Hamilton fights flood protection charges: ‘It is not personal, it is business.’

Protest, special meeting target Miami Conservancy District assessments opponents say threaten city’s rebirth.

Hamilton residents and city leaders used a three-hour discussion Thursday night to voice their anger with a Miami Conservancy District plan to significantly increase rates for flood protections.

A “Keep Hamilton Afloat” protest rally by Hamilton stakeholders was held ahead of the special City Council meeting at 345 High St. Around 100 people showed up to listen to the presentation of Miami Conservancy District’s board President Mark Rentschler and General Manager MaryLynn Lodor, and about a quarter of them spoke against what they say are unfair change that would increase the assessment on property owners’ tax bills.

The meeting ended with a commitment from Rentschler, a lifelong Hamiltonian, to convene a special meeting and propose a discussion to rethink the assessment and the methodology ― though Lodor said they first need a legal opinion.

They also announced that exceptions to property valuations can now be made until May 3. MCD officials said that isn’t to object to the assessment amount, though some City Council members encourage inundating the conservancy district with exceptions.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

City Council and the scores of residents didn’t disagree with the mission of and need for the conservancy district, which has offered flood protection services for more than a century, and all who spoke said they were willing to pay to support the MCD. However, seeing property assessments increase three, five and even 10 times is too much, they said. Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill would see their annual assessment increase more than 50 times its current rate.

Extreme weather events

The proposed assessment increase includes a new 1% capital assessment and a 0.59% increase to the 2.19% maintenance assessment. The assessment covers costs related to the upkeep and rehabilitation of the levee and dam system. The district said it has identified about $140 million in short-term and long-term projects needed to ensure levees, dams and channels across the region remain safe and effective.

MCD officials have said that aging infrastructure, extreme weather events and increasing rainfall are putting pressure on the regional flood protection system, which has critical maintenance, repair, rehabilitation and reinvestment needs.

Rentschler said the Great Miami River has seen a huge increase in high-water events, which is what they call “retention events,” and “that means our dams are storing water. That means somebody doesn’t get flooded.”

However, the high-water events, he said, add “immense stress” to a fully integrated measure of flood protection and create erosion and damage to the infrastructure. The flood protection measures, like dams upstream and levees, are seeing signs of failure. The MCD spends between $6 million to $10 million a year in maintenance and upkeep of the system.

“But the time has to come for even more, and that capital has to be spent,” Rentschler said.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

They are seeking $9.6 million in state capital funds, plus federal funds, and while Rentschler and Lodor didn’t commit to lowering the assessment if state and federal grants are awarded, they said multiple times they’ll “absolutely re-evaluate” the assessment annually.

The Miami Conservancy District is funded through assessments of properties in five counties and 22 communities along the Great Miami River and its tributaries, though Lodor said Thursday night the actual boundary of the district involves nine counties. Many residents and council members questioned why all nine counties aren’t assessed, and why only a few pay for the flood protections the region enjoys.

A state law dictates how conservancy districts are funded and who can be assessed. State Sen. George Lang, who said the MCD seems to be seeking the Cadillac plan, said there is an effort to make changes to the state laws regarding conservancy districts.

Lodor said the new assessment was planned in 2012 to be made in 2020, but it was delayed because of the January 2021 Butler County property tax appeal by former county auditor Roger Reynolds, which he lost. That delay caused, MCD officials said, an annual deficit of $3 million, which was covered by the district’s cash reserves.

The reappraisal of benefits, which determines assessment amounts for properties, is based on the 1913 flood, in which Rentschler said “hundreds of lives were lost in Hamilton, Ohio. Every bridge in the city was taken down in the flood.” Lodor said the formula takes into account the layers of flood protections and is mandated by state law to incorporate property values, which have spiked.

Not just a city issue

The city’s argument is those who receive flood protection aren’t just those properties impacted in 1913. They say it’s city and countywide, because if another flood washes out the High-Main Bridge, it’s debilitating for the region.

City Council members said their anger against the MCD, which the city helped found a century ago, “is not personal, it’s business.”

Councilman Susan Vaughn called the assessments “extremely troubling,” and Councilman Tim Naab said the MCD assessment, as it stands now, “is going to devastate the city of Hamilton.”

Council member Michael Ryan said the assessments are being handed down when property valuations saw record increases in Ohio and prices have skyrocketed. “Prices for businesses are only mounting,” he said. “This is completely unacceptable and absurd.”

While Rentschler committed to convening a special meeting, he would not directly answer Ryan’s question when asked for a “yes” or “no” answer “to commit to me and council here tonight that you will bring up the motion at your next board meeting to commit to stop this and vote for Hamilton.”

He said a direct answer “will be difficult” and responded, “I will do my part as president of the board to address those issues.”

Spooky Nook owner Sam Beiler was infuriated when he told Rentschler and Lodor that his business would have to find nearly $2.5 million in new sales to afford the nearly $478,000 annual assessment beginning in 2025. He called the approach of and the timing of the assessments “absolute foolhardiness.”

“I don’t make a decision without proposing it to the stakeholders, to the people that are affected by it,” he said.

A domino effect

Lodor said she reached out to Spooky Nook officials when she first arrived in late 2022, “I spoke with the general manager at that time to share this information with them.” She was told that information was passed on to Spooky Nook’s attorney and never heard back.

She said the Spooky Nook building, which is the former Champion Paper Mill and predates the Miami Conservancy District, is one of the flood protections for Hamilton and said she is “open to hear an exception from Spooky Nook to what should be the benefit there.”

Beiler, who did speak with Lodor earlier this year, countered by saying, the issue isn’t about Spooky Nook but rather other property owners significantly impacted.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Sarah Dankhoff, owner of Wildfire Home & Gift, said they should have known the levees, dams and other flood protection measures needed rehabilitation and replacement long before now, and even before the 2012 reappraisal of benefits.

“If our businesses fail, there will be nothing to collect. I think that needs to be considered. If you’ve seen, which I think you have, the success of Hamilton, it was like a domino effect. Once we had some momentum, we were rolling. This,” she said of the assessment, “is you guys pushing the first domino in the destruction of Hamilton. If someone as big like Spooky Nook goes down, we’re all going down with them.”

Hamilton Council members said they want to be part of the solution, to make the necessary assessments more affordable for property owners. But changes by the MCD must happen, they said. Council member Joel Lauer offered near the end of the meeting to help Lang in changing the state law. He then addressed Rentschler and Lodor.

“We only ask that you genuinely exhaust every effort and give us the time and space to work together and develop a plan that would benefit our entire community and other communities that are affected,” Lauer said. “At this point, if we cannot get what we need, we must find other avenues, and I must, we as a council must, protect our citizens. I say this for myself. I have to find a way. I have to find a better answer, and if it’s dissolving the MCD and going with another option, I must work to do that. It is not personal, it is business.”

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