WILMINGTON — The mayor said a state agency is withholding payment of a previously awarded $500,000 grant to the city, and that the reason is the long dispute over suspected excessive charges billed to the city for Caesar Creek Lake water.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) grant was awarded to help finance construction of a 3.5-mile extension of the Luther Warren Peace Path. The News Journal announced the grant award in January 2020, according to NJ archives.
In his report to city council Thursday, Wilmington Mayor John Stanforth said ODNR Director Mary Mertz has met with city officials who at that meeting made their case that the grant funds should be released to the city, but she said no.
Instead, the director said if the city paid the alleged overcharges, then the ODNR would provide the grant dollars, according to Stanforth and Wilmington Director of Public Safety/Service Brian Shidaker.
The city now will pursue other paths to get the grant funds released, said the mayor, such as contacting Gov. DeWine, getting the state representative and state senator who serve Wilmington involved along with “anybody else” and “put pressure on her [ODNR director] and let her see the error of her ways.”
Contacted Friday about the matter, ODNR emailed the News Journal a copy of a February 2021 letter it sent the city. It states the agency “cannot, at this time, provide final approval for your Clean Ohio Trail Fund local project”.
The letter, written by ODNR Assistant Director Steven A. Gray, ties the amount of the paused grant funding with the city’s past-due contractual obligations exceeding $500,000.
“And that number is continuing to grow,” wrote Gray.
The ODNR assistant director also stated in the letter, “The City recently clarified through its counsel that regardless of how the [existing] federal litigation ends, the City does not intend to make the payments that are due. Under these circumstances, with amounts owing ODNR, we are unable to make a grant award at this time.”
The letter also notes it is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that assesses the disputed operation and maintenance costs at the Caesar Creek Reservoir, and not ODNR.
Making the situation even more of a knotty problem is that the city received over $1 million in other grant funds for the same trail project. These separate dollars had deadlines for spending, and the city felt it had to go forward with the project and so most of these separate grant funds have been spent on building bridges on the trail route, according to Shidaker.
Construction of the trail itself is the last part of the project, and “that’s why the $500,000 is so critical in finishing the project,” Shidaker said.
When asked about next steps, Shidaker said the city is trying to avoid litigation. Instead the city would like to negotiate and work something out “without spending additional taxpayer dollars to have a fight with the state of Ohio and ODNR,” he added.
ODNR’s turndown to release the grant funds is in writing, noted Shidaker.
“We had to move forward [on the project] — we were going to lose everything — and we couldn’t walk away from over a million dollars in other grant funding for this trail. So we’re moving forward and hoping that the state changes their mind and releases that $500,000 but if they don’t, we’re going to have to figure out what we’re going to do,” Shidaker said in an interview after the council meeting.
“So we’ve got a [funding] shortfall on that project,” the safety-service director said.
“They put us in a bad position,” said Shidaker.
The planned Peace Path extension will begin at Nelson Road in the city of Wilmington and extend west along a former rail corridor to Beechgrove Road/Ogden Road in Adams Township. Designed to provide access along Lytle Creek, the trail will cross the stream at four locations along the corridor and provide scenic views.
The long-term plan is to eventually connect to the Little Miami Scenic Trail, the third-longest paved trail in the United States.
Prior to Thursday’s council session, there was a ceremonial “mortgage burning” at the city hall parking lot to mark the final payment of the city hall mortgage. City of Wilmington Auditor Mary Kay Vance recounted the story of the demolition of a number of downtown structures to make way for a new city hall.
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.