Annexation Fight Puts $10M Project in Jeopardy

WARREN, Ohio – A potential $10 million project is in jeopardy if the controversy over the city of Niles’ intention to annex parts of Howland and Weathersfield townships does not go away, according to a representative from the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

“I can tell you right now: One project you may not be aware of is a $10 million project that is in jeopardy because of some of recent controversy over annexation,” said Guy Coviello, foundation president for the Regional Chamber. “We do have one member watching it very closely. If it takes too long to resolve the issue, that $10 million project will go away.”

Coviello said he couldn’t give details about the project or who is involved due to confidentiality and the project being in early planning stages. 

The revelation came as a result of a Trumbull County Economic Development Summit Tuesday afternoon. Despite the meeting being geared toward economic development throughout the county, residents seized the moment to decry the annexation plan announced by Niles.

Public protests have been ongoing since Niles City Council passed legislation in November requiring contiguous residents and businesses that use water, sewer and electricity to be annexed. Noncontiguous parties or those that remain outside the corporate limit will be expected to pay the amount equal to the city tax of 2% that would have been paid if those entities were to be annexed. 

Officials from the chamber, Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, Western Reserve Port Authority and Trumbull County Planning Commission made presentations at the summit, called by Trumbull County Commissioner Dan Polivka. 

Sarah Lown, public finance manager for NEO Development and Finance Authority, a division of the WRPA, told the crowd that Port Authority President John Moliterno is in Tampa, Fla., trying to attract a daily airline carrier to the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

“We really hope we can get the daily air passenger service to the airport. We know what it means to this community and especially with the redevelopment of Lordstown, we know that having easy access in and out of our community through flight is an important component of economic development and we’re working to develop the entire campus,” she said. “We’re working with the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. We’re working with some of the partners surrounding the airport to help develop the campus surrounding the airport to find more economic opportunities in that area.” 

Trumbull County sent invitations to all city and township officials in the county to discuss economic development. Looking out at the crowd, made up mainly of residents and few public officials, Polivka said, “I realize there is a lot of tension and turmoil in the community but we cannot solve these here today.”

Despite the statement and presentations, questions and comments all surrounded the annexation issue. Leaders from Howland and Weathersfield attended the meeting, but Niles officials declined to attend after being sent letters from the townships stating they obtained legal counsel.

Coviello presented slides detailing economic development success in 2019 that created 1,278 new jobs. So far this year, he said there has been $28 million in investments that haven’t created new jobs, but retained 147.

“In the next 24 months, there are projects totaling $4 billion in the pipeline that would create 3,120 new jobs for $114 million new payroll, and would retain 1,460 jobs,” he said.

Before taking questions, Coviello said he wanted to talk about the importance of site selection and how it relates to economic development based on commissioners’ concern that annexation would dominate the meeting.

“I want to address the elephant in the room today with this economic development summit with all of the overtures on annexation,” he said.

Coviello explained the importance and process of site selection when attracting potential projects, pointing out it’s an intense process of elimination that can take years to determine a location for a client.

“Those site selectors very closely watch news coverage. They do their Google searches. They do their due diligence,” Coviello said. “One of those areas of due diligence is looking at the publicity that comes out of the community. That does play very heavily in that process.”

When a resident pushed him about if the best solution for the area is for Niles to end its annexation bid, Coviello said the chamber doesn’t have a policy dealing with annexation. 

“We do not have a policy for or against annexation, for or against joint economic development districts. We represent our members. If our member has an issue we will advocate on behalf of our member,” he said.

Niles, Howland and Weathersfield have not come to the table after legal counsel was secured. Polivka said he has attempted to bring everyone together, but has not been successful. The townships have dug in, sending letters to Trumbull County Engineer’s office, requesting the county to purchase water from a provider other than Niles. Brookfield and Vienna townships joined the request by also sending letters. 

“This is an immediate priority as the residents and businesses in the South East Water District are being threatened with annexation or to pay income tax to the city of Niles if they receive Niles city water,” states a letter from Vienna fiscal officer Linda J. McCullough on behalf of a resolution from Vienna Board of Trustees.

“We had no choice. What’s our choice?” said Howland Administrator Darlene St. George about the request for a new water supplier. 

The majority of water lines are owned by the county, which purchases water from Niles. The city also sells electricity. Several residents discussed switching to First Energy for electric power.

Asked if Howland would rescind the request for a new water supplier if annexation is taken off the table, St. George said officials will have to see what residents want to do.

“Our residents made a conscious choice to live in Howland Township. We don’t go out and recruit people, we don’t kidnap them, we don’t force them. They chose to live there. They elected three trustees to represent them,” St. George said. “My phone doesn’t stop ringing and  every day I get emails. People are begging or calling me crying because they think they’re going to be forced to live somewhere where they don’t want to live.”

St. George said when she read about the annexation legislation, she met with Niles Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz. 

“He said, ‘I have a declining tax base. I have declining population and I have to do something about it,’ ” St. George said. “And I said, ‘What about our tax base?’ And I was met with a blank stare.”

Commissioner Frank Fuda said he is going to reach out to Niles and try to get the parties to discuss the issue and come to an agreement. 

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.