Chagrin Valley Times
by Joan Demirjian
November 8, 2018
Russell Township residents faced with deciding the fate of two park levies on the general election ballot turned both of them down on Tuesday.
The defeat was a shock to some and a surprise as well as a disappointment to many, especially regarding the Russell Citizens Park District levy, formed just one year ago.
The Russell Citizens Park District’s bid for a 0.25-mill levy received 1,630 votes against (53.08 percent) and 1,441 for the levy (46.92 percent), according to unofficial tallies from the Geauga County Board of Elections.
The Russell Township Park District’s 0.5-mill levy also failed with 2,037 votes against (66.81 percent) and just 1,012 votes (33.19 percent) in favor of the levy.
Some residents said voters may have been confused by the two levies of the two separate park boards with similar names.
The Russell Township Park District formed in 1984 has been referred lately by some as the 1545 park district for the section of the Ohio Revised Code under which it was formed with board appointments by the sitting county probate judge. The Russell Citizens’ Park Board was formed in 2017 under ORC 511 with board members appointed by township trustees.
Roy Podojil, chairman of the Russell Citizens Park District, expressed his surprise at the failure of the park district’s levy. Supporters of the issue had distributed information and had put up signs throughout the township, he said.
“We weren’t asking for a lot,” Mr. Podojil said. The levy would have made it possible to buy some land to open up some landlocked parkland in the township, he noted.
Residents had no problem last year voting to create the 511 park district, he noted, and the levy was small. It would cost $8.75 per each $100,000 of home valuation. It would have been collected in 2019 and would have raised $64,250 annually for five years.
The Russell Citizens Park District and the levy appeared to have had a lot of support leading up to the vote on Tuesday, he said adding that board members were optimistic about it passing. “The people I talked to were pro 511 park district. I hadn’t talked to anyone who was negative,” Mr. Podojil said.
Residents in Russell are interested in green space, and it is disappointing not to be able to “help them out,” he said.
With the failure, citizens park district members including Perry Holland and Ron Skribin met Wednesday to outline the next steps. He said they hope to be helping the Russell Trustees with the township’s plans for a veterans’ memorial. They will also assist the Russell Historical Society with plans for a Russell School memorial.
“We can help on a volunteer basis, and we will try to get donations,” Mr. Podojil said of the projects.
As to the levy, he said they will try again in May. “We can’t function on our own with no capital,” he said.
Russell Township Trustee Justin Madden said the language on the ballot was incredibly unhelpful. “Regardless, no one should question Russell Township Trustees’ resolve or our residents’ resolve to continue to gather and protect more green space in our township,” he said. “And the 511 park district will be the vehicle for that pursuit.”
The new district had been formed by residents who were frustrated that they were not permitted to speak at the older Russell Township Park District meetings. Many of these residents favored passive parkland instead of a move to parks with more active amenities.
Russell resident Shelley Chernin who supports the 511 Russell Citizens Park District stood outside the polling places on Tuesday, informing people about the park issues. “A lot of people were asking for explanations,” she said. They were confused about the park districts and the levies. “People were coming not knowing the issues. They didn’t understand.”
One of the things that confused people as well is that the numbers of the park districts were not on the ballot so they said they did not know which park district levy they were voting on, Ms. Chernin said.
Resident Barbara Berkeley who supports the Russell Citizens Park District and its levy said she is disappointed with the levy defeat because the 511 park district has no source of revenue.
More controversy between the parks surfaced late last month when the older 1545 park board decided to lease most of its land to the county Geauga Park District. That move came after the Geauga County Budget Commission refused to approve the 1545 park district’s 2019 budget by the August deadline due to accounting errors. Without approval, the district is unable to collect tax revenue for two years. The budget issue remains in limbo.
After the leasing agreement was signed, one 1545 board member told residents to vote no on the levy.
Dr. Berkeley said the move really confused residents.
“It was unfortunate and made it difficult to adequately explain the situation to those who were voting,” Dr. Berkeley said.
The 1545 Russell Park District proposed 0.5-mill levy that would have raised $128,000 annually. If passed, it would have cost residents $17.50 for each $100,000 of home valuation.
Scott Wayt, chairman of the 1545 park district board, said Tuesday that he was not surprised by the outcome of the vote, fully expecting the levy to be defeated. Fellow board members Dennis Suhay and Donna Weiss Carson had no comments.
The 1545 park district board’s surprise decision, because of budgetary reasons, to lease about 200 acres of Russell parklands to the Geauga Park District means the township parks can be properly maintained by the larger park district, Mr. Wayt said. Geauga Park District has the funding and staff to care for the township parklands, he said.
Following the lease agreement, Mr. Wayt advised residents to defeat the levy.
The lease started Nov. 1 and Geauga Park District rangers will be at the parks, keeping an eye on things, he said.
The 1545 park district holds over 422 acres of parkland in the township and has conservation easements on 93.5 percent of the property, held by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, according to Mr. Wayt.
Mr. Wayt said if the 0.5-mill levy had passed, the funding would have been used in a number of areas, including designing a Modroo park plan with input from the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, local landscape architects and other park boards.
They would implement the Modroo plan including development of a trail, and they would place conservation easements on the remaining 27.5 acres of the Modroo parkland.
The levy would also have been used to maintain Russell Uplands Preserve, Modroo and other Russell parkland as needed. They would have set aside funds for future land purchases and for park operations, Mr. Wayt said.
None of that can be done now that the levy has been defeated.
The 1545 park board recently approved 2018 permanent appropriations of $84,926 and increased the amount of 2018 purchase orders for a number of items. They include $20,000 for legal services and $14,000 for accounting services.