Middletown senior center given 24 hours to close amid investigation, city council wants to save it

A senior center in Middletown is being forced to close within 24 hours, Middletown City Council announced Thursday.
Published: Aug. 3, 2023 at 2:26 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 4, 2023 at 12:19 PM EDT
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Video from previous coverage.

MIDDLETOWN, Ohio (WXIX) - With the senior center in Middletown being forced to close within 24 hours, City Council has made a commitment to attempt to purchase the property, City Manager Paul Lolli announced Thursday.

This is the latest development amid a police investigation after the abrupt firing last week of the executive director and financial issues that have been revealed in recent days, including at least one lien against the property, Butler County records show.

The city’s manager’s announcement came at the end of an emergency meeting city staff called with City Council to discuss the future operations of the facility.

The hastily arranged session drew a standing-room-only crowd in council chambers, which were packed with concerned residents and stakeholders.

“We are meeting this afternoon to discuss a crisis situation that has developed at Central Connections, formerly known as the Middletown Senior Citizens Center. Due to financial conditions....they will be forced to shut down all operations and close their doors within the next 24 hours,” the city manager said as he opened the meeting.

“City staff has requested this special meeting with council to get feedback .... and gauge the city’s ability to assist financially to keep our senior citizen center open and from closing permanently.”

The city manager stressed that this facility “was made possible by the taxpayers by the city of Middletown via approving levies that funded nearly $7 million dollars to pay the mortgage of that property. The levy ended Dec. 31, 2022, and the mortgage was paid off. The senior citizens center has a rich history in providing needed services to our senior citizens and others including but not limited to meals, health and wellness services, programs, elderly transportation services to doctor and medical appointments, weddings, receptions and numerous meetings and business functions. They currently employ approximately 35 staff members. Many of these functions that I just mentioned are scheduled to occur over the next several weeks.”

Lolli said the city’s legal counsel recommended council go behind closed doors in executive session to discuss most of what needed to be explored because it involved items of a “sensitive nature” such as a real estate purchase.

He also cited the ongoing police investigation.

Council met for nearly an hour in executive session. When they emerged and Lolli announced they were committed to keeping services going for the seniors and buying it, the audience applauded.

City leaders urged patience as they work in the coming weeks to figure specifics out.

Before meeting in private, council members expressed an interest in helping the seniors, some of the most vulnerable members of the community while protecting the taxpayers’ eight-plus year investment in the Central Avenue building.

But finding the funds to do that will be a challenge, everybody acknowledged.

“In the 70 years this place has been open longer than I’ve been alive. To see what is going on happen due to greed is sad. It really sucks for our city and our people,” said Councilman Rodney Muterspaw, the city’s former police chief.

Out of all of his years as chief, he’s never had as many emails over an issue such as this one.

“You should be angry because anything under anger is not acceptable for what’s happened,” Muterspaw said. “This has been around forever. It needs to stay and we need to keep the doors open and continue to do whatever is necessary at this point. There’s two things you don’t mess with: the elderly and the kids. The elderly have been messed with and we have to change that.”

Mayor Nicole Condrey said other stakeholders such as Butler County, who give funding to at least one service provider (The Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio) that supplies services at the center for the seniors, need to step up and help too, not just the city.

She also called for as much council discussion as possible now should occur in public, not behind closed doors, due to all the money the taxpayers already spent to pay off the mortgage.

The mayor said during Thursday’s meeting she learned “proper background checks weren’t done in this case.” She was referring to the hiring of the center’s now-former-executive director, Diane Rodgers.

The mayor called that “infuriating” and “very disappointing” and said it appeared bad decisions were made by the board that hired and oversaw her.

Rodgers, 50, of Sabina, was hired in 2021.

She came from Reno, Nevada, and also formerly lived in California, where FOX19 NOW has confirmed she was criminally charged in 2006 on multiple counts of financial crimes such as forgery by altering a check, grand theft, burglary and making or passing a fictitious check.

Rodgers was escorted out of Central Connections senior citizens center at 3907 Central Avenue a week ago and told not to return, according to Middletown Police Chief David Birk.

She is the target of an ongoing investigation by Middletown police, the chief has confirmed.

The board and non-profit agency that runs the center, Central Connections, is fully cooperating with the investigation, the chief added.

The chief won’t discuss specific allegations against Rodgers but has said no charges have been filed.

Middletown police have reached out to the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation to assist with the case because it involves investigative forensic accounting.

A spokesman for BCI told FOX19 NOW on Friday “We are currently consulting with Middletown to evaluate if our involvement in the investigation is appropriate.”

If things proceed, Middletown police will then send a formal request in writing to BCI for assistance, according to the agency’s spokesman, Steve Irwin.

He added he did not “have anything else to share at this stage.”

FOX19 NOW reached out to the Cincinnati FBI office for a comment.

“As a matter of policy, we cannot confirm or deny the existence of a potential investigation,” an FBI spokesman said Friday.

FOX19 NOW has uncovered public records that indicate a new mortgage was taken out last year on the senior center’s property.

Rodgers is listed as the sole signer as executive director of Middletown Area Senior Citizens Inc., the non-profit agency that runs the senior center, for a $450,000 mortgage taken out on behalf of the facility at First Financial Bank in Downtown Cincinnati on July 29, 2022.

Less than six months later, on Dec. 31, 2022 - the day the senior levy funding stopped for the center - Rodgers signed again for another $200,000 “mortgage modification,” bringing the total mortgage as of Jan. 1 of this year to $650,000, staff at the Butler County Recorder’s Office confirms.

So while several city leaders keep saying the taxpayers paid off the mortgage and that is true, there now appears to be this very real and new one on 3907 Central Avenue.

What’s more, the recorder’s office also has records showing a $266,594.52 lien was placed on the senior citizen center’s property back on May 8. An attorney with the same law firm that does the city’s legal work handled it, according to a copy of it online.

William H. Roe, vice president of DER Development Co., LLC of Milford, a general contracting, property development and construction management firm, is named in a sworn statement to obtain the lien claiming that the money owed plus interest, according to documents on the Butler County Recorder Office’s website.

The senior center underwent a $900,000 renovation from June 2022 to February 2023 to transform into a recreation center for seniors.

Part of the facility also can be rented out for events such as weddings, according to its website.

Grants and the center’s general fund paid for the majority of the project, about $675,000, city records show.

Renovations wrapped up in time for a ribbon-cutting ceremony by year’s end.

FOX19 NOW has requests for comment about all of this, including the lien and 2022 mortgage and Rodgers’ hiring process, into every single member of the Central Connections board.

So far we have not heard back from any of them.

Rodgers’s attorney, Tyrone Borger of Springboro, is not commenting, staff at his law firm told us when we reached out again for comment.

The board previously said it is actively looking for an interim director to replace Rodgers.

It is unclear how Thursday’s announcement from Middletown City Council will impact the search.

“It is the board’s intention to do everything in our power to keep Central Connections open and operating to service the needs of the Middletown and surrounding senior community,” Central Connections wrote on its Facebook page last week when they announced Rodgers’ termination.

Just before she was fired, the facility lost its contract that delivered about 3,000 meals to seniors per week.

The Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio severed ties with Central Connections over financial concerns about how meal delivery and senior transport programs were being handled.

Hot meals, chilled meals, and weekend frozen meals were driven out to seniors Monday–Friday. Weekly boxed meals also were delivered Monday–Thursday, according to the facility’s website.

About a dozen employees were laid off.

Several agencies have stepped up to make sure seniors still receive meals: Warren County Community Services, Meals on Wheels Southwest Ohio and Partners in Prime.

Garver Family Farm in Monroe is working with Council on Aging to expand the food vouchers they can honor.

They also plan to make extra deliveries of fresh produce on request as they can.

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