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02-05-03: Rockford councilors question loan
The Daily Standard
    ROCKFORD - Village council members are questioning a loan village administration officials extended to a local business.
    Village Administrator Jeff Long in a letter dated Jan. 14, 2002, outlines a prospective deal with James Kahle, a local artist, to loan Kahle's business $1,619.84 to pay for installation of a natural gas line to the property at 103 S. Main St. The letter says Kahle was to repay the loan within one year.
    Rockford Clerk-Treasurer Amy Lyons said Kahle repaid the debt Tuesday.
    Council member Keith Rutledge brought up the issue at Tuesday's regular meeting. Rutledge said the loan appears to be improper, based on a recent legal opinion the town received on an unrelated issue and Rutledge found support from other council members.
    Lyons said the deal was struck after a meeting between Long, Kahle and former Mayor Jeff Armstrong.
  "I don't know any of the particulars," Lyons said.
    The town apparently paid Con-solidated Hunter Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning in Celina to do the work at Kahle's business. Long's letter does not address whether Kahle was to pay interest on the loan.
    "What other kind of sweetheart deals are out there that we don't know about as council?" Rutledge asked. "We have an opinion from our solicitor that this is wrong to do."
    Rutledge was talking about an opinion authored several weeks ago by Solicitor Judy Koesters when village officials were considering assisting Ross Automotive, Celina, in opening an auto parts store in downtown Rockford. Ross had wanted the town to buy the former Riley Chevrolet building on Main Street and then lease it to him.
    Officials appeared close to a deal but it eventually fell apart.
    Ohio law "specifically prohibits any county, city, town or township to loan its credit to, or becoming owners in private corporations or other associations," Koesters wrote in the one-page opinion.
    Some council members said Armstrong had the authority to authorize the deal. But Rutledge noted that Long's name, not Armstrong's, is on the letter.
    "I have a problem with the current village administrator being involved. He shouldn't be doing unlawful acts," Rutledge said.
    Council President Eugene Steiner said he would like to hear from Long on the issue. Long did not attend Tuesday's meeting.
    "None of the rest of us were there. We don't know what went on," Steiner said.
    Councilor Nick Sell said village administration officials should be advised not to enter any similar deals in the future.
    Long this morning told The Daily Standard that he and Armstrong approved the no-interest loan to help downtown business development. Without the loan, Kahle would have been "hindered" in his efforts to open the business and may not have been able to do so, Long said.
    Long said Rutledge has been aware of the deal and simply was waiting for the opportune moment to exploit the issue.
    "Keith's just on his high horse again. The only improper thing about this is that Keith is on council," Long said.
    In light of council's reaction to the loan, Long said he would bring any similar requests in the future before council. There are no other such loans in place now, he said.
    Also Tuesday, councilors stated their intentions to repeal the town's sidewalk ordinance and eventually replace it with new legislation.
    Rutledge complained that the existing ordinance has never been evenly enforced. Some property owners have been forced to replace or install new sidewalks while those who have resisted have not been forced to do so, he said.
    "There's no rhyme or reason to it," Rutledge said.
    Sell said he does not believe the village should force anyone to install new sidewalks, especially in areas where there is little or no pedestrian traffic. Other council members said any new ordinance should be all-inclusive and enforceable.
    In other business Tuesday, council members formally pulled the plug on a plan to remodel the town hall and to build additional storage area at the wastewater plant. Rutledge said that with national and statewide economic uncertainty, the town should not be diving into the $30,000-plus project.
    "Our finances can't be far behind," he said.
    Council members unanimously supported a motion to call off the work.
    A broken sewer line that is expected to cost more than $150,000 to replace also played into council's decision. They had delayed action on the remodeling plan last month due to the sewer problem. Village officials have since learned that half of the repair will be covered by an emergency grant; the remaining balance apparently will be financed.


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