Railroad Lease on Hold

RIDGEWAY – Pushed into a corner by Norfolk Southern last year to formally lease property it had used free of charge for decades, Town Council stalled on second reading of an ordinance authorizing the lease of the Cotton Yard during their Feb. 12 meeting.

The $300 a year lease would also require the Town to purchase liability insurance for the property at $1,000 a year. Mayor Charlene Herring told Council in December that the railroad company is reviewing leases and properties all across the state, forcing municipalities to either lease the lots and accept liability or see the lots fenced off. In Ridgeway’s case, at least two buildings stand on the property – the police station and the fire station – and the railroad would demand their removal unless the town agreed to a lease.

“Before we just jump into this lease, I think it might be in our best interest to maybe double check on where the future of (the fire station) stands,” Councilman Russ Brown said during the Feb. 12 meeting.

The County is planning to build a new fire and EMS station at Rufus Belton Park, approximately 9 miles out of town at 5087 Park Road. Herring said there were tentative plans of using the building, once the fire department has relocated, as a new branch to the Fairfield County Library. Brown wanted to know if, by signing the lease for the property, the town might also inadvertently be taking responsibility for the building. Herring agreed to contact the County and work out those details.

Councilman Heath Cookendorfer, meanwhile, suggested renegotiating the $300 a year lease with the railroad. Citing a lease agreement made in 2008 in Claypool County, Ind., where Norfolk Southern settled for $1 a year, Cookendorfer said Ridgeway may be able to get a similar deal.

“Since some type of precedent has been made with that,” Cookendorfer said, “maybe that’s something they would entertain coming back and speaking with us and talking about the possibility of getting the lease cheaper than what it is now.”

Herring answered that the railroad had indicated that $300 was as low as they would be willing to go, adding that the 2008 Claypool County deal may also be headed for a review by the company. Still, she said she would ask.

“It’s definitely worth asking the question,” Cookendorfer said.” I would rather get a ‘no’ than assuming a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.”

Hospitality Tax

Brown presented Council with findings from last week’s meeting of the Economic Development Committee, emphasizing the need for Ridgeway to adopt a hospitality tax.

“There’s a burden on the budget, the general budget, for the Town,” Brown said. “There are things that the Town needs but there are not funds there to support them. To help the town be productive, (a hospitality tax) may be worth considering. It’s a good option. It’s better than having property taxes increase.”

Brown said there are already state laws on the books governing how a hospitality tax works and for what the money it raises can be used. Brown said the maximum allowable tax was 2 percent, which could be charged on prepared meals.

“It’s got to go to a handful of things,” he said. “It can go to tourism related buildings; recreational, cultural or historical facilities; highways, roads, streets and bridges; advertising and promotion; and water and sewer infrastructure.”

Tina Johnson, a Ridgeway business owner who sits on the committee, was in the audience and agreed.

“I think it would be good for the Town,” Johnson said. “It’s a way to get the money that’s needed to run the Town.”

Council accepted Brown’s notes as information.

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