St. Clair Twp. suit says Hamilton owes nearly $1M

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St. Clair Twp. is again suing the City of Hamilton for compensation for annexed properties, and this time the township has put a dollar amount to its claims.

The township filed a new lawsuit in Butler County Common Pleas Court this week claiming the city owes at least $960,000 for tax years 2017 and 2018 for lost property taxes due to annexations. One of the township’s attorneys said the total figure over 12 years could be about $4 million.

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 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 annexations through the years. 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.

The township’s legal counsel, Gary Sheets, filed a writ of mandamus against the city in the Ohio Supreme Court almost three years ago. The high court handed down its decision in March, denying the writ of mandamus. The court said while Hamilton owes the township, this particular form of legal action is not available because the township hasn’t proven how much the city owes.

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“It is plain that under the current (law), a city is required to pay a township for tax revenue lost as a result of that city’s annexation and exclusion of township territory,” the decision added. “St. Clair has not shown with certainty the amount of lost tax revenue St. Clair Township is owed.”

The township trustees hired attorneys Curt Hartman and Chris Finney. They filed a new lawsuit on Monday. Hartman said the General Assembly intended for townships to be compensated when municipalities annex their land, and it was relatively easy to figure out how much Hamilton allegedly owes.

“Over the course of 12 years you’re looking to obtain close to $4 million,” Hartman said. “Which is significant for St. Clair Twp. When you look at it, the general assembly understood this type of situation where townships would be hurt financially because of these annexations and detachments, and this is exactly what the law has provided for.”

Hamilton Director of Law Letitia Block said the city has no comment on the latest lawsuit.

Trustee Board President John Snyder said officials have tried several times to discuss a settlement with the city. The township just pulled itself out of a state-declared fiscal emergency, which it said was caused in part by the lost tax revenue.

“We’ve been strapped for cash and we went through all of that these last few years, when we should have been getting more tax revenue than we had,” Snyder told the Journal-News.

He said they have “tightened their belts,” but the lost revenue is still critical.

“We’re on the right track, so we’ve got things to do and this will provide that for us, as far as paving roads and doing the things we need to be doing for the residents of St. Clair Twp,” Snyder said.