Hamilton wants multi-million dollar annexation suit dismissed

The city of Hamilton has asked a Butler County Common Pleas Court judge to dismiss a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by St. Clair Twp. claiming lost tax revenue.

The township filed the lawsuit in in December claiming the city owes at least $960,000 for tax years 2017 and 2018 for lost property taxes due to annexations. In interviews, one of the township’s attorneys, Curt Hartman, said the township could claim through calculations that the total owed over 12 years beginning in 2016 going forward is close to $6 million.

Hamilton filed a response to the lawsuit Tuesday denying most of what has been alleged.

“The city of Hamilton requests that judgment be entered in its favor on all plaintiff’s claims, that plaintiff’s complaint be dismissed with prejudice and that the court award the city its costs and attorneys fee,” the court filing reads.

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.

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

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.

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, that form of legal action is not available because the township hasn’t proven how much the city owes.

“The law is the law and the Supreme Court has pronounced what it is in this case,” Hartman said. “It’s simply applying it now.”

Earlier this year the six justices — Justice Sharon Kennedy, who hails from Butler County, did not participate — said the township would have a tough task trying to decipher the amount owed.

“According to the deputy county auditor, it would take the ‘largest forensic title exam ever’ to precisely locate the excluded territory,” which is necessary to make the calculation, they wrote.

Hartman said the township hired an expert to gather the data necessary to calculate amount it claims is owed. The creation of the “paper township” in 2016 meant that the township needed to do its calculations back to that date, not back much further.He also said that because the townships in Butler County are virtually big “squares,” identifying parcels that had been inside the township wasn’t too difficult.

Sheets approached the other townships that are similarly situated while the case was in the high court to see if they wanted to join the suit, and none did. Hartman has not reached out to those entities yet but said he might.

Ross Twp. Trustee Tom Willsey said there is a lot to consider and it’s not all about money, the township’s relationship with the city must also be considered. He said he’s not ruling it out “if there’s a wrong that needs to be righted.”

“We’d have to look at it and see if there’s any substance,” Willsey said. “But I don’t know where we’d be on it, that would be a decision we as a board would have to see if its worth the investment quite frankly to hire attorneys and pursue this thing and see what it does to our relationship later on down the road.”

Officials from Fairfield and Hanover townships could not be reached for comment.

After the Supreme Court ruling, Hanover Twp. Administrator Bruce Henry said the trustees have studied the matter previously, discussed it again after the high court decision and decided they will not pursue action.

“We’ve decided that, with that one caption there about a monumental task to figure out all these parcels and how much and all that, it was probably too much for us to tackle,” Henry said. “We’d have to make an outlay (of cash) with no guarantee of a return, or perhaps little return, and we’re satisfied with where we’re positioned at the moment.”

The township has had an agreement in place with the city since 1996 through which it receives $8,000 annually — the amount fluctuates based on a number of factors — from the city.

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