Proposed women's clinic debated

By Mike Sever Record-Courier staff writer Published:

The contract in question is for a building in Lisbon to house a clinic for pregnant women and infants.

Auditor Janet Esposito told Commissioner Chris Smeiles Tuesday she wanted answers to several questions about the deal before she would certify the $425,000 in capital funds needed to close the purchase for the Columbiana County branch of Portage County's Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

Esposito said she wanted to know if the money would be placed in an interest-bearing escrow account until the title to the building is turned over to the county in April. She also wondered what happens if the federal government ends the program.

"As fiscal officer of this county, do I have a right to ask these questions?" Esposito asked Smeiles.

"That's not your call. The contract asks you to verify that the money is in the account," Smeiles replied.

Esposito said she received the contract Thursday, and not certifying the funds in such a short time was not an untoward delay.

"I have never refused to sign that contract," she said. "I believe as an elected official I have a right to ask these questions.

"I don't think there's a county auditor in Ohio who doesn't ask questions to make sure there is appropriate expenditure of county funds," Esposito said. "I think I have a statutory responsibility to ask questions. I'm not a rubber stamp for the commissioners."

Smeiles and Esposito said they would put their questions and answers in writing for each other.

Commissioners are in the final stages of buying a building in a Lisbon office park to house the clinic.

"Our lease runs out in March, and the seller _ the builder _ is contracted to have the building completed by April 1. He is working to meet that deadline," Smeiles said. "He's working on the project based upon a handshake from the commissioners" that they will buy and occupy the building.

"Legally, technically, he could lose confidence in our agreement and sell the building to another party," he said.

Smeiles said Esposito's questions have been answered by commissioners in the course of their negotiations.

"If there was a legal question to delay the contract, that's one thing. However, if it's pure stubbornness and one-upmanship on the part of Janet, that's totally unacceptable," Smeiles said.

"The only question that the auditor's office has in the contracting is certification of funds. Are the funds in the account to satisfy the contract? It's obvious to me that the auditor misses her job as a commissioner," Smeiles said.

Smeiles said he believes the auditor's delay is in retaliation for commissioners' failure last month to approve a $327,000 contract for a new real property tax computer system.

The WIC program is federally funded and provides food and medical examinations for expectant mothers and young children in families which meet income eligibility requirements.

Portage has had a WIC program for 22 years, said director Christine F. Jackovitz. It began serving Columbiana County in 1985 when that county lost its grantee agency. After moving the Columbiana clinic three times, the downtown building housing it now is for sale, and WIC must leave by March 1.

Commissioners have negotiated with developer Dickey & Son for a building under construction in a two-year-old office park northwest of downtown Lisbon. The builder is Sylvester and Dickey, a partnership of the developer and another builder.

"The neighborhood this is located in is the growth area of the region. It's surrounded by similar looking buildings and social services," Smeiles said.

Portage County would lease the building to WIC at a monthly rent high enough to cover the building cost and interest, commissioners said.

Jackovitz said the new location will be ideal for WIC since it is also home to other agencies that interact with WIC.

Commissioner Kathleen Chandler said she is comfortable with the project's outline.

"With the arrangements we're making here, we feel pretty secure," she said. "The developer wants to make an arrangement to buy back the building if we don't need it anymore."

One hold-up to the purchase is that the 1997-98 budget has not yet been funded by the federal government. The local WIC program's budget of about $800,000 annually has been fixed for the past two years, Jackovitz said.

The state Department of Health's Bureau of Women, Infants and Children also has not yet agreed to a budget increase for the Portage-Columbiana program.

Portage commissioners have presented their case to the state for a budget hike to cover a higher rent. Columbiana County commissioners agreed to pay the difference between rent amounts if the state doesn't approve a higher payment, Smeiles said.

Chandler said she doesn't expect state approval to be a problem.

"There's a shortage of available space in Lisbon, and so rents are relatively higher than what you might get here," she said. "So, by buying the building, we feel we're going to come out of it OK."

Commissioners plan to purchase the building out of Portage's capital fund, which has about $5 million.

"This money comes back to us in rent," Commissioner Chuck Keiper said. "So actually, over 15 years, we will recover all our money and have a $500,000 asset as opposed to paying rent forever."

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