$4M St. Clair annexation settlement to fund roads

Now that tiny St. Clair Twp. is $4 million richer, township officials say residents can expect to reap the rewards of the hard fought legal battle against the city of Hamilton with improved roads.

Neither side will say much about the settlement sealed last week that ends a five-year fight between the neighboring jurisdictions over annexations. Trustee Tom Barnes told the Journal-News “we kind of stuck with it, didn’t we” and added the $3.5 million settlement — $4 million including interest — to be paid out over 10 years will help them fulfill their core responsibilities.

“It will help us provide services,” Barnes said. “The biggest responsibility for township trustees of course is to take care of the roads, paving roads, all that’s very important. That’s the main duty of township trustees is taking care of roads.”

The first payment of $350,000 is due to the township Jan. 7; payments hover in the $400,000 range for the next six years and go back down slightly for the remainder of the term.

According to a 2021 audit of the township’s finances, it pulled in revenues of $2 million in 2019 and spent $1.7 million providing services to roughly 7,000 residents.

Former Trustee John Snyder told the Journal-News he is glad the legal wrangling is over.

“I’m glad it finally settled and no more effort has to be put into it, and no more lawyer time...,” Snyder said. “I think it could pave a lot of roads, I think that was our opinion the whole time we were going after the money, that was owed to us.”

The township sued Hamilton in December 2017 in the Ohio Supreme Court, and after protracted litigation and complex calculations, it claimed the city owed at least $10 million, including interest, for lost property taxes due to annexations. The city all along maintained it owed nothing.

Snyder said he believes the township had a contingency fee agreement with their outside attorneys Curt Hartman and Chris Finney but didn’t recall how much it was for. Generally in cases like this, attorneys will take on a lawsuit and receive a percentage of the settlement.

Hamilton Law Director Leticia Block said she should have a tally of their legal fees next week.

ExploreHamilton, St. Clair Twp. settle annexation lawsuit for $4 million

By comparison, the village of New Miami finally ended its eight-year war with a group of drivers who took them to court over speed cameras in May. Taxpayers paid $487,943 in legal fees because the village’s insurance doesn’t cover that type of litigation.

The Journal-News sought comment from multiple Hamilton officials, but they did not reply.

Butler County Common Pleas court Judge Greg Stephens officially closed the case Monday, but in the order said “the court will retain enforcement jurisdiction over the settlement agreement.”

The bulk of the settlement deals with the cooperative economic development agreement — that is similar to a Joint Economic Development District — the parties forged. They issued a joint statement last week.

“The Hamilton City Council and the St. Clair Township Board of Trustees are pleased to announce they have come to terms on a cooperative agreement that provides them with an opportunity to pursue new growth opportunities that are mutually beneficial to both communities. Under the terms of the agreement, the following would take place:

  • The city and the township have identified 1450 Elkton Road and 2133 Hamilton Cleves Road as prospects for the next round of development in the area.
  • The properties can be more quickly annexed into the city upon petition from the owners to allow for the desired development to timely move forward.
  • Even though the properties are annexed into the city, they will remain within both jurisdictions, thus protecting both entities’ interests while fostering development.

The agreement also states if the properties — together they encompass about 120 acres — are eventually annexed, the city will provide public services and any income or lodging taxes will be split between the two, with Hamilton collecting 70% and St. Clair the rest.

If the properties are annexed the township will still collect inside millage on property taxes and will be made whole if the city awards any tax abatements. Mike Stein, tax accounting manager for the county auditor’s office, explained how the property taxes in the annexed area will work.

“The city does have it’s own property tax assessment, which includes some inside millage but then also includes the outside millage like Fire, EMS, and Ambulance levies,” Stein told the Journal-News. “The annexed taxpayers in the new district would pay their taxes to the city for services provided and will be paying the additional 2.72 inside mills back to the township.”

The crux of the lawsuit was over an annexation law the trustees’ lawyer asserted entitled it to 12-years worth of compensation for money lost due to the annexations. The law was triggered in 2016 when the city asked the county commissioners to form a “paper township” to fix the fact that boundary adjustment approval wasn’t formalized by the county previously when land was annexed from St. Clair, Fairfield, Hanover and Ross townships.

The other townships chose not to join the lawsuit. Fairfield Twp. Administrator Julie Vonderhaar said they have a long-standing JEDD agreement with the city — that precludes any annexations — and they didn’t want to jeopardize that relationship.

“We definitely did not want to disturb the JEDD agreement,” Vonderhaar said. “We also have an excellent relationship with the city and city manager which I respect and wanted to maintain.”

Ross Twp. Trustee Ellen Yordy said St. Clair’s former legal advisor asked them about joining the lawsuit several years ago, but they were working with the city to form their own JEDD so they declined. They did form a JEDD — the township collects 95% of future income taxes — in anticipation of development of the Burns Farm which has since been back-burnered after residents protested.

“Hamilton was unbelievable to us, they gave us a 95-5 split on the JEDD and we were ecstatic by it,” Yordy said. “Obviously if we would have filed a lawsuit against them I don’t think we’d have gotten that type of an offer.”

Given the fact St. Clair did receive a hefty settlement, when asked if Ross might consider suing now, Yordy said “I might run it passed the board.”

“I don’t think Hamilton would appreciate us doing that after they gave us JEDD, which would have generated way more money than the $4 million,” Yordy said. “And this would have been forever, if the people of Ross would have gone with the (Burns Farm) development.”

Hanover Twp. Administrator Bruce Henry said they have an annexation agreement with the city that provides them an estimated annual payment of $8,000 that they didn’t want to disrupt.

About the Author