Warren County dedicating up to $5 million over five years to parks

12:25 p.m Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016 Warren County
Lawrence Budd
The Warren County Park District plans to pave cart trails at the golf course at Armco Park with some of the money committed by the county commissioners. LAWRENCE BUDD/STAFF

Warren County is dedicating as much as $5 million over the next five years, part of long-range plans to upgrade the county park system, possibly including an underpass beneath Ohio 741 connecting its largest park and a proposed sports complex.

“It gives us permanency,” Ben Yoder, president of the park board, said. “We’re not going to be rich. We’re not all of a sudden going to be the Hamilton County Park District.”

County prosecutors decided local governments around the county sharing in the state funds needed to approve a change in the funding formula allocation, although it isn’t expected to affect the local governments’ shares of the funds.

Last month, the Clearcreek Twp. trustees approved the change, while other communities have yet to vote.

Springboro City Council approved a resolution Thursday supporting the allocation of 20.2 percent of the county’s portion of state local government funds - $950,000 to $1 million a year previously used for other county expenses.

“This isn’t going to take a nickel from them,” Warren County Auditor Matt Nolan said last week.

In addition, the county park district is scheduled to appeal to the commissioners for more money on Dec. 13.

Last week, Yoder predicted this year’s “wish list” would be “a little bit less sports-complex-centric” than previously anticipated, due to lingering questions about the sports-complex project.

In August, Yoder told the commissioners, who had just agreed to shift part of their share of the local government funds to the park district, that he expected to return at the end of the year with officials from the Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau (WCCVB) for funds to enable the park district to staff and maintain the sports-complex fields and concession stands.

At this meeting, Commissioner Dave Young said “at least one” tunnel or underpass would be needed to connect the county park and the proposed complex and suggested the park board should consider using the added funds to do “something big” at Armco Park, the largest and most developed in the county’s 17-park, 1,633-acre system.

Typically, the district receives almost half its $1.5 million annual budget from the county, most in response to individual requests. This year, the county has given $721,000.

The parks already got 4 percent of the local government funds. By committing 20.2 percent of its 44.8 percent share of the funds, the county expects to boost by $300,000 to $400,000 a year the county’s contribution to the park district budget.

In exchange for the dedicated funding, the park board has agreed to stop asking for more money for projects next year.

There is no countywide park levy in Warren County. In addition to county funding, the district’s main funding source is rental fees: $723,289 in 2015.

The new money is expected to be used on new equipment and existing facilities at Armco Park, possibly paving golf cart paths to extend the season at the course.

But Yoder acknowledged the idea of connecting the park and sports complex remained attractive.

“If we could create connectivity… That would be awesome,” he said. “How can we partner with the WCCVB?”

The land for the sports complex is to be donated by Otterbein Senior Lifestyle Choices, provided it gets agreements from local governments on the split of the costs of Union Village, a 1,400-acre development.

Development of the sports complex would be financed with an increase in the county lodging tax. The commissioners have delayed the tax increase due to questions about ownership of the facility under state law permitting the increase without a local vote.

Earlier this month, Phil Smith, WCCVB president and CEO, said he continued to work on the ownership issue.

The idea of expanding the county system has its critics.

In past discussions, Commissioner Tom Grossmann has questioned the need when cities, villages and townships in the county already operate and maintain parks.

But Grossmann threw his support behind the shift of local government funds.

“It’s a good idea. I’m all for it,” he said at the Aug. 23 meeting where the commissioners approved a resolution to shift the funds to the parks.

Ray Warrick, administrator in Hamilton Twp. and former chief of the Warren County Republican Party, has opposed the sports complex. Last week, he raised similar questions about county plans at Armco Park.

“When you start to add so much parkland that it starts to drain the budget, that’s an example of government not sticking to its knitting, what it’s supposed to be doing,” he said.

Acquisition of 311-acre Armco Park in 2008 was part of expansion that quadrupled the system from less than 400 acres in 2010 to more than 1,600 today.

Yoder pointed to the park lands as a county asset associated with a better quality of life and linked them to higher property values.

“We’re here. What do we do with it now?” Yoder asked.

View full experience