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Jury is still out on who was right or wrong about Oakhill

Published: Fri, May 28, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

It still sticks in the craw of two present county officials and a former official that a majority on the board of commissioners listened to the county’s building commission rather than them when Mahoning County faced an office-space crisis four years ago.

Or perhaps Commissioner John A. McNally IV, Auditor Michael V. Sciortino and former county Treasurer John B. Reardon have other motivations for holding a press conference Tuesday to announce that they have been exonerated regarding their opposition to the county’s development of Oakhill Renaissance Place as a county office complex. The building is the former South Side Hospital, and today it is being successfully converted into office space for various county offices and other rent-paying tenants.

McNally, Sciortino and Reardon, who is recently returned from Columbus after resigning from the Ohio Commerce Department, were throwing around numbers and hyperbole during their press conference. Some of their calculations certainly appear open to interpretation, and it would appear too early to mathematically prove success or failure. Sciortino’s contention that the Oakhill purchase is the county’s equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has the smell of desperation.

The county faced multiple challenges in 2006 and the Oakhill purchase provided a quick solution to the most pressing problems and a long-term opportunity to consolidate various offices.

One issue was the deplorable conditions that had developed at the offices of the county’s Department of Job and Family Services in the Garland Plaza on Youngstown’s East Side. The county was spending more than $1.1 million a year for the Cafaro Co.-owned offices under a lease signed by former commissioners that placed virtually all responsibility for maintenance and repairs on the county.

Employees complained that conditions had deteriorated to the extent that some workers’ health was being affected. At that point, liability issues had become a serious concern for the commissioners — or at least two of them.

At the same time, the Southside Community Development Corp., which was operating Oak–hill, filed for bankruptcy. That meant that various offices already in Oakhill faced eviction, including the county coroner’s office, which was using the old hospital’s morgue facilities.

The action plan

The county picked up the building for a song, sold bonds to finance renovations, avoided having to find an available morgue for the coroner and transferred JFS from Garland to Oakhill.

McNally, Sciortino and Reardon claim that the county would have been better off building a new office, which Reardon estimates would have cost $15 million. That ignores the time crunch the commissioners were under at the time and the fact that renovation is less than half the cost of new construction. Also, the county has been able to get grants for energy-saving improvements that have cut costs.

And, importantly, it ignores the community service that Commissioner Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, who supported the Oakhill project, performed by preserving a usable community asset. Had Oakhill remained vacant, it would have developed into a monumental eyesore and a hazard on the fringe of downtown.

A grand jury is investigating circumstances surrounding the purchase of Oakhill, but its focus, based on characterizations provided by some of those who have been interviewed by prosecutors, is not on those people who worked in good faith to make the project happen. The grand jury appears more interested in the motives behind those who tried to block it.

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