Butler County judge rules St. Clair Twp. lawsuit against Hamilton can continue

A Butler County judge has ruled St. Clair Twp. can continue its legal fight with the city of Hamilton over lost annexation revenue

The township sued Hamilton in December claiming the city owes approximately $6 million over 12 years for lost property taxes due to annexations. Curt Hartman, outside counsel for St. Clair Twp., told the Journal-News that the 12-year clock started running in 2017 after the county commissioners approved a “paper township” at the city’s behest. He estimated the first payment would be around $700,000 and the amounts gradually step down through the years.

The issue involves land Hamilton has annexed over the years from St. Clair, Fairfield, Hanover and Ross townships. In those annexations, the city did not get county commissioner approval for boundary adjustments, meaning residents in those townships should have voted for city council and township trustees, and the townships should have retained some of their property taxes, according to the lawsuit.

The township first tried getting the Ohio Supreme Court involved, but that court said the information provided was inadequate but a case could be made in the lower court.

Hamilton asked Judge Greg Stephens to dismiss the case in July calling the township’s complaint “half-baked.” Stephens ruled Tuesday the township has a valid claim and the lawsuit will proceed.

“The Ohio Supreme Court noted that proving damages would require the ‘largest forensic title exam ever’ to precisely locate the excluded territory and compute any amount due,” Stephens wrote. “Just because St. Clair Township was unable or unwilling to undergo the ‘largest forensic title exam ever’ before the Ohio Supreme Court, resulting in an adverse decision in that forum, such does not preclude it from that undertaking, if it so desires in the (present) case.”

The cash-strapped township has been wrangling with Hamilton over an annexation law the trustees' lawyer asserts entitles 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.

Hartman told the Journal-News he is pleased with Stephens' decision and they will be able to prove how much the city owes the township. He takes issue with people emphasizing the fact the high court quoted a deputy auditor on the forensic title exam.

“An assistant auditor in the county auditor’s office used that phrase, not knowing what he or she was talking about,” Hartman said. “The Ohio Supreme Court simply said some assistant or deputy auditor said this, the Ohio Supreme Court didn’t characterize it as that. It’s not that complex.”

Hamilton officials did not comment on the court action.

A mediation is scheduled with retired Common Pleas Court Judge H.J. Bressler on Dec. 9.

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