Van Wert County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum (File)
Van Wert County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum (File)

VAN WERT —An Internet posting by a Van Wert County commissioner that pointed a finger of blame at the OSU Extension Economic Development office has tongues wagging all over the county, but a Times Bulletin investigation into those allegations has raised several more questions.

Commissioner Todd Wolfrum’s column on his personal website blamed the economic development office for the county’s loss of a sizeable grant. In his writing, he said the commissioners were told people contacted the state to make comments aimed at keeping the county from receiving the grant, then stated, “For no good reason, a person from outside our county cost us $100,000.”

The Times Bulletin was able to confirm that multiple people made contact with the state about the grant, but they claimed only to point out alleged inaccuracies in the application. Van Wert City Auditor Martha Balyeat admitted she had called the state agency, although she was unable to speak to anyone in the grant process until after the commissioners had already withdrawn their application. Balyeat’s reason for calling the state was because of problems with financial figures stated in the paperwork.

The grant application was made to help fund an economic development effort under the charge of the commissioners. What Balyeat noticed was the City of Van Wert was included in the effort even though no approval had been given by City Council or any part of city government. The grant application also included using the revenue from the hotel/motel tax which currently helps to fund the OSU economic development office and the Van Wert Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The problem is that the hotel/motel tax is a city tax and is not under control of the county. City officials contend the use of that money without Van Wert City Council voting approval could not happen.

Balyeat noted, however, her first objection to the application was when she saw figures she had given to Business Outreach Director Sarah Smith were used to misrepresent to the state how much tax revenue was collected. She also stated she called because the city was shown as supplying five-sixths of the funding for a plan that city council had not been presented to consider or vote upon.

Other disgruntled parties were board members of Main Street Van Wert and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, neither of which was formally approached or given the chance to review the commissioners’ idea, but who are mentioned as being a part of the application. Members from both organizations confirmed their managers had been contacted by Smith but no formal plan had been provided or presented to their board of directors by Smith or the commissioners. Therefore, the groups had not given their consent to be included in the grant application.

The application for the grant gives a general outline description of how the commissioners would like to put together an economic development effort to replace OSU Extension’s office and how stakeholders from Van Wert, the villages in the county, and several townships would be included in that broad-ranged effort. The commissioners announced early in December they had terminated the agreement with OSU Extension, although that office continues to operate in anticipation of signing a new agreement between OSU Extension, the City of Van Wert, and a third stakeholder.

Cindy Leis, economic development director and OSU Extension educator, declined to comment, citing the fact the Extension was currently working with its legal department. She is also still in the midst of completing the final stage to certify the 1,600-acre manufacturing site (Super Site) on Van Wert’s northeast side.

The result of the grant process was that the commissioners pulled their application from consideration. Balyeat said a spokesperson from the state told her the commissioners should have had all stakeholders secured before submitting the application. According to Wolfrum’s column, the commissioners’ plan considered those stakeholders approvals were adjustments that could be made after winning the grant. However, there was no determination the state would have allowed the commissioners to change how it used the grant money.

The $100,000 is hardly lost, as the state will be awarding another round of grants in 2014, and the county may resubmit an application, with all stakeholders’ agreements backed up with properly passed legislation and signatures. What caused this round to be lost is the lack of agreements and the alleged errors in funding included in the application, especially the City of Van Wert’s hotel/motel tax funds.