From left, pictured are Hillsboro mayor Justin Harsha, safety and service director Brianne Abbott and public works superintendent Shawn Adkins. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
From left, pictured are Hillsboro mayor Justin Harsha, safety and service director Brianne Abbott and public works superintendent Shawn Adkins. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)

Hillsboro City Council heard concerns regarding a recently installed sign in uptown Hillsboro for a second straight month, along with a report on vandalism at the city parks, during their May 10 meeting.

Council member Ann Morris, as well as two citizens in attendance, continued to question the installation of the digital sign at the former Colony Theatre space in uptown Hillsboro. Crews installed the sign on March 31, and since then the sign has been displaying city events and other public notices.

In April, Morris asked questions about the sign after the safety and service director’s report, including the cost ($48,340) and, on three occasions, the contractor that provided the sign (Chad Abbott Signs). This month, at the same point of the meeting, Morris asked to give some comments.

Morris said that upon reviewing public records, she determined that council “never did approve the Colony sign project.” She cited the council minutes from Nov. 9, which say that Resolution 20-47 was passed “for the allocation and spending of CARES Act funds” with “the details being named and added at a later time to legislation.”

Although the sign was listed as a possible use for the funds, payroll expenses and a “temporary meeting space” at the city building were also listed as options, according to the meeting minutes and The Highland County Press’ report of the meeting.

“From what the November design review board minutes say, the design review board did approve the digital sign, with the stipulation of approving the design drawing and final approval,” Morris said. “It was explained to the design review board that the purchase orders must be in place by November 2020 for the CARES Act money – the same month that council was not informed what the money would be used for.

“We were not aware until the digital sign was installed this spring. The CARES Act money project did not have to be complete until the end of 2021, which was plenty of time to go through all the proper channels and let the citizens, as well as council, voice an opinion.”

City auditor Alex Butler told The Highland County Press Tuesday morning that “Regarding CARES ACT expenditures, the City is in full compliance with CRF [Coronavirus Relief Fund] guidance provided by the Ohio Office of Budget and Management and City Law Director Fred Berry's legal guidance.”

Butler also clarified that under the CRF guidance, the "Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021" that allowed the funds to be used through 2021 was not enacted until Dec. 27, 2020, at which point the city had already had encumbered nearly all of the funds.

Morris also discussed Safety and Service Director Brianne Abbott’s involvement with the sign throughout the process. The contractor, Chad Abbott, is the husband of the safety and service director. According to the company’s website (chadabbottsigns.com), “Chad and his wife Bree opened up their own sign shop near the center of Hillsboro in 2010 and moved out to their current location in 2012.”

As reported last month, of the $48,340 spent on the sign, $30,000 of it was paid to Chad Abbott Signs.

Mayor Justin Harsha, Abbott and public works superintendent Shawn Adkins all spoke to The Highland County Press April 13, and all three denied that Brianne Abbott had any “involvement” in the city sign, including securing contractors or voting.

Morris disagreed in her comments Monday.

“Our safety service director was involved in the progression of the city sign at the Colony Park,” Morris said. “It’s almost impossible not to be involved, as the safety service director’s basically the center of all things in the city.

“Per the design review board Dec. 16 meeting, our safety service director explained she had Chad Abbott Signs create a sign with an adjustment and presented copies to each member of the design review board. Final designs were to be discussed later, and DS2 would have the drawings sent to Ms. Abbott that afternoon.”

Morris also quoted from several portions of the city’s code of ordinances, including that the SSD “shall have a seat but not vote in the meetings of the council” (30.023) and that the SSD cannot “approve any ordinance providing for the appropriation of money, unless it is accompanied by a form to be devised by the auditor, which shall show fully the purpose of the appropriation and the fund to which it is to be charged and which shall bear the approval of the safety and service director, the law director and the auditor” (30.075).

Morris also pointed to the Code of Ethics portion of the city code (30.027), which reads: “City Council members occupy positions of public trust. All business transactions of these officials dealing in any manner with public funds, either directly or indirectly, must be subject to the scrutiny of public opinion both as to the legality and to the propriety of the transactions.”

“For the digital sign purchase, Code of Ethics should have been visited more carefully and appears it is a conflict of interest,” Morris said. “As chair of the property maintenance and restoration committee, along with council and other interested parties, a lot of time has been spent planning the Colony Park and many other projects around town. The sign structure completely changes the aesthetics of the pocket park. There are several new projects in the works, and I’m requesting the public be included in those decisions.”

Council member Patty Day said that Morris’ “facts are accurate, that council did not approve” the Colony sign.

“Actually, I provided some documentation earlier,” council president Tom Eichinger said. “I copied documents based on our minutes and what have you. The sign was specifically mentioned, and it was authorized by council.”

“Mentioned as a possible project,” Morris said. “The funds were authorized, not the project.”

“The funds to be expended were authorized,” Eichinger said.

Morris disagreed, but Eichinger said, “We’re not going to argue about it here.”

“Anyone can pull the records,” Morris said. “They’re public.”

During the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting, Hillsboro planning commission member Tracy Aranyos addressed council and told them the sign was “100-percent illegal.”

“It’s not permitted in the historic district,” Aranyos said. “It’s stated clearly here that it’s absolutely not permitted.”

The city zoning code outlines “design criteria” for structures in the historic uptown district, including signage, saying “Proper signage should conform to what is typically associated with the era during which historic structures in the district were built.”

In addition, Aranyos alleged that the “proper procedure” for approving the sign was also not followed.

She said the city administration approached the city’s design review board (“and it shouldn’t have passed that, but it did,” she added), but they failed to work through the Hillsboro planning commission as well for a variance.

“It seems to be a pattern of what I’m seeing with the administration, and I’m not happy about that,” Aranyos said.

A second Hillsboro resident who spoke during the meeting, David Mayer, said that he “investigated” minutes from recent city meetings regarding the sign.

“My discussion with people in the city and county residents outside the city tells me that no one likes it,” Mayer said.

There was no response from Hillsboro administrators Monday night regarding any of the sign commentary.

In unrelated discussion, both Aranyos and Mayer also expressed concerns about solar panels in their respective comments, with Aranyos questioning why administration encouraged the planning commission to approve a variance for solar panels on an uptown building.

“In a planning meeting, we had a citizen come forward wanting to have permission if we would grant solar panels in the historic district, which is not permitted,” Aranyos said. “They wanted to put them on their entire roof — front, back side, everything.”

Aranyos said this request, like the Colony Park sign, should have gone through the design review board first and then come to the planning commission. Instead, she said, the request came to the planning commission first.

“I was surprised at how strongly we were urged to pass it,” Aranyos said. “I don’t know why, but the entire administration and one member of the city council strongly wanted to pass it. It did pass, 4-3. I didn’t agree with it.

“I realize you can’t win every vote. I don’t expect to, but what I do expect is for us to apply the rules fairly to everyone.”

Mayer said that he had “limited information” on the commission’s vote regarding the solar panel request but that he was not in favor of it either. He also requested “the city, at some point, to take a stance for or against” solar farms.

Aranyos, who was appointed to city council in 2013 and served through 2017, also “reminded council of their job responsibility,” which is “to follow the ordinances and the laws that we have on the books” and to “pull the purse strings.”

“When you’re voting on any issues – issues for the city taxpayers’ money – if you feel like you don’t have enough information or feel rushed, or if you don’t have enough details, I would urge you to vote no, do your research and then come back the next month and vote on it,” Aranyos said.

• • • 

Most of Harsha’s report was dedicated instead to hearing from recreation maintenance coordinator Rick Tipton, who outlined the numerous vandalism incidents he deals with regularly.

“I wanted to let everybody know here, and the public, what all is involved in the cleanup and maintenance on a daily basis,” Harsha said.

The courthouse fountain was shut down for the winter early after a vandalism incident in which individuals allegedly filled the fountain with soap. Harsha said that city crews began working to refill the fountain Thursday, May 6, and in the time it took them to repair some electrical problems, the fountain was already vandalized.

“Someone put some more soap in it, so when Rick turned it on the morning, we had more suds,” Harsha said. “We didn’t even get the fountain up and running, and we already had vandalism issues.

“People are just not respecting the parks. I walk by the shelter houses and all the picnic tables and they’re full of trash. People come out to eat lunch and leave it there, and I’ve heard the comment from Rick that someone told him ‘that’s what you’re paid for. That’s your job, and you need to clean after us.’”

Tipton said that he works “seven days a week” trying to keep the parks clean, but he said the situation is “just getting worse all the time.”

Tipton also discussed the fountain vandalism. He told council the fountain holds “4,000 gallons of water” that must be drained and replaced every time someone dumps soap in it.

“There’s a filter that goes in it, just like a swimming pool filter, that has to be changed,” Tipton said. “It gets expensive. I think last year, it was seven times this fountain had been soaped. The last time, it was probably three gallons of soap put in it, because we could not get it out. The filter was plugged, there was so much soap in it.”

Among the problems at Liberty Park outlined by Tipton were as follows.

• Tipton said that within two weeks of opening brand-new restrooms at Liberty Park, they have suffered extensive damage, including overflowing the toilets; breaking the toilet paper dispensers; kicking down the stalls’ dividers; breaking the door handles “so bad they wouldn’t work and we couldn’t even get the doors open;” defacing the property with graffiti; weighing down the sink handles to try to keep water running; and other “things I won’t even talk about because it’s so nasty,” Tipton said.

• Trash cans are either knocked over, or people are filling the park’s bins with trash from their houses. People have even dumped TVs or cans of paint at the park. Tipton said “the trails have trash all over the place” now due to increased traffic with the disc golf course.

• Parking is also a problem, with people driving and parking into fields where cars aren’t permitted or using the restroom parking lots when going to sporting events or other activities. Tipton gave an example of someone with a child in a wheelchair who had to park “on the road” to get the child into the restroom because all of the spots by the facilities were taken.

• Although the city has a designated area for a dog park, Tipton said there is often dog waste on the sports fields instead.

• Items are being stolen, including toilet paper, toilet seats and even waste bags at the dog park.

“If we start citing people for going out there and doing these things, maybe it will stop them,” Tipton said. “it’s just not right.”

Council member Greg Maurer asked if there were any security cameras at the park, and Tipton and Harsha said there are not. “Do we close the park at night?” Maurer asked.

Harsha said the city has discussed moving the gate at the property “out to the front entrance of the park to a point where there is a turnaround so if someone comes in late at night when they’re not supposed to, they have a way to turn around and get out.” He said that would have to be worked out with the Highland County YMCA and the wastewater treatment plant.

The Hillsboro parks committee also held a meeting May 4 for volunteers for a community watch program at the parks.

“Patrick Shanahan’s put together an initiative to try to get some groups to go out there and monitor things at different times of day,” Harsha said. “There are some things that are being done. I’m hoping that putting that gate out front, and having the park closed at certain times of night until the next morning, should curb a lot of that activity.”

Abbott added that the parks committee “unfortunately didn’t have a huge turnout at the first meeting” for volunteers.

For those who do use the parks, both Harsha and Abbott encouraged them to “keep an eye out” for anyone misusing the park facilities.

• • •

In the safety and service director’s report, Abbott gave brief updates on several projects.

• A pre-construction meeting for the Springlake Avenue improvements project will be held May 17, she said. Bids have been awarded to Distel Construction. In February, council approved three related resolutions regarding the improvement project, for which Abbott said the city is seeking “a low-interest loan for road reconstruction, widening, curb and gutter, water line, storm sewer and sidewalks.” The resolutions were passed as part of an “expedited” plan to secure funding and materials ahead of an expected increase, as public works superintendent Shawn Adkins said it was already a $900,000 project.

• As previously reported, the Highland County Board of Commissioners, in partnership with local municipalities as well as the Highland County Chamber of Commerce, announced plans March 3 for the formation of a new economic development department. Abbott said the county’s economic development director will be announced this week. “We look forward to continued collaboration with the county,” she said.

• Paving around the pedestrian bridge connecting Liberty and Shaffer parks and pedestrian walkway has been completed, and the parking lot at Shaffer Park will also be paved “at the end of the baseball season.”

• The city has met with Hillsboro High School representatives “to discuss student workforce and some opportunities and challenges they are facing.”

• The city recently executed an electric contract with AEP for an annual savings of $14,000.

• In an economic development update, Abbott said the city “welcomes” the newly opened Maplecrest Meats & More and that construction efforts are ongoing at Magic Tunnel Car Wash, The Porch and White’s Bakery.

• Abbott also met recently with the Public Entities Pool of Ohio “to discuss insurance and risk management.”

• Abbott thanked the parks committee for their work to help clean up the parks, as well as thanking Good News Gathering for recently volunteering to assist the city with various tasks with a “weekend cleanup” project.

“They spent an entire weekend just volunteering throughout the entire city,” Abbott said. “Their kindness and hard work is definitely a blessing to our city.”

• • •

• In his report, Butler said the city was having a “good month as far as income tax revenue is concerned.”

“This time last year, we were at $1.34 million in revenue,” Butler said. “At this time, this year, we’re at $1.47 [million]. That’s an increase of 9.5 percent.”

• Committee chair Maurer reported that the utilities committee met May 5 to discuss water charges.

• Council member Adam Wilkin was absent due to illness, with other council members voting to excuse his absence.

For more from Monday night's meeting, see the story at: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/Default/Rotator-Articles-/Article/Hillsboro-City-Council-approves-4-resolutions-after-lengthy-discussion/-3/546/68591.