The sign shown in this 2009 file photo was displayed at one end of the sewer project that connected 66 homes with the city sewer system. It was paperwork during this project that caused the state to order more than $365,000 in grant money returned. In December it was announced that the insurance carrier would pay the grant money back, taking a huge financial burden off the County. (TB File photo)
As we move from 2013 to 2014, we take time to look back at the top stories of the past year. Van Wert County saw events that were controversial, positive, terrifying, and disappointing during the 12 months. It certainly was not a boring year, and the candidates for the top ten stories of the year were widely varied. Choosing the top stories is never easy since one story will affect people quite differently, and some stories which generate little interest from the public actually have great impact on everyone. So the rankings are subjective, based on both community discussion and overall impact on the people of Van Wert County. We finish up today with stories three through one.
No question, $365,000 is a lot of money. Few people in Van Wert County, let alone anywhere else, would consider that sum to be insignificant. Even to the county budget $365,000 is a lot of money, although the Van Wert County budget is rather small compared to the budgets of other counties in Ohio. Cuyahoga County, Franklin County, or Hamilton County could brush off such a total like dust from lapels. But when Van Wert County was assessed a penalty for mistiming its clearing of a political hoop, the county budget was thrown for a loop.
The fine was assessed when the state, in auditing the books, determined that the county needed to pay back grant funds it had received for the 2009 sewer project which connected 66 homes just south of the Van Wert city limits. Apparently, the grant funds were sent to the county, which then spent them to pay on the $1.2 million dollar project. The problem was that even though the money was received, the state did not send along the official go-ahead to use the money. The official go-ahead came days later. In auditing, the state determined that it was due the $365,000 it had kicked into the project, despite the fact that the project complied in every other respect and that it finished earlier than estimated and under budget. The original finding was made near the end of 2012, so much of 2013 was spent trying to keep the county from shelling out $365,000 which it no longer had.
That responsibility fell on the shoulders of the Van Wert County Commissioners, even though none of the three were even in office when the project started or ended. Both Stan Owens and Todd Wolfrum were greeted with this news on their first day in office. The hunt was on to try to find away around the penalty. All possible political contacts were tried, but no politician seemed to be either able or willing to help the county through this financial crisis.
The county’s insurance carriers also originally refused to pay a claim on the sum. The commissioners, under orders and threats of further penalty, signed an agreement to repay the $365,000. That agreement had the bulk of the payment backloaded to the end of the required repayment time period, that to give the commissioners as much time as possible to find a way to avoid payment. The county itself was not far removed from county budget issues which necessitated an employee furlough program that closed county offices one day every two weeks, so finding a way out of damaging an already tight county budget was imperative.
Finally in December, Commission Thad Lichtensteiger was able to announce what he had been looking for all year — a solution. “The Van Wert County Commissioners are happy to announce that our insurance carrier is going to cover (indemnify) our $365,523 loss from the 2009 grant repayment,” he stated. From an original $365,000 fine, the county was out only a $500 deductible. The commissioners also put closer scrutiny into effect on the use of grant money on any project to be sure nothing like this would happen again. And a 2014 budget, which may have had to go through damaging cuts, was saved a large payout which may have placed county services in jeopardy of cuts.