CENTERBURG – After months of heated discussions and proposals, negotiations between Centerburg and Hilliar Township over how Community Memorial Park will be funded have flatlined.
Centerburg Village Council reacted strongly to the township trustees’ latest proposal during its meeting Monday night. The proposal, dated May 28, suggested Centerburg pass a recreational levy to help support the park, which is currently owned and funded by Hilliar Township.
If the levy were to pass, the trustees proposed that the village and township would come to a five-year use agreement, where Centerburg mayor Dave Beck said the village would pay $6,000 of the $22,000 annual cost. The township would still own the park during this time.
After five years, “and if the village demonstrates that it can pass a renewal levy, the trustees would be willing to discuss joint ownership,” the proposal read.
At first glance, it appeared village council members thought the proposal seemed disingenuine.
“What they’re saying is, if you pass the levy and then you renew it, then they’ll give us ownership on the second renewal,” village solicitor Kyle Stroh told council.
“It doesn’t say they’ll give it to us, though,” council member Saundra Dove pointed out.
“Not to mention, an agreement to agree is a non-agreement,” Stroh said. “An agreement to discuss is not an agreement.”
Several members agreed with councilman John Jackson, who said “personally, I don’t think they trust us.”
“I don’t know why,” councilwoman Ronda Seligman said. “I don’t understand that.”
Centerburg had previously proposed a five-year levy to help fund the park. If passed, the levy would allow Centerburg to split the cost with Hilliar Township 50/50, including daily expenses and capital investments up to an agreed upon amount.
However, in splitting the cost, Centerburg also proposed split ownership. In the trustees’ latest proposal, the concept of joint ownership only comes into play after five years of Centerburg funding the park, and is still not guaranteed at that point.
Council members agreed Monday that, if the township is still unwilling to compromise after several town hall meetings and proposals, it might be best to let Hilliar Township solve the issue itself.
“I say, if they don’t want to work with us, just put it to bed and [it’s] sink or swim,” councilman Rusty Griffith said. “You hate to do it, but… they want it to be on their terms.”
“Right now I think they’re anxious, thinking we’re going to take the bait. If we back off and walk away from it for now, maybe they’ll introduce it in a few months or fairly fast next year,” Jackson said.
“But they’re going to need help because they’re not going to be able to maintain that park by [themselves]. We’re trying to give them a good-faith agreement to help them and [if] they don’t want to trust us, well they can just do it themselves until they figure out they need us. It’s sad for the park, but that may be the only way we can get them to sway their mind.”
Hilliar Township officials have said for almost a year that the township is struggling to fund the park. Last August, township trustees proposed that Centerburg put $6,000 toward the park each year, given how many village residents use the park (alongside those from neighboring communities).
"Right now, what it is is we’re paying it all and we can’t continue to do that," Hilliar Township Trustee Don McCracken said.
However, Centerburg officials have said that the village does not have the money to fund the park out-of-pocket, and it would need to pass a levy. Beck noted that Centerburg residents are currently facing “very high sewer bills for the foreseeable future” to pay off the village’s new, $9.3 million wastewater plant.
If Centerburg were to follow through with its proposal (of funding 50 percent of park expenses, and therefore gaining 50 percent ownership), it would need to raise approximately $14,000 annually in taxes to do so. While it costs $22,000 to maintain the park, Beck estimated Monday that it would need around $6,000 in renovations in the coming years, due to deteriorating electrical systems and equipment.
Now it seems highly unlikely that Centerburg will be able to place a recreation levy on this November’s ballot. The deadline to file an issue with the Board of Elections is August 2, village clerk Teri James said.
This means Centerburg and Hilliar Township would need to come to an agreement by Centerburg’s July 1 council meeting, in order for council to pass a resolution before the BOE’s deadline. The agreement would need to be specific and clear, James said, so that voters know how much they would be paying and where the money is going.
If such an agreement isn’t worked out within the next three weeks, Beck said council would have to table the current park resolution after a third reading next month.
Village council members seemed content with letting the issue pass the deadline, given what little progress has been made so far.
“It’s going to take a while to get this ironed out,” Jackson said. “We’ve been working on it for four or five months now and it’s just going to take a lot more time.”
“We have made offers and made offers, and their counter offers don’t seem like they’re giving an inch at all,” Seligman said, “so just back off and see what happens.”
While council seemed unsure as to why Hilliar Township is hesitant about the idea of joint ownership, Beck hinted at “hard feelings” between the two municipalities.
Centerburg seceded from Hilliar Township in 2011 due to financial concerns. Village residents had paid Hilliar Township’s road tax for several years (approximately $39,000 per year), Beck said, although those funds never went towards Centerburg streets. When the village was facing a payment on its new wastewater plant and needed additional funding, it felt it would be best to separate.
Village residents had previously paid taxes to help fund the park. When Centerburg seceded, however, that funding went away. But the village still tried to fund the park through different avenues; Centerburg paid $10,000 per year (half of the park’s operating costs at the time) for three years through the Centerburg Joint Recreation District, so that Hilliar Township could have time to develop a plan for long-term funding, James said.
“The issues weren’t resolved during that three-year period and so we’re still, this many years later, at the same point,” James said.
Centerburg residents also voted twice to approve CJRD levies, which would have provided long-term funding for the park, but the levies ultimately failed after opposition from Hilliar, Milford and Liberty township voters. The CJRD, established in 2007, has since been dissolved.
Hilliar Township has offered Centerburg complete control of the park, Beck said, but council did not have any ideas as to who might step in and manage day-to-day operations. It would need to be a retired, committed village official, Jackson said.
For now, the park’s financial future remains uncertain. Beck closed Monday’s meeting by encouraging council members to stay positive, and to keep working towards a resolution.
“I’ll just say one thing. Before I get out of this job, I’d like to see this park situation come to a conclusion,” Beck said. “Like I’ve said before, I think that’s an asset for both the township and the village. And I think that would be a big asset for the next 20 and 30 years because as this place grows, they’re going to be looking for recreational areas and all kinds of different stuff… We’ve just gotta keep working to get it done.”