A potential land swap between the city and Portage County could keep the Kent Municipal Courthouse in downtown Kent.
City officials talked with county leaders this week about a proposed land swap. The proposal calls for the city to buy about 2 acres on East Main Street — the property most heavily favored for the new courthouse location — and trade that land for the existing courthouse and adjacent parking lot on South Water Street.
Kent City Manager Dave Ruller, Kent Mayor Jerry Fiala and other city leaders first mentioned the idea Monday in a meeting with the county's site selection committee. Then Thursday morning, Ruller pitched the idea to the full board of commissioners.
Portage County Commissioner Chris Smeiles said the existing courthouse has been appraised at $750,000, and the site on East Main Street has been appraised at $980,000. Smeiles said city officials proposed absorbing the $230,000 difference to make the exchange happen.
"That’s really exciting news to me, because it removes the cost of land obstacle that we’ve been wrestling with for five months," Smeiles said.
Ruller could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Kent City Councilman Erik Valenta, who attended the meeting Monday when the idea was first broached, said the East Main Street site seems to be the best fit for both the county and the city.
"There’s a variety of things it does for the city, and also for the county," Valenta said. "It provides the county with a construction-ready site, it gives the city more parking downtown, it keeps the courthouse in Kent ... It also saves the old (courthouse) as well."
Such an exchange would require the approval of the full board of commissioners for the exchange. Smeiles said he's talked about it with the Portage County Prosecutor's office, and there is a provision in Ohio Revised Code that would permit the exchange between both government entities. Commissioners Maureen Frederick and Tommie Jo Marsilio could not be reached for comment today.
The commissioners took no action on the proposal Thursday.
The move would also need approval from Kent City Council members, who would need to sign off on buying the East Main Street site.
Kent City Councilman Jack Amrhein said he was unaware of Ruller's proposal until Thursday evening after the city manager sent out a brief email on the idea.
"I would hope that we could keep the courthouse in Kent, and I’m willing to listen to Mr. Ruller’s proposal," Amrhein said. "I would have to look at it more closely, but I’m certainly willing to look at it.
"Everything in the budget is tight," Amrhein said. "But you don’t want to lose the courthouse either. It’s one of those tough decisions we’ll have to make."
County officials have been talking about building a new courthouse to replace the Kent branch for more than two years. About two years ago, city officials first discussed the idea of a land swap with the county to put the new courthouse in the downtown redevelopment district.
Since then, county judges, commissioners and other administrators have already considered at least 10 different possible locations. The site most heavily favored by consulting architects, municipal judges and city officials is the land on East Main Street.
Construction of the new courthouse will be paid for through a special projects fund created by the county judges in July 2006. Each court case in the county carries a $20 "special projects fund" court cost, which bolsters the fund and can only be used for construction of the new building. The fund has about $2.52 million in it.
Smeiles said he favors the East Main Street site because the existing courthouse property is limited and may not have room for future expansion.
"I told the board of commissioners, when we build the new courthouse we should build it on a site large enough for the future," Smeiles said. "Because this is a 50-year decision, we need a site suitable for the growth of Kent. We should not shoehorn this into a tight site. The 303 (E.) Main St. site does accomplish that, according to the architect."
Valenta said that's a big reason why he supports the land swap idea.
"I just want to make sure that no matter what site we decide on it’s the best overall fit, not only for the citizens of Kent but for the citizens of Portage County,” Valenta said.
But gaining support among the other members of Kent council may prove tough — particularly because of the cost.
Kent City Councilman John Kuhar, a well-known budget hawk on council, said he would oppose buying the land for the county.
"Definitely I’d be opposed to it," Kuhar said. "Why should we buy the courthouse? We don’t need the other land and the other old courthouse. The city’s spending borrowed money now. I don’t think we should be responsible for buying it."