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Paving the way to a better Tiffin

TIFFIN– The decision to pave Jasper Avenue is not yet set in concrete.
One Tiffin City Council member asked to defer the decision until the three-member body had one more opportunity to determine where the project fits into the city’s capital improvements list.
At the council’s Sept. 26 meeting, owners of a popular wedding reception, banquet and meeting facility Bella Sala, located at 3232 Jasper Ave. on the eastern edge of Tiffin, came before the city to make a plea for the paving of Jasper Avenue from Highway 6 to their venue. Melissa Fontanini and Lyndsie Schnoor reminded the current council that before the facility opened in 2010, a handshake deal was made between them and the previous mayor for the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars to be used to pay for 17 acres of land deeded over to the city for its trail project, and they were also told at the time the gravel road would be paved within two years.
Though the council has changed and a new mayor elected in the meantime, Bella Sala’s owners and investors think it’s time for the promise to be solidified. The gravel road deters some potential customers from booking the facility– particularly corporate clients– and the fact that many people walk along the narrow shoulders of the gravel road to get to the trail make it unsafe.
At the council’s Oct. 10 regular meeting, Bella Sala investor Jeff Witter addressed the group.
“We were always assured there was a deal to have a road out there as part of bringing us here,” said Witter. “We do pay a very large tax for that building. People are coming to that venue by the thousands. That business is the first of Tiffin they see, and if they leave on a gravel road, that is the last impression of Tiffin they leave with.” Witter said the facility brings many visitors into Tiffin who patronize other businesses as well, and that should be taken into consideration.
Not everyone agreed with Witter’s arguments for paving the road. Former city council member Travis Weipert spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“When I was on the council three years ago, my understanding was there was never an agreement,” Weipert said. “You guys were under a two-year tax abatement in exchange for that land.”
“That’s not true,” Witters countered. “We gave the city 17 acres at a really good price and it was paid for with our tax dollars. You used TIF as a mechanism to pay for the land you bought from us. You didn’t pay us until we gave you a check for taxes first. We got no TIF for our development, for bringing in the water and sewer and everything else.”
Schnoor weighed in on the discussion as well.
“Clearly people on the council when this deal went down were never communicated to; we did not get this abatement for free. When Royce (Phillips) was mayor, we did not get a free abatement. We gave you land so you would have the bike path and it does not need to be held over our heads any more.”
Weipert argued that he has heard from several citizens that there are higher priorities for city projects, such as the paving of Roberts Ferry Road and Ireland Avenue, and the city should not cater to just one business.
“Probably 70 percent of the population are living up there. We are not fixing the problems we have in town. You need to look at the dollars,” said Weipert.
The dollars are part of what had council member Mike Ryan favoring the Jasper Avenue paving project. Paving company L.L. Pelling estimated putting a blacktop surface on the road would cost approximately $100,000 from Highway 6 south to Bella Sala. If the city is to use TIF to help pay for the project, the project has to be completed and money spent by June 2013.
“I am pretty passionate about developing the older part of Tiffin,” said Ryan, “but we can’t get that done by June 2013. We have TIF funds that have been identified that need to be disbursed or they go back. We have a project ready to go, a funding stream identified, and (paving Jasper Avenue) has benefit beyond one business. It has benefit to all of us. They are doing 120 weddings out there and it improves our town. It enhances the entry to town from the east, it cuts down on dust in the park area, and relatively speaking, it’s a low impact project.”
And Berner noted it was not an either/or prospect.
“This will in no way delay anything on Roberts Ferry or fixing up the older part of town. This is a quick project that would be done probably a year to a year-and-a-half before Roberts Ferry is even ready. Roberts Ferry is a $2.5 million project, and this is a $100,000,” said Berner.
Public Works Director Mehmen said there would be significant cost-savings created by paving the road as well.
Council member Peggy Upton, who said she had a hard time accommodating a single business’ request, asked to delay voting on the paving project until the council could prioritize the city’s overall capital improvements list.
Berner said Jasper Avenue was already at the top of the list, but he and the three council members could not agree as to whether or not the list had already been prioritized in April 2012.
Upton said she reviewed council minutes and could not find anything indicating the second phase of the capital improvements list had been prioritized.
“If we could prioritize these projects in a work session, I would rather wait and be satisfied, and still get it done next by spring, or even yet this year,” said Upton. “We speak for all the citizens and can’t do justice to that without giving it some ordered consideration. I would like to consider our projects as a whole.”
Ultimately, the council voted to enter into a special work session on Monday, Oct. 15, to rank the project within the city’s overall capital improvements list.
Rising to the top on Monday was the installation of a sidewalk through the tunnel that crosses under Highway 6 near Clear Creek Amana Middle School, with the caveat that the school district would have to agree to complete the walk on its side of the tunnel at the same time. Berner said he would approach the school board to see if the school is amenable, and whether that project could be completed by the June 30 deadline. The rough estimate for a 6-foot sidewalk from Deer View Road to the tunnel is $370,000.
Next on the list was to reimburse developer Mark Portwood for overages in sewer and water installation Portwood did when building a residential subdivision several years ago. The city and Portwood had a developer’s agreement to share costs for the sewer and water, but because Portwood had to install a larger system than originally estimated, and because it ultimately resulted in the potential to service 1,700 acres of future development, the project cost him $233,731 in overages. Portwood argued that other developers paid nothing to get city water and sewer to their Tiffin developements, and he didn’t feel he should get stuck with a bill beyond his obligation. The council members generally agreed, though they plan to revert two lots back to Portwood’s ownership– originally given to the city for a water tower site– at their retail value to reduce the city’s final reimbursement amount.
Priority number three was paving Jasper Avenue with an asphalt overlay 5 inches thick and 24 feet wide. This project would be funded with TIF dollars.
Building a concession stand for the ball fields and soccer fields at the city’s park ranked as the fourth top priority, although there are no plans or cost estimates for such a project at this time.
The fifth-ranking priority was for a new city hall. Currently, there are two part-time employees, with another utility billing clerk to join soon, working in cramped conditions at Tiffin City Hall. In addition to needing more office space, the council wants its own council chambers rather than having to find meeting space elsewhere in the community. There is a tentative floor plan, with the only cost estimate at approximately $120-$130 per square foot for a building constructed on a slab.
Though the top five projects were ranked in order of priority, the actual completion of the projects will depend on the availability of funds and the timing of funding mechanisms such as TIF.
Resolutions for paving Jasper Avenue and repaying Portwood are expected to be on the council agenda on Wednesday, Oct. 24. City Engineer Doug Frederick is on standby for bid letting for paving Jasper Avenue, and once approved, the council expected the project could be underway within a couple of weeks.