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Why can’t Centerburg and Hilliar Township find a way to fund Memorial Park?

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Centerburg Memorial Park

Community Memorial Park, located at the intersection of U.S. Route 36 and State Route 314 in Hilliar Township, has been a staple of the Centerburg community since 1945. Now, as two neighboring municipalities debate how the park should be funded and who should own it, the park's future hangs in the balance.

CENTERBURG – On Aug. 6, 2018, Hilliar Township Trustee Don McCracken came to a Centerburg Village Council meeting to ask for help in funding Community Memorial Park.

The township paid the full bill for park maintenance costs, and McCracken said it was becoming too much. With playground equipment aging and the park’s electric system beginning to fail, he said the township needed help to ensure the park’s long-term sustainability.

Council agreed that the park served a vital role in the community, and both sides vowed to work together to find a way to fund it.

11 months later, discussions between Centerburg and Hilliar Township have ground to a halt. Both sides have presented proposals and held public meetings, but neither has been willing to budge on crucial points. Discussions have turned heated at times, as long-held feelings of distrust between the township and village have bubbled to the surface.

What lies at the core of the stalemate? Knox Pages spoke with officials on each side to find out.

The proposals

Both Centerburg and Hilliar Township presented proposals this spring in an effort to reach an agreement. Here are summaries of the latest proposals from each side:

CENTERBURG: Centerburg is willing to fund half of Memorial Park's expenses and investments, up to an agreed-upon amount, if doing so means the village will own 50 percent of the park. The township currently has sole ownership of the park.

Centerburg and Hilliar Township would need to determine an annual figure first, then Centerburg would place a five-year levy on the ballot that would allow village voters to decide if they’d be willing to help fund the park up to that amount. If the vote passed, the village and township would revise the park's three land parcels to show joint ownership.

HILLIAR TOWNSHIP: If Centerburg is able to pass a recreational levy, Centerburg and Hilliar Township would enter into a five-year use agreement for Memorial Park. Hilliar Township would still own the park, but Centerburg would pay 50 percent of its maintenance costs through the levy.

At the end of the five-year agreement, if Centerburg proves it can pass a renewal levy, Hilliar Township would be willing to discuss joint ownership.

*Hilliar Township has indicated that, since 2013 (when the township began funding the park without Centerburg's help), the average annual cost to maintain the park has been $21,721. While there has surely been variance – in 2014, it cost $18,553 to maintain it, while that total surged to $25,387 in 2017 – most totals hovered around the $22,000 mark.

The township has typically paid around $16,000 of that bill, as the baseball/softball association and festival organizations chip in for a combined $6,000 annually. Hilliar Township pays park maintenance costs through its general fund, which is made up of property tax revenues from township residents.

The responses

At the heart of the park funding issue is the question of ownership. Who should own the park, and how will it be maintained on a daily basis?

Assuming it can pass a levy to fund 50 percent of park expenses, Centerburg wants to own 50 percent of the park. Hilliar Township wants to have complete ownership of the park for at least five years (under the proposed use agreement) while Centerburg foots 50 percent of the bill. The township will only consider joint ownership after a renewal levy is passed by village voters.

Neither side has been willing to budge on this issue. Centerburg Village Council members seem unsure as to why Hilliar Township wouldn’t agree to joint ownership right away, pending a passed levy.

“Personally, I don’t think they trust us,” councilman John Jackson said in June.

“That’s true. We don’t trust them,” McCracken said in an interview two weeks later.

Don McCracken

During a Centerburg Village Council meeting on Aug. 6, 2018, Hilliar Township trustee Don McCracken presented council with a proposal for a funding agreement between the village and the township that would help the township fund Centerburg Memorial Park. The proposal detailed a five-year agreement where Centerburg and Hilliar Township would each foot $6,000 of the $18,000-plus yearly bill.

McCracken offered a series of recent events to explain the trustees’ distrust. The first came in 2011, when Centerburg seceded from the township.

McCracken alleged that Hilliar Township was blindsided by Centerburg’s decision to secede. It ultimately cost the township $65,000 annually in tax revenue, McCracken said, as the township lost money from cemetery, road and property taxes. Hilliar Township was left to pay the entire park bill, without the help of Centerburg property tax dollars.

Centerburg Mayor Dave Beck said the village seceded because the township’s road tax never went toward Centerburg streets. This tax cost village residents nearly $40,000 a year in total, Beck said. Village residents were also about to be taxed for the construction of a new, $9.3 million sewer plant that would serve the community.

McCracken said village officials never communicated with the township about their decision to secede. He said he learned about it the next day in the newspaper.

Beck refuted that statement. As a councilman at the time, Beck said he and other council members personally drove to McCracken’s house to tell him that night. He added that village council’s vote to secede would have been preceded by months of readings and public hearings.

Dave Beck

Centerburg Mayor Dave Beck reads a park funding proposal from the Hilliar Township trustees on Feb. 4, 2019.

The trustees also alleged that Centerburg left the township out to dry in 2014 when it came to park funding.

When Centerburg seceded from the township, it agreed to help Hilliar Township fund the park short-term through a facilities use agreement. Centerburg agreed to pay $31,650 over three years for park maintenance. In return, Hilliar Township would allow Centerburg residents to continue to use the park, and the township would also file a statement of support for Centerburg’s petition to the Knox County Commissioners to become a separate municipality.

The three-year agreement was to be terminated upon the passage of the Centerburg Joint Recreation District levy in 2013. The CJRD was viewed as a long-term solution for park funding, as it would have combined tax dollars from Centerburg, Hilliar, Milford and Liberty townships.

This would have held all communities that use the park accountable for their fair share of maintenance costs. It also would have established an organization to oversee the park, including representatives from each municipality.

The CJRD ballot issue failed miserably in 2013. Of the four municipalities involved, Centerburg was the only one to pass the proposal; voters in Hilliar, Milford and Liberty townships strongly opposed it. The CJRD was dissolved after only 37 percent of district voters supported the idea.

2013 CJRD election results

Centerburg was the only municipality to vote in favor of the proposed Centerburg Joint Recreation District levy in the November 2013 election. The CJRD would have established funding and oversight for Community Memorial Park by involving all four communities: Hilliar Township, Centerburg, Liberty Township and Milford Township.

Centerburg withdrew from the facilities use agreement after the 2013 vote failed. While Centerburg officials claim the village honored the agreement, township trustees still feel bitter about the way it ended.

“We started paying the whole amount,” McCracken said. “They just left, just like they did when they left the township.”

These incidents sowed seeds of distrust that have impacted recent negotiations between the village and township, McCracken said. But the two entities also seem to disagree over the concept of joint ownership in general. While Centerburg Village Council believes the village deserves half of the park if it contributes half of the funding, Hilliar Township officials think otherwise.

“[Centerburg’s] position has been from the beginning that they can’t contribute money to something that they don’t have any ownership in, which is a perfectly valid argument for us individually looking at, ‘I’m not going to pay for a portion of my neighbor’s land if I’m not getting half of it,’” said assistant prosecuting attorney Brian Morgan, representing the township.

“That’s not what this is. This is government, this is not their personal financial situation. The citizens of Centerburg, who they are elected to represent, are already receiving the benefit. They’re just receiving that benefit without paying their fair share. And that’s all Hilliar Township is asking them to do, is to pay their fair share of what they’re already receiving.”

Township Trustee Jason Rogers added that the Centerburg residents who attended Hilliar Township’s town hall meeting were not concerned about receiving 50 percent ownership of the park. “They said they wanted to contribute to the park and were in favor of our plan,” Rogers recalled.

Hilliar Township has also expressed concerns about Centerburg “asking something for nothing,” according to Morgan. The assistant prosecuting attorney said Centerburg is “asking for 50 percent ownership of this park without a guarantee that they’ll ever spend a penny,” despite language in the village’s proposal suggesting otherwise. The township trustees want Centerburg to begin paying for the park up-front before the idea of joint ownership is discussed.

In addition, the question of how the park will be maintained is a top concern for both parties. The Hilliar Township trustees believe they are running the park fine themselves, they just need financial help from Centerburg to maintain it moving forward. Village council has no problems with the way the park is being run currently, but council members have said that if the village is going to pay 50 percent of park costs, it should have a say in how the park is run.

Hilliar Township has offered the park to Centerburg (the township would contribute $6,000 per year), but the village determined it would not be able to maintain it on a daily basis. Council has indicated that village administrator Joe Hardin would not be able to run it full-time, and the village could not afford to hire someone specifically for that task.

Council members have floated the idea of creating a committee with representatives from the village and township on it, which would run the park and make decisions on funding. Hilliar Township trustees said that adding extra layers of oversight would be unnecessary and financially unwise.

“Why would we draw up another committee, another group to take care of the park, when it’s really not needed?” Rogers asked. “I mean, we’re doing a fine job at it. We’re not doing anything wrong. The public’s very happy with it. It just needs to be improved.”

The final point of contention between Centerburg and Hilliar Township has to do with the way joint funding would work.

Centerburg would be willing to pay “an agreed-upon amount,” as determined by the village and township, to help support the park at 50 percent. Setting a defined yearly cost is necessary for budgetary reasons, Beck said. Without one, council has said it will be unable to go to voters to ask for support.

Hilliar Township does not believe Centerburg needs an “agreed-upon amount” to help fund the park. Hilliar Township pays a different total for the park each year, fiscal officer Julie Laughlin said, depending on maintenance issues that come up. The township wants Centerburg to set up a recreational levy to provide funding, with the understanding that park maintenance costs fluctuate every year, so the amount paid to maintain the park will vary.

Regardless of whether or not Centerburg needs an “agreed-upon amount,” however, the village is not likely to put a levy on the ballot unless it is guaranteed 50 percent ownership of the park upon passage.

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It all comes back to who controls the park, McCracken said.

“Dave Beck has got in his mind that they gotta have 50 percent ownership, and we’ve got in our mind we ain’t giving them 50 percent ownership unless they can prove that they’ve got the passing money to pay for it,” McCracken said. “So that’s the crux of it. We’re stuck.”

The future of the park

It’s been almost a year since McCracken first voiced concerns about Hilliar Township’s ability to fund the park long-term.

Since then, a litany of personal and seemingly unsolvable conflicts between Centerburg and Hilliar Township have emerged. The question, ‘How can both entities work together to ensure a sustainable future for the park?’ has become increasingly complex. Discussions between both sides have flatlined.

Centerburg Village Council has taken the ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Until Hilliar Township approaches council with a figure to ask its voters for, and the opportunity to own 50 percent of the park while paying 50 percent of the cost, it appears council is willing to play the waiting game.

“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 last month.

“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.”

Beck said he is still willing to negotiate with Hilliar Township on a park proposal, and he seemed confident those conversations would eventually occur.

“There’s always a path forward,” he said. “We just need to get together, if they would be open at least enough to talk about how we would administrate it if we went this route. I don’t know where to go at this point but something will happen.”

McCracken shared a similar hope, although he admitted he doesn’t know how long negotiations will last.

“I don’t think, in my mind anyway, negotiations are dead,” he said.

Centerburg Memorial Park

Centerburg Memorial Park is located at the corner of U.S. Route 36 and State Route 314 in Hilliar Twp. The park offers three baseball fields, a basketball court, a picnic shelter, and a playground with swings, a slide, and a jungle gym. It plays host every year to the Heart of Ohio USA Days Festival, which includes musical performances, magic acts and a firework display. The annual Oldtime Farming Festival also hosts contests at the park.

While Centerburg and Hilliar Township continue to debate how the park should be funded, the clock ticks on the park’s future.

The playground equipment at the park is over 20 years old, McCracken said, and is “outdated.” The electric system, buried underground, is starting to fail. The stadium lights on the baseball diamond work sporadically, he said. “A few work and a few don’t.”

Without financial help, Hilliar Township will not be able to replace some of the park’s most basic features. A new playground, for example, could cost upwards of $50,000. Applying for grants will only get the township so far, McCracken said, because almost all require a substantial match. The Knox County Parks District is not interested in funding (or taking over) the park because it typically only handles trails and green space, not community ball fields and parks.

And while many of the bigger improvement projects at the park over the years have been completed by community organizations, such generous donations of resources and manpower are not always guaranteed.

“We’re putting band-aids on stuff now. We’re just maintaining, we’re not providing any improvement,” McCracken said. “But as to how long that can go on, it’s hard to tell.”

McCracken said closing the park would be a “nightmare.” Memorial Park has been a staple in the Centerburg community since it was established in 1945. Located at the intersection of U.S. Route 36 and State Route 314, the 13-acre park offers three baseball fields, a basketball court, a picnic shelter, and a playground with swings, a slide, and a jungle gym.

It plays host every year to the Heart of Ohio USA Days Festival, which includes musical performances, magic acts and a firework display. The annual Oldtime Farming Festival also hosts contests at the park.

Both Centerburg and Hilliar Township have discussed the importance of maintaining the park for generations to come. But both municipalities are also stretched thin financially at the moment; Centerburg cannot afford to take money from its general fund, Beck said, and its residents are already facing “very high sewer bills for the foreseeable future.” Hilliar Township will not dump additional taxes on its residents, who already pay the full park bill for the entire community.

Beck said he “hates” that the issue of park funding has become a point of conflict between the village and township.

“It’s up to us, as elected officials, to work these things out,” he said. “It really upsets me that we can’t sit down and talk and just discuss this.”

Until that happens, however, the park’s future will remain up in the air. Hilliar Township has been paying full cost for park maintenance for the last six years, McCracken said, but with essential capital improvement projects looming, the township’s general fund will only be able to go so far.

“Somewhere down the road,” McCracken said, “it’s not sustainable.”

Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.