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New school construction fees hinge on agreement

No concrete deal yet for city of Tiffin

TIFFIN– The sidewalk is still on the table.
Last Wednesday, July 9, Tiffin City Council members decided to delay action on agreements with the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) School district until the district’s July 23 board meeting, at which time the district is expected to accept or decline a deal crafted by the city for the construction of a new sidewalk.
The sidewalk has been a back-and-forth skirmish between the two entities since before the construction of CCA’s new high school in 2010, when the city expected the school district to install a walkway in the right-of-way along Highway 6, from Ireland Avenue to the school’s west property line. Per city ordinance, a sidewalk is required within one year after a property is developed, but the city gave the school district an extra year to meet the requirement.
It’s now two years past the deadline, a new school is being built on Tiffin’s eastern edge, and there is no sidewalk as of yet.
The city offered two separate agreements for consideration at the district’s June 18 meeting. The school board passed the first, an arrangement under which the school agreed to pay for two-thirds of the cost of the infrastructure necessary to bring city water and sewer lines and a new lift station near the new school site along Park Road (formerly Jasper Avenue). The city is designing the utilities with larger-than-required pipes in order to accommodate future eastside growth. The school board approved to pay the city its share of the cost of expanding the utilities eastward, currently estimated at approximately $1,002,230.
However, in discussing the second agreement regarding sidewalk construction, school board members expressed uncertainty about each entity’s fiscal commitment.
The sidewalk agreement stated the city will waive tap-on fees to connect to the new municipal utilities, and waive 50 percent of the cost of construction permits for the new building, but the school board did not have a clear idea of how much they were saving, as specific dollars amounts were not listed in the agreements and project construction manager for the district, Keith Johnk of Shive-Hattery, could not find a fee structure on the city’s website.
Further, the sidewalk document also stated the city would pay for its portion to upgrade a regulation sidewalk to an 8-foot pedestrian trail, but it did not specify the school district’s portion of the sidewalk’s width or estimated project costs.
Therefore, the CCA school board voted to table the sidewalk agreement until the district could get hard numbers on fees and project costs.
Though the infrastructure agreement was approved by both parties, Tiffin City Council members and Mayor Steve Berner debated last week whether or not the deal should be rescinded, since the two agreements were intended to be two parts to a single package.
Tiffin City Attorney Bob Michael said the district’s position was the agreement was binding.
“They accepted the agreement on the division of payment for improvements, and they have taken the position you cannot rescind it because they accepted it. They would call it a breach of contract if you try to rescind it now,” Michael told the council.
Michael said the school district wanted to obtain the figures and wait until July 23 to reconsider the sidewalk document.
Berner said the council had only split the agreements into two as a practical matter.
“They approved one without the other. I think you could argue they breached the verbal agreement we had with them initially by not approving both,” said Berner. “It was our intention that both agreements go through.”
In addition, Berner added, the city made it clear that the district would not be issued building permits for the new elementary until infrastructure agreements were reached.
City Administrator Michon Jackson emphasized that the school board did not deny the sidewalk agreement, but simply wanted more information.
What is known is building permits were estimated at $24,000, half of which would be waived. Utility connection fees were more difficult to calculate, Jackson said, because Tiffin has no previous public building projects to compare to.
“When the city waived connection fees to the new (CCA) high school, nowhere in anybody’s information does it say what that dollar amount was. So we went further back and looked at the ECHO building, and those fees were waived, but nobody made a comment about how much those fees were,” said Jackson.
Council members generally agreed on the combined intent of the two agreements, and councilor Mike Ryan said the city would not gain much by rescinding the first agreement. However, Ryan added, he felt it appropriate to address the emotion of the situation after comments made at the June 18 school board meeting characterized the city as holding the school “over a barrel” and “playing hardball.”
“There was an article in the press that made Tiffin out to look like mobsters extorting funds from the school district. I thought we were doing a good thing, bearing in mind none of us knew there was going to be an elementary school on 64 acres plopped in Tiffin with no infrastructure to it,” said Ryan. “We have to come up with half a million to manage this project. We’ve done our part to support this, and I think some of us were put off, like we were treated a little shabbily by some of the comments they made.”
Ryan said he did not wish to get into a tit-for-tat argument with the district, and councilman Jim Bartels agreed.
“This trumping and counter-trumping is silly,” Bartels said. “I prefer to wait until (July) 23rd to see what they do.”
Furthermore, the council also declined to direct Jackson to halt the school’s construction immediately should the school board decline the sidewalk agreement next week.
“I want the kids of Tiffin to have a school to go to next year,” said Ryan. “We are over a barrel, too. I say we continue to negotiate in good faith. There are kids in this town who would be bussed five or 10 miles, and you have to weigh that. I don’t want that to stop construction.”
Council member Mark Petersen disagreed.
“I understand what Mike’s thinking, but all these developments had to get permits before they got started,” said Petersen. “I wouldn’t mind giving them the benefit of the doubt until after the 23rd, but after that, in my opinion, we don’t let it go any longer.”
Ultimately, the council directed Jackson to ask the school district to apply for building permits at full price, since the 50 percent discount would be granted as a refund after construction anyway.
“Due diligence wasn’t done as far as research and discussion with the city of Tiffin regarding infrastructure,” said Berner. “Now we are doing the best we can.”
The new elementary school, estimated to cost $14.4 million and funded by a $48 million bond issue approved by district voters in February, is expected to open August 2015.