City Hires Firm to Defend Against Suit Over Grants

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The city hired a law firm Thursday to represent it in a class-action lawsuit being brought by Youngstown water customers opposing the city’s use of water and wastewater grants to promote economic development projects.

Calfee, Halter & Griswold LLP, which has offices in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, is the firm that the drafted an opinion five years ago that supports the city’s use of the funds to support economic development.

The city will pay Calfee, Halter & Griswold $325 per hour up to $50,000 for the representation, Law Director Martin Hume said.

On Feb. 4, Kathy M. Miller, a former Boardman Township trustee, Stephanie L. Clark-Lambert of Canfield, John M. Bosela of Boardman, and John Schinker Jr. and Janet Johnson, both of Youngstown, “on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated,” filed the suit in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.

The complaint claims that the city’s “unlawful use and spending” of the funds from the water department’s special fund created “increased rates and overcharges” for the water department’s customers, amounting to “an unlawful imposition of a tax” on the customers who are also city taxpayers as well as a “tax/unlawful changes” to water customers outside the city.

Claims against the city include unjust enrichment, negligence, breach of contract and fraud. It seeks an order declaring that the city has violated Ohio law and enjoining it from further violating the law, restitution for the funds “unlawfully collected” and spent by the city to its customers for the past eight years, and compensatory damages and legal expenses.

As of Thursday morning, the city had not yet been officially served in the matter, Hume said.

The city also approved hiring CT Consultants, Youngstown, for $25,000 to conduct a slum and blight analysis on four areas of the city totaling 135 acres that have been identified as potential redevelopment plan areas.

If 70% of the four areas being studied are considered to be blighted, they would be eligible to become urban renewal areas.

The four areas to be studied include properties on either side of the Madison Avenue Expressway, the “Wick Six” area along Wick Avenue and several blocks bordered by Market Street and Oak Hill Avenues.

The properties are part of the “industrial green” space identified in the Youngstown 2010 plan said T. Sharon Woodberry, the city’s director of community planning and economic development. All but heavy industrial manufacturing along the line of the Vallourec pipe mill would qualify under the industrial green designation, she said. She expects to have the study done in three months.

“The intent is so that we have areas that we can begin to develop for commercial in investment,” Woodberry said. The locations make sense because of their proximity to the freeway, she said.

The areas contain a mix of commercial and residential properties, although many of them are not “active residential,” she said. Under the proposed urban renewal plan, the properties would not longer be residential.

The city would move forward on acquiring properties as they became available, but the urban renewal designation would allow the city to acquire properties through eminent domain if necessary.

“We’d go through the standard process of offering fair market value for the homes and trying to help relocate any individuals who are resident,” she said.

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