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Both sides confident going into Oakhill trial



Published: Wed, July 18, 2007 @ 12:00 a.m.

The lawsuit trial will be an eye

opener, a commissioner says.

By PETER H. MILLIKEN

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN — The chairman of the Mahoning County commissioners said he supports having the county take the risk of moving its Department of Job and Family Services to Oakhill Renaissance Place.

Commissioner Anthony Traficanti said he is confident of the merits of the county’s defense against a high-stakes taxpayers’ lawsuit by the Ohio Valley Mall Co.

Traficanti said the county is still planning to have JFS open for business Monday in temporary quarters at Oakhill — the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center — which the county bought last summer in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

“That’s why we took the property over. ... We legally own the property,” he said. “Now we’re in this fight to survive, and, in the end, I believe we will be victorious. It’s our building. We would rather own than rent, and we need a new home for our people, and that facility’s perfect for that,” Traficanti added.

On the eve of next week’s legal battle, John J. Cafaro, executive vice president of the Cafaro Co., parent of OVM, is equally confident.

Feeling comfortable

“I feel very comfortable where we stand legally. If I did not feel comfortable, we wouldn’t be spending the money, time and effort to move forward,” with the lawsuit, which goes to trial Monday in common pleas court.

“We’re planning on having everybody in there on the 23rd, barring any unforeseen legal trip wires that may prevent any further moving,” Traficanti said. OVM is JFS’ current landlord at Garland Plaza, 709 N. Garland Ave., the home of JFS offices since 1988.

The OVM suit seeks to rescind the county’s purchase of Oakhill. If Cafaro were to prevail, all occupants of the building, including JFS and Head Start, the county coroner’s office and the city health department, might have to leave, Traficanti said.

Cafaro said, however, “It would go back to Southside Community Development Corp., and they’d have to make a decision to continue to operate it, or abandon it, or sell it again.

“There are a lot of options available before you cross the bridge of everybody being evicted,” Cafaro added.

When Oakhill’s previous owner, the Southside Community Development Corp., filed for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy last year, the county was the only bidder for Oakhill.

Renovation barred

Judge Richard M. Markus, the visiting judge who will hear the taxpayers’ suit without a jury, has indefinitely barred the county from spending any money to renovate permanent quarters for JFS at Oakhill and issued a 14-day temporary restraining order barring the commissioners and County Auditor Michael Sciortino from issuing the $75,000 check for the building’s purchase. The county eventually plans to spend $4.8 million to renovate JFS’ permanent quarters at Oakhill.

“I wish Mr. Cafaro would drop the lawsuit, allow this county to move forward, and allow me [and the other commissioners] to run the county,” Traficanti said.

“There will be things that will open your eyes. There will be things you will be shocked about,” Traficanti said in the meeting, referring to statements that will be made in next week’s trial. He did not elaborate.

The taxpayers’ suit is not about keeping JFS at Garland, Cafaro said. “It isn’t like a cash payment would make this lawsuit go away,” he added.

Concerning Traficanti’s request that OVM drop the suit, Cafaro said: “The county commissioners have not done anything that would, in fact, address our public policy concerns regarding purchase of this building. If they could address those issues, I guess you could sit and chat. ... We can’t afford another major drain on the [county’s] general fund” to renovate and operate Oakhill.

Breach-of-lease lawsuit

OVM also has filed a $1.1 million breach-of-lease lawsuit against the county, also before Judge Markus, alleging the county didn’t fulfill its maintenance obligations under the Garland lease.

Traficanti said a temporary satellite communications link has been established between Garland Plaza, on the city’s East Side, and Oakhill for the department’s computers and that some of JFS’ 300 workers have already relocated to Oakhill, with some moving having occurred last weekend. Wiring for the new offices is almost complete, he added. He said Oakhill’s 725-car parking deck and almost 250 surface parking spaces there will be available for use. Plenty of handicapped parking will be available, he said.

Pre-trial depositions have been taken from all three county commissioners, Sciortino, county Administrator George Tablack, former county Treasurer John Reardon, and county Treasurer Lisa Antonini. OVM is suing the commissioners individually and in their official capacity, Traficanti said.

The county prosecutor’s office is defending Traficanti and Commissioner David Ludt. The county has hired outside counsel for Tablack, Commissioner John McNally, Sciortino and Antonini.


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