” He said having them in NATO “takes them out of the sphere of influence” of countries such as Russia, and helps to ensure that if a conflict arises, the tiny nation will side with the U.S. over U.S. rivals.

“We’re glad Montenegro is in NATO and yes, they’re defending us, we’ll defend them,” he said.

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Local site could be selected for federal driverless car designation

Published: Wednesday, July 18, 2018 @ 10:50 AM
Updated: Wednesday, July 18, 2018 @ 11:44 AM


            Local site could be selected for federal driverless car designation. Getty Image
Local site could be selected for federal driverless car designation. Getty Image

When the Obama administration designated its first 10 pilot sites for testing of automated vehicle technologies in January 2017, a 4,500-acre facility in East Liberty was not on the list.

This week, five Republican lawmakers and a handful of state senators including Senate President Larry Obhof, R–Ashtabula, held a press conference on Capitol Hill with a united message: Rethink that decision.

“This is a premiere facility,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R–Lakeville, who like other Republicans, argued that many of the 10 picked in January “don’t even have a facility, don’t even have assets. It’s a wish list.”

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The East Liberty–based Transportation Research Center, the largest independent automotive testing ground in the U.S., argues it’s ready to test automated vehicles. The Logan County site broke ground last week on a $45 million SmartCenter that is being billed as the world’s biggest self-driving-vehicle test track. When it’s finished, the center will consist more than 18 miles of paved road and give researchers, automakers and safety organizations real-world tools and experience before putting driverless cars on public streets.

Ever since the Transportation Department bypassed the East Liberty site in January 2017, the Ohio delegation has been on a mission to convince Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to include Ohio on that list, bringing her to the site last April and sending two letters — one last year and one this week — urging her to add the East Liberty site to the list. Chao, said Rep. Jim Jordan, R–Urbana, has expressed some willingness to consider adding the East Liberty site. Jordan and Gibbs joined Reps. Bob Latta, R–Bowling Green, Warren Davidson, –-Troy and Bill Johnson, R–Marietta in speaking on behalf of the site Tuesday.

The Department of Transportation began seeking proposals for a pilot program to designate automated vehicle proving grounds in November 2016. The 10 designees were picked from more than 60 applicants with the East Liberty site among those applying. Transportation instead picked sites in Pennsylvania, Texas, Maryland, Michigan, two sites in California, Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina.

Proponents of picking the TRC say that adding the East Liberty site to the list would allow the facility to receive federal research funding for driverless vehicles. Those federal dollars would be helpful to TRC as it moves forward, said Brett Roubinek, president and CEO of TRC. The center applied for the designation in 2016 but did not receive it.

Gibbs said while two of the 10 sites had begun work testing automated vehicles, some that received the designation had no physical facilities to do so. “It was really just a Christmas list,” he said, adding “it’s really unfortunate what happened.”

“How we can have the premiere facility in the country that doesn’t get on the list of 10? It just makes no sense….we should be the captain of the ship, and we really are.”

“This is a pre-eminent free-marketing center,” said Davidson. “Only the government can disrupt that. The trouble is, they have.”

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