Conflict of interest? Butler County Auditor ‘just helping my dad’ pushes $1M TIF

Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds
Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds(Provided)
Published: Aug. 28, 2021 at 7:01 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 28, 2021 at 7:39 AM EDT
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BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - Raising questions of a potential conflict of interest, a local elected official is pushing $1 million in subsidized road improvements that would benefit his parents’ property, the site of a proposed $20 million development, county and township records show.

“I am just helping my dad trying to start to downsize his assets as they get older,” says Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds.

The county’s fiscal watchdog since 2008 grew up in the area. His dad bought a farm off Hamilton Mason Road in the 1960s and more properties over the years.

Now, Reynolds’ parents own several properties there, most recently purchasing a lot just under an acre in February, county appraisal records show.

A Columbus developer plans to transform two of their parcels in their real estate collection into the Red Oak senior living community.

It will sit on 25.5 acres along the south side Hamilton Mason Road in West Chester Township.

There will be ranch-style townhomes with attached garages, a pool and clubhouse, a community all in one. Best of all, longtime residents won’t have to leave to downsize into something smaller.

“I think it would be great for the area. I am looking forward to seeing it move forward,” Reynolds said.

But first, Hamilton Mason Road requires major improvement to handle increased traffic from the new development.

TIFs, tax increment financing, are a commonly used economic development tool. It allows communities to earmark property tax revenue from increases in assessed values within a designated TIF district.

Supporters say assessed property value within TIF districts generally grows much faster than in the rest of the municipality, so they benefit the entire community.

Opponents argue it’s a developer strain on city services without proving much public benefit.

The TIF for Hamilton Mason Road outlines a plan for an eventual $1.1 million in road improvements on Hamilton Mason Road to be split among West Chester, Liberty and Butler County.

Reynolds emailed records with all the details earlier this month to County Administrator Judi Boyko records.

“Hi, Judi. As a follow up to our discussion yesterday, I’m including multiple attachments to aid in the discussion on the TIF funding request. Thank you, Roger.”

His email signature reads: “Roger Reynolds, CPA” followed by “Butler County Auditor” and the address to his county office on High Street, county email address and the numbers to his office and cell phones.

FOX19 NOW obtained the email from the county and other associated records from West Chester Township Friday via a public records request.

“The Board of Commissioners is aware of the request from Auditor Reynolds for tax increment financing for a project on Hamilton Mason Road in West Chester and has provided no direction on position or any intention,” Boyko responded when we asked for an update on the status of his request

Reynolds dismissed concerns his direct involvement might be perceived as inappropriate or a conflict of interest.

“I didn’t see anything wrong with it at all,” he said. “TIFs are used to make road improvements to further some of the development in this area.”

It’s not his property, he said, he has no financial benefit.

“It’s 100% my dad’s land.”

One of the records Reynolds sent the county administrator includes “Hamilton Mason Road Improvement Project TIF Funding Request.”

“Development opportunities exist along the Hamilton Mason Road corridor east of Maud Hughes Road near the area locally referred to as the ‘Mouse hole.’ Currently, the topography, neighborhood blight and the steep grade of Hamilton Mason Road are hindering potential development. The proposed road improvements will eliminate the sight limitations and open up 85 acres for prime development,” the TIF funding request reads.

Tresplus Communities of Columbus received approval for a preliminary development plan to build a senior housing community that will “inject vital investment dollars in an area of the county that has struggled to keep pace with community standards.”

The memo continues: “Tresplus is requesting a grade reduction to Hamilton Mason Road to expand sight distances and significantly improve traffic safety for motorists traveling this increasingly busy road. The developer would like to utilize tax incremental financing (TIF) to pay for the road improvements.

“Hamilton Mason Road has a shared maintenance agreement between West Chester, Liberty and Butler County. In an effort to east the burden, the following cost share is being proposed between the three government entities:

West Chester and Liberty townships would each pay 35% with maximum total payments of $455,000 and Butler County fork out 30%, maximum of $390,000.

“The BC Engineers office provided specifications on the necessary road improvements. An engineering estimate has been completed and is attached. The estimated total improvements costs are $1,126.030. Engineering drawings will be completed upon approval of cost share agreement.”

The TIF Funding request’s “Return on Investment” involves the Red Oak development with an estimated $20 million property value generating $375,000 in tax dollars annually; a “proposed” next phase of the ranch-condo Grand Villas development in Liberty Township with an estimated $26 million property value and about tax dollars per year and “future development” valued at $15 million and bringing $300,000 annual tax dollars.

We checked with another county auditor to get his take.

“Its best to stay away from that kind of stuff if you possibly can,” Dusty Rhodes said. “You can’t tell your family members not to earn a living, but it doesn’t look good.

“I wouldn’t do it, in my personal opinion. It smacks of a special deal and that’s not right. I’ve had relatives have situations with the county over the years and I’ve stayed away.

“When I was a (Delhi) township trustee years ago I told my kids ‘if you ever get into trouble don’t look to me to fix it for you because it will probably go worse’.”

Reynolds told us Friday he bought over 20 acres of his parents’ land last year and is continuing his dad’s farm.

That land is further down on Hamilton Mason Road, along a railroad. It is not part of the Red Oak area.

Online county property and state business filing records show Liberty Way Farms Inc is the official owner of the 21.6 acres Reynolds bought. Reynolds is the listed agent.

Rhodes says he wouldn’t try to develop land he owned in the county while holding the auditor’s position,

“That’s not a good idea, I don’t think. We have to assess (property) value and you’re assessing value on your own property? It’s good to serve and an honor to serve but as an elected official, but you close the door to some of those things.”

The Ohio Ethics Commission website states:

“Remember, public servants may NOT take any action in matters that definitely and directly affect themselves, their family members, or their business associates.”

It also states:

“When someone in public service is confronted with a conflict of interest, he or she must completely abstain from making decisions about or influencing how the matter is resolved.”

Zoning Map Amendment to a PUD District

West Chester has an existing TIF in the area the development is planned, township spokeswoman Barb Wilson said.

She said Red Oak’s developer’s “proposed use appropriate use of TIF Funds within the legal guidelines of the statute; and the Township considers these types of projects in all of our TIFs.

“Of course, all of this has only been a matter of discussion and there has been no formal commitment. The TIF expense would ultimately require Township Trustee approval,” Wilson said.

The township recently approached properties within the TIF that had not been previously paying into it to ask for their participation.

“Participation in TIF is voluntary and we periodically reach out to new projects/properties to ask for their inclusion. We also did this recently in Union Centre I think. This wouldn’t be considered an expansion, but rather an enrollment of eligible properties within the defined area of the TIF,” she said.

Expansion would imply redrawing of the boundaries or extending the time period of the TIF.

“The developer has reached out concerning a road improvement for Hamilton Mason that will be necessary for this project, but also improves safe sight distance for every motorist using that stretch of Hamilton Mason,” Wilson said.

“The project would involve reducing the grade of the road. This would be an appropriate use of TIF Funds within the legal guidelines of the statute; and the Township considers these types of projects in all of our TIFs.”

The $450,000 the developer is seeking from the TIF in West Chester will also require Liberty Township and Butler County as partners, she noted.

So far, this has all only been a matter of discussion and there has been no formal commitment, she added.

The TIF expense would ultimately require the approval of the township trustees.

West Chester Township Trustee Mark Welch said he called Reynolds on another matter and Reynolds mentioned in passing he had a meeting with the township about the project.

With the preliminary figures he’s been provided at this point in the proposal Welch said the Red Oak development and TIF financing plan to pay for road improvements “is really a nice scenario for us.”

Projects in West Chester are approved on their merit, not who’s behind them, he said.

“Our township always looks for return on investment,” Welch said. “I don’t know if the guy is Joe Smith or Roger Reynolds.

“We are going to look at these things and be consistent in the way we approve our projects. There is no tit for tat. There is no acknowledgment given to an elected official and if the numbers don’t work, it’s a no.”

“If he wanted to just take himself out of the equation here, I think it would be easy for his dad to step up and do whatever he needs to do. I don’t know that Roger needs to be involved.”

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