A firestorm of reactions was set off last week after Russell Township Park District Chairman Scott Wayt proposed leasing parklands in the township to the Geauga Park District.
Funding for upkeep and survival of the Russell district were reasons Mr. Wayt gave for the surprising and unusual proposal that took just about everyone off guard.
Geauga Park District board members said they were open to the proposal to maintain and do programming on the Russell parklands, but had taken no action as of early this week.
“We would still own it, even though it would be leased out,” Mr. Wayt said of the Russell Township Park District land.
Russell Township Trustee Gary Gabram said, “The whole concept is anti-Russell.”
Russell Trustee Jim Mueller expressed opposition to the idea as well. “I want to call an emergency meeting of the township trustees to file an injunction against this transaction,” he said. “It’s a big mess.”
Russell has two park boards, the Russell Township Park District formed 34 years ago under Ohio Revised Code 1545 and the Russell Citizens Park District formed last year under ORC 511 and approved by a vote of residents.
Both park boards have levies on the Nov. 6 ballot – 0.5 mills for the 1545 board and 0.25 for the 511 board.
Mr. Wayt said the 1545 board began exploring the leasing option after the Geauga County Budget Commission in September found several minor accounting errors from the past and concluded that all of past levy funds should have gone into an account to purchase land with no other use.
That left the 1545 board with only $30,500 in operating funds, Mr. Wayt explained. Even if the 0.5 mill levy is approved on Nov. 6, he said, the park district would not receive proceeds for two years due in part to the budget commission’s actions. That means the district would not have enough money to maintain its 422 acres for a long period, he said.
“At this point we have no other realistic option but to lease the parkland to an established, respected entity with the money and experience to preserve, protect and maintain our parks,” Mr. Wayt said.
“Our attorney told us we could fight the budget commission,” Mr. Wayt said, “but it would cost $40,000 of taxpayers’ money fighting the interpretation of the previous levy language. So we decided to honor the budget commission’s request.”
Geauga County Auditor Chuck Walder said the move to lease the parklands is premature as the Geauga County Budget Commission, of which he is a member, has not reached a conclusion yet on the park district’s fund balances.
“The fund balances remain the outstanding issue that the park district was having its outside accounting firm working on. I don’t want to make a conclusion until all the data is reviewed. I found anomalies in reported fund balances from 2015, 2016 and 2017,” Mr. Walder said.
Mr. Wayt said that 94 percent of the 1545 district’s land is protected by conservation easements set up by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. “That doesn’t change if the parkland is leased to the Geauga Park District. It goes with the land.”
A resident is going to pay for a conservation easement on the park district’s Dines Road property, Mr. Wayt added, and once finalized, 99 percent of the district’s parklands would be protected from any development.
There was talk of tree cutting on the Russell Upland Preserve Parklands. Mr. Wayt clarified that the district completed much needed tree maintenance this past summer in that area under supervision of the conservancy.
Some residents proposed the new 511 district take over the land under the 1545 board.
Mr. Wayt said that if the 1545 district were to be dissolved, the Ohio Revised Code calls for the parklands to be offered first to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. If ODNR did not take the lands, the statute reads, then the parks would be offered to “any other agency of the state or any political subdivision or instrumentality of the state located within the former park district or within a county in which territory that was annexed to the district is located.”
Geauga County Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell said that he does not have any say in the proposed leasing matter, even though by statute he appoints members of both the county and the 1545 boards.
“It does not have to be approved by me. It’s not mine to vote on. The township park district owns the land. I don’t have a vote, so I can’t grab anything,” he said in reaction to comments from some residents.
Mr. Wayt said that some residents believe that the 1545 park district is controlled by the probate court, but all three park board members are volunteers and Russell residents. “We joined the board to help steward the land and preserve our green spaces for all residents and future generations to enjoy.”
He added that 1545 board members appreciate the dozens of township residents who have “treated board members with fairness, courtesy and respect.”
But critics continue to push for the 511 board, whose members are appointed by Russell trustees, to ultimately take over the 1545 property. “If they would lease it to the 511 Russell park district, the ownership would remain in the township,” Mr. Gabram said. “Residents are not happy that the parklands would go under the control of the county.” He questioned how long the lease could be, “maybe 100 years?”
Though the 511 board has a levy on the ballot, Mr. Wayt pointed out that it has no operating funds right now or public plans to use the money.
Russell Trustee Justin Madden said he hopes the 1545 board will look at other options. “He’s a good leader,” he said of Mr. Wayt. “And I can see the situation he has been handed, but I am hopeful he will consider some options before making a decision to involve the Geauga Park District in our parklands.”
Russell resident and 511 advocate Sharmyn Clark said the proposal is a “knee-jerk reaction.” The 1545 board has plenty of money to take care of the parks for several more years, she said. “You can leave land vacant without spending money.” The worst thing that can happen is the grass will grow, she added.
Russell resident Shelley Chernin said the 1545 board is “bleeding itself dry” with legal expenses, $41,000 in 2016, $18,000 in 2017 and another $18,000 in 2018. If they use an attorney to negotiate with the Geauga Park District, she said, the 1545 board will have even fewer funds for its park.
Mr. Wayt said that if the county park system leases the land, it could provide programs and security that the Russell parks never had at no additional cost to township taxpayers. “In the end, this may be the best way to protect Russell parks.”