But inside Central Connections, which finds itself under a microscope due to its financial difficulties and criminal investigation of its former executive director, it was apparent this was no normal day. City Manager Paul Lolli and Jackie Phillips, the city’s health director, were seen visiting with board members and staff.
Less than one day before, during a special City Council meeting that was attended by nearly 100 concerned senior citizens, Lolli announced the city was seeking to purchase the building and land so that Central Connections could repay its debts.
Lolli admitted the city owning Central Connections would be “challenging, but worth it.”
Then he added: “We can’t let this go. We have to provide the services the seniors depend on.”
On Friday, he told the Journal-News during an exclusive interview, the city’s lawyers and representatives from the center’s board are meeting to discuss the sale price of the building and land. Lolli didn’t want to speculate on that price.
According to the Butler County’s Auditor’s website, the land at 3907 Central Ave. is appraised at $225,000 and the building at $1.9 million for a total of $2.144 million. But those are valuations from Jan. 1, 2020, before the center had a $1.5 million remodel.
The land and property will be reappraised based off the Jan. 1, 2023, valuations.
Until the sale is finalized, Lolli said Phillips will oversee daily operations of the center in hopes of keeping what he called “critical services” for seniors like transportation and meals operational.
He said the city hopes to retain as many of the 35 employees as possible. The center is closed on Saturdays and Sundays, and it’s unclear what will happen to events already scheduled there.
Middletown High School’s Class of 1983 40-year reunion was supposed to be held at Central Connections, but organizers are seeking another venue, according to Facebook.
Last week, Rick Fishbaugh, the board president, said Central Connections may have to file for bankruptcy, less than one year after the mortgage was paid off. Middletown taxpayers spent about $7 million over 10 years to pay off the center, Lolli said.
“We didn’t want to wash that money down the drain,” he said of the taxpayers’ investment. The senior levy expired on Dec. 31, 2022.
Lolli said Central Connections will be purchased with the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, meaning taxpayers will have paid for the building twice.
How Central Connections got in this financial burden is unclear, though Middletown police are investigating if former Executive Director Diane Rodgers, whose contract was terminated last week, committed any crimes.
Rodgers was hired in 2021 and Central Connections then completed a $1.5 million remodel to attract more members and generate revenue through wedding receptions and parties.
According to 2021 tax returns from Form 990, reviewed by the Journal-News, Central Connections profited $1.04 million in 2020 and $564,681 in 2021.
The center began 2021 with $4.6 million in net assets or fund balances and ended the year with $5.188 million. The biggest difference was found under total liabilities when they dropped from $875,607 at the beginning of 2021 to $155,532 at the end of the year.
The document listed Rodgers as the executive director.
Rodgers also signed for a mortgage loan through First National Bank for $450,000 on July 29, 2022, then did a loan modification that increased the amount to $650,000, according to the Butler County Recorder’s Office. Her signature and job title are listed on the loan that matures on July 29, 2024.
Ben Yoder, the city’s law director, warned that the city was “attempting” to purchase the building, a process complicated by the number of possible creditors. He said the legal process will take time.
At least one developer, D.E.R. Development Co. has filed a lien against Central Connections, according to documents obtained by the Journal-News. The document says the company performed work from June 20, 2022, to Feb. 27, 2023, and is owed $266,594.52, plus allowable interest.
The lien was filed on May 5, 2023, and signed by William Roe, vice president of the company.
It’s unclear where Rodgers is living. She and her attorney, Tyrone Borger, were scheduled to meet with Middletown detectives on July 28, but they never showed, Police Chief David Birk told the Journal-News. He said the criminal investigation is continuing and his department may seek assistance from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.
Before Rodgers was hired in 2021, Fishbaugh said the board completed a background check on her, but only in Ohio, though she had never lived in Ohio. He has admitted that was “a mistake.”