By Tim Cox
Celina city officials are moving forward with plans to go through a legal process to dispel lingering legal questions about a proposed lakefront walkway.
City council members this week approved first reading of an ordinance to initiate legal proceedings on whether the city can borrow against a tax increment finance (TIF) district to pay for the $2 million project, parts of which lie outside the TIF area.
City officials' plans to put the legal process on the fast track by passing the measure as an emergency were derailed, though.
Councilman Ed Jeffries' opposition to the plan and Councilman Chris Mohler's absence left council with too few votes for the three-fourths supermajority needed to pass emergency legislation.
City residents Don Gehle and Don Kohnen both expressed concerns about the city's plans. Both men also have been sharp critics of the walkway project, which in part led to the idea to seek a court ruling validating the project. They also have questioned the legality of certain aspects of the proposal. The walkway also has been criticized because it was part of an overall lakefront master plan that was rejected by voters a couple of years ago.
A court decision in the city's favor would permanently block any court action aimed at blocking or interrupting the proposed walkway project. Although city officials have already sought opinions on legal questions raised by walkway critics, the validation hearing would further address those issues. The court's decision could be appealed to a higher court.
During a committee meeting last week, some city officials expressed concerns about the potential costs of the court action. Those costs are not expected to exceed $10,000, Safety-Service Director Jeff Hazel said. Legal fees and court filings more likely run $6,000 or so, he said.
The city's bound attorneys, not the law director, would file the legal action (a securities validation hearing) and represent the city in court, Hazel said.
Ohio Revised Code section 133.70 allows for securities validation hearings. The process can be used any time before public debt actually is issued. City council members have authorized city officials to issue special revenue bonds against the TIF, but administration officials have not yet issued the debt.
The validation hearing would not only allow the city to make its case for the project, but also would give critics a chance to formally oppose the plan.
The proposed mile-long path would run from the lighthouse near Lake Shore Drive to near the state boat ramp to the south. A 20-foot wide swath of the lake would be filled in to make room for the concrete path. Construction estimates currently stand at about $2 million, although some fear that rising oil and fuel prices will ultimately push the price tag even higher.
City officials originally planned to build the entire path in one project but now plan to have it constructed in at least two phases due to limited finances.