GPH, County Commissioners Rent Standoff Ends
November 30, 2023 by Allison Wilson

A months’ long impasse between Geauga Public Health and Geauga County Commissioners regarding rent in the new county office building is over.

A months’ long impasse between Geauga Public Health and Geauga County Commissioners regarding rent in the new county office building is over.

It has been decided GPH will not have to pay rent for their new space, said Geauga County Board of Health President Carolyn Brakey Nov. 15.

The conflict between both entities began in August, when the county told GPH it would need to pay approximately $58,000 per year in rent, with a cost of $8-per-square-foot, despite GPH’s original agreement at the old county offices at 470 Center Street, where they were not charged rent.

When county offices moved to a new building in Claridon Township, GPH did not initially want to move with them, but were unable to find suitable space elsewhere.

“The number, originally $58,000, came down to $48,000 with some adjustments on the space, and then we were gonna get a little bit lower than that, about $42,000-ish, if we gave space to IT …,” said Health Administrator Adam Litke, providing background on the issue.

In early discussions, Litke brought up a section of the Ohio Revised Code stating a county may provide free space to a health department.

“That discussion was kinda, ‘Well, it says ‘may,’ not ‘shall,’ so we’re not gonna do it,’” Litke recalled regarding the county’s stance.

Things changed when the board came across Ohio attorney general opinions on the statement.

“In summary, the first one says that the board of county commissioners has to furnish suitable quarters and they have to do it without a rent payment. The second one says that they … have to provide and pay for all the utilities necessary for the health district. And then the final Ohio attorney general opinion says that the commissioners also have a duty to provide janitorial services at no cost,” Brakey said.

These opinions are not recent, with the first one dating to 1985, and there have been no intervening case laws since they were made, Brakey noted.

She sent the opinions to the commissioners’ office and recommended ceasing rent discussions in light of them. It took close to two weeks to receive a response, she said.

“They informed me that they have had these OAG opinions this whole time,” she said, adding later in the meeting the opinions had never previously been brought up in negotiations.

From the commissioners’ viewpoint, GPH is a combined health district rather than a general health district, with the opinions therefore not applying, Brakey said, adding this belief stemmed from the health district including the City of Chardon along with the townships and villages.

“But, if you actually read this opinion from 1985, they make it clear when they use that term, general health district, they’re referring to a health district that encompasses the entire county,” Brakey said.

She went on to say that while the commissioners still pushed back on the opinion, they ultimately relented and agreed to not charge GPH rent.

In a follow-up email, Geauga County Administrator Gerry Morgan confirmed Brakey’s statement about the county’s stance on the matter.

“ORC Section 3709.01 definitions (divide) the state into multiple health districts whereby each city constitutes a city health district, and townships and villages in each county are combined into a general health district. Districts that have both a general health district and a city health district are combined health districts,” Morgan said. “Further, the AG opinions regarding this matter all referenced that the subject health districts only had townships and villages, so were considered by the AG to be general health districts when reviewing the requested opinion.”

GPH and Litke believed because they are not contracting with the city, they are still a general health district and not a combined district, Morgan added.

“This does not appear to meet the definitions under 3709.01, which as stated above clearly states that the city itself constitutes a city health district ­— meaning having the city in the general health district combines both the city and the general health district into one,” he said.

The health board expressed frustration Nov. 15 with the commissioners for the standoff.

“I don’t understand why the commissioners’ office (subjected) the health department and the board to what became an unnecessary exercise,” Brakey said. “A lot of time and energy and taxpayer resources were expended and we just ended up at the status quo.”

President Pro-Tem Dr. Ashley Jones noted she found it concerning the board could have said yes without further research into the issue.

“When they asked for a (counteroffer), and I think (Roman) said a dollar a square foot, they literally laughed at our faces,” Brakey recalled.

Rood offered his thanks to Roman and Brakey for the research and work they put into contesting the rent issue.

“It was a yeoman’s task,” he said.

In his follow-up response, Morgan said he understood GPH’s frustrations.

“There is also frustration on the commissioners’ side given the idea of rent has been discussed for a few years,” he said.

It was not until a number was placed on that rental amount that GPH pushed back on paying any rent at all, Morgan said, adding Litke had said he believed the board would be agreeable to the number discussed, as well as the idea the health district could give up space to the ADP department to help lower that number.

Board Member Lynn Roman asked during the Nov. 15 health board meeting if this decision was only for this year.

“They said something along the lines of, ‘We’ll continue to assess it in the future’ … I think if the public health or law changes, something like that,” Litke said.

The board discussed whether or not to continue with their plans to downsize the space they currently occupy.

“Space that we need, we gotta keep,” said board member Dr. Mark Rood. “And we need it not just for today, but we need it for five years from now. Because we’ll never get it back if we give it up.”

Litke noted with the Operation and Maintenance Program now underway, the department is likely to slightly expand in staff.