County leaders at odds over which Oxford project to give federal grant money

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The three Butler County commissioners are at odds over which Oxford project they want to give $1.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to, but the log jam might be broken on Monday.

The city of Oxford originally asked the commissioners to fund a one-stop social services center when the county was culling ideas for how to spend nearly $75 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, but 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 that involves a land swap that involves adding a wing for seniors at the TRI Community Center and facilitating the new Amtrak station.

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

“After that resolution was passed there was a lot of public engagement — a lot — our community came out in force, and really demanded that council relook at both proposals,” Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene said. “They did and council wanted to re-submit both and I said you can but you have prioritize one.”

Now the three commissioners are at odds over which project to fund. Commissioner Cindy Carpenter favors the one-stop-shop for social services, in partnership with the Talawanda Oxford Pantry & Social Services and Family Resource Center.

They want to build 6,000-square-foot pole barn type 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.

Commissioner Don Dixon wants to let the city council make the decision.

“We make the grant to Oxford and at the end of the day it’s Oxford’s choice where it goes, as long as it meets the criteria for the program,” Dixon said. “It’s not up to us to tell them they have to do this or they have to do that, that’s not the case. The misconception is the commissioners are directing it, the commissioners aren’t directing anything.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers told the Journal-News he wants to stick with the proposal they approved.

“The one that I voted for was in connection with the train stop,” Rogers said. “It puts us more on the map and it’s consistent with what we’ve done with the money and that’s for every dollar spent it makes bigger things than that dollar happen.”

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Several Oxford residents and officials associated with the two projects flooded the commissioners’ chambers a week ago advocating for their preferred project. The commissioners didn’t discuss the topic then and haven’t given County Administrator Judi Boyko any guidance on how they want to proceed with the $1.5 million award.

Carpenter told the Journal-News she intends to force the issue at their next meeting. She said she will raise it as a topic of conversation and hopefully they can come to a decision.

“What we asked them to do was tell us their priority and they did what they asked us to do,” Carpenter said. “Now it’s on us.”

The commissioners also still have to decide what to do with the remaining $7 million of the ARPA dollars and all three said they said they would at least consider using some of the remaining ARPA money for the second Oxford project. 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 — that houses 17 school district staffers — that 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 and they 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, expand the preschool and TRI was going to pay for a new community gym.

Greene told the Journal-News previously the entire Amtrak platform project hinges on this agreement. She said if the commissioners nix funding the project, it shouldn’t be fatal.

“It’ll be made smoother if they support it,” she said. “But by golly we’ll find a way, it just might involve a little more creativity and just scratching our heads, but we’ll find a way.”

Carpenter said she would like to spend more of the pandemic relief money on parks projects but “I do support seniors and part of that money could be carved out for them.”

Rogers has said he would like to see the remainder of the money go to help people in need, and “we have some money we’re going to to still give out for the less fortunate, so I think there could be some money coming from that,” for the second Oxford idea.

Dixon didn’t say no to additional Oxford funding, but said “at the end of the day, we’ll see what’s left but it looks to me like the money is pretty much running out.”

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