Butler County nixes Liberty Center economic relief

The Butler County commissioners have halted economic relief talks with the owners of the mega mixed use Liberty Center development because they pursued a $73 million property value reduction. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
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The Butler County commissioners have halted economic relief talks with the owners of the mega mixed use Liberty Center development because they pursued a $73 million property value reduction. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

The Butler County commissioners have stopped months-long negotiations with the owners of Liberty Center on an economic relief deal, because the center pursued a $73 million property value reduction that will save it $600,000 to $1 million annually.

The commissioners and Liberty Twp. trustees have been working with Liberty Center’s new owners Apollo Global Management for months, trying to work out a deal that would bolster the finances of the center during these bleak retail times.

Butler County Administrator Judi Boyko sent the mall owners a letter Tuesday saying the talks are over.

“With multiple foundational principles still separating the parties, the Butler County Board of Commissioners concurs with Apollo Global Management’s position, if mutually agreeable terms cannot be reached, efforts to focus on other initiatives to enhance the economic vitality of Liberty Center may be better served at this time,” Boyko wrote. “Therefore the Board of Commissioners has concluded mutually agreeable terms cannot be reached.”

Officials said the commissioners had offered to pay Apollo about $6 million over a number of years if it would not pursue a property value reduction. Liberty Center applied for two value reductions, one of the mandated 2020 reevaluation and a second taking advantage of a new law that allows companies to seek relief based on the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Butler County Board of Revision — which is an independent board under the county auditor’s office — approved property value reductions for both, first a $14 million reduction this summer and another $15 million drop was approved Tuesday due to COVID. The center claimed sales were down 12% from January through September 2020 so the board approved a 12% value reduction.

Mike Stein, tax accounting manager for the county auditor’s office, said with a new retail portion value of $109 million, Liberty Center will save about $623,502 in taxes with the reduction. Liberty Center wanted the value dropped to $65 million which would produce a $931,174 tax savings. Officials expect Apollo to appeal the partial reduction to the Board of Tax Appeals. They have already appealed the BoR decision to the appeals board.

ExploreWhat’s next for Liberty Center? Officials look to build finances after shortfalls

Commissioner T.C. Rogers told the Journal-News Apollo was legally within its rights to pursue the tax break but “they can’t have both.”

“We had come up with an alternative which we thought would help with their cash flow by giving them money,” Rogers said. “What we offered they countered with wanting more and for a longer term, and then they offered several counters. So we had said a month ago what we had come up with was a final communication and they countered that, so we decided there’s no more to discuss.”

Liberty Center officials could not be reached for comment.

Still on the table are a couple bond and loan refinancing and restructuring matters. Financial advisor Andy Brossart told the Journal-News Liberty Center stands to save $682,602 annually if the county goes through with them, because they can take advantage of lower interest rates and longer terms.

The Liberty Twp. trustees agreed in principle Tuesday night to go through with financing the bonds they took out to help pay for the development’s infrastructure in 2014, according to Trustee Steve Schramm.

He told the Journal-News the township intended to contribute the estimated $58,000 savings they would realize from refinancing to the county’s cash payment to Liberty Center. He said everyone was concerned about the possible value reduction.

“Part of the idea of the county stepping in and us doing our part to step in, was to keep them from going for that big reduction,” Schramm said. “We were a bit concerned what it might do to other area properties if they saw that happen, we might have sort of rush of others wanting to see the same kind of reduction and ultimately over the long haul cause a major reduction in tax receipts.”

Rogers said the county’s big concern with the property value reduction is it could impact repayment of the infrastructure bonds and loans floated to support the development.

The Liberty Community Authority was formed to serve as a watchdog over the taxpayer investment in the development. The LCA is responsible for maintaining garages and stormwater systems at the center and paying off the debt to build those. It uses several assessments to repay the debt, including a 10-mill assessed value charge levied against the properties on the site, which will be impacted by the value reduction.

There have been some issues with the bond payments in recent years for a variety reasons, necessitating “loans” from the county tax increment financing district.

In the letter to Apollo, Boyko said the county “will focus its attention on other initiatives to ensure the Liberty Community Authority’s financial position is solvent and self-sufficient.”

Liberty Twp. Trustee Board President Tom Farrell said he hopes all the parties can still come to some sort of an agreement.

“Liberty Center and its future is extremely important to township and the county,” Farrell said. “It’s never over, we will continue to work together to try to find a solution that will give us both the ability to succeed. What was on the table at this point was not something we could come to terms with. When you say it’s over, it’s never over until it’s over.”

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