County commissioners debate Oxford ARPA projects

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Dixon wants city leaders to ensure Oxford project has long-term funding.

After a lengthy debate, Butler County commissioners appear willing to direct $1.5 million in federal pandemic relief to Oxford’s one-stop social services project, but they want the city to guarantee the project’s sustainability.

The city of Oxford originally asked the commissioners to fund a one-stop social services center — a partnership with the Talawanda Oxford Pantry & Social Services (TOPSS) and Family Resource Center — when the county was seeking ideas for how to spend nearly $75 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. Oxford then swapped projects mid-stream.

When the commissioners voted on the second batch of ARPA awards in December — they had already awarded $52.4 million in the first round — they approved Oxford’s updated project, one that involves adding a wing for seniors at the TRI Community Center and facilitating the new Amtrak station.

After a public outcry, Oxford officials reversed course and made the one-stop social services center the top priority again.

The commissioners have been at odds over the issue and had a lengthy debate Monday. Now it appears they might support both in some fashion.

Commissioner Don Dixon said he’ll support the TOPSS proposal, which was Commissioner Cindy Carpenter’s preference, as long as the city will guarantee the project is sustainable for the long term.

“I want the commitment they’re going to fund it or guarantee the funding,” Dixon said, because he doesn’t want it to “run three, four, five years and go out of existence.”

From the beginning all three commissioners said they would not use ARPA funds for project operations like personnel costs.

“I’m not going to take ARPA money, build a building that then continues to take additional resources that somebody’s not willing to commit to continue to keep it in operation,” Dixon said. “Now, they can say they’re going to have fundraising drives, they’re going to sell hot dogs or they’re going to sell balloons or whatever. That doesn’t work, the city of Oxford needs to clearly state it’s a priority for them and they will see that it’s funded in some form or some fashion going forward.”

The groups want to build 6,000-square-foot structure to house both agencies in a one-stop social service model, add operations for a housing non-profit, a commercial kitchen and education space for feeding and food education programs. It also would also include a basement level for a cold weather and tornado shelter.

The Journal-News contacted Oxford City Manager Doug Elliott and Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene about Dixon’s request. They said, “The city of Oxford will meet with County Administrator Judi Boyko to better understand what assurances the county is seeking and will then develop a response.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers preferred the second project because it included a component similar to projects they awarded to Hamilton and Middletown for community center upgrades. Oxford asked for $3 million — the commissioners’ allocation is only $1.5 million — for the TRI Community Center expansion to include the wing for seniors.

The project entails a trade with the Talawanda School District to acquire the Nelson Morrow building, which houses 17 school district staffers. The building is standing in the way of the new train platform near Chestnut Fields. If the deal can be sealed, the school employees would move into the city-owned building that houses the Oxford Seniors organization, which in turn would move into a renovated TRI Community Center on Fairfield Road.

Half of the $3 million was going to build a new wing on the community center for the seniors and the rest was to renovate shared operational space and expand the preschool. TRI was going to pay for a new community gym.

Rogers said the benefit of helping get the Amtrak stop online was also important.

“There are other monies which were promised for that project, so us taking away our money and the city of Oxford taking away their money — in effect — then there’s other entities which I think take their money away. One is OKI,” Rogers said, adding he’s not speaking for the OKI Regional Council of Governments but he is a board member.

OKI has pledged $2 million for the train stop.

Dixon suggested using some of their economic development funds to help make that project a reality because of the importance of a new Amtrak stop in the county.

“I think probably anybody I talk to understands the value of having an Amtrak stop in Butler County,” he said.

The commissioners agreed they will leave it up to Oxford to decide which project to pursue but will have Boyko convey to the city they want not only the resolution city council passed supporting the TOPSS project but proof they will guarantee sustainability.

Sherry Martin, TOPSS executive director, told the commissioners they have been around 16 years and the Family Resource Center turns 67 this year. She said they could either sell or rent the three small buildings they currently call home to help with operational costs if need be.

“We can provide projected costs of the operation of the new building which is slightly larger but much more efficient than the old buildings we’re in right now,” Martin said. “As you clearly stated you were looking for something sustainable, and we can provide that. I believe the city knows that we’re sustainable or they would not have prioritized us over another project, a very good project.”

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