NORTON: Don Nicolard remembers the day when it looked like Norton would be awash with money.
Representatives of casino investors were in town to look at vacant land near state Route 21 at Interstate 76. There was talk of 600 jobs and a $20 million investment.
They even brought in a helicopter for an aerial view of the location.
But Nicolard, Norton’s Ward 2 councilman and council president, said the investors knew about the city’s reputation for acrimony and political turmoil.
One of the lawyers asked to ride with Nicolard back to city hall.
He asked how many referendums had been on the ballot in recent years. Nicolard, knowing the difference between a referendum and other issues like charter reforms, immediately answered “One.”
“I knew immediately he thought I was lying, because he’s been reading our history,” Nicolard said earlier this month. “Well, the fact of the matter is he asked the wrong question.”
Wrong because Norton has had more attempts at charter reform over recent years than Nicolard could remember — but just one referendum. The city’s reputation for strident politics was extracting a price.
“If I could have sat down and talked about that, I could have told them … I’ve really got a handle on this and we are defeating everything [his political opponents] bring forward.”
He said he could have told the investors: “With your help and your money, I could defeat everything that comes forward. But the conversation never got there and we lost $20 million a year and 600 jobs.”
In the ditches
The latest Norton debate is about an $8 million sewer project for the Nash Heights neighborhood north of Greenwich Road in Ward 3. Past debates have been about the police department, the schools or even the proper number of council members.
Now the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is telling the city that septic tanks are putting unacceptable amounts of effluent in culverts and the sewer project is necessary.
Residents there, many of them claiming to represent elderly homeowners, say the project is too expensive and propose delaying or banning the project and concentrating on fixing broken septic tanks.
The debate has been far from civil.
The factions can’t agree on the costs or the need of the project and they hurl invective at council meetings and in interviews for this story.
Rick Rodgers, a council candidate in Ward 1, says he talks to people almost daily and, “They believe this administration is corrupt. I hear this every day. There’s no trust.”
City Administrator Rick Ryland said his opponents can’t seem to accept, understand or even repeat what he says.
“I will look at an individual and say, ‘Here is what I said,’ and they will repeat it back to me just the opposite of what I said. They were not listening to what I said.”
Dennis G. Pierson, a candidate for Ward 2, which includes Nash Heights, said the city is misleading people about the cost of the sewers.
“The city says one thing and the reality is totally the other,” he said.
Dispute over costs
Engineering assessments backed by the city put the cost for one home at $8,250. There would be additional costs to tap into the line, run the line to the home and remove the septic tank.
The assessment cost could be put on a home’s taxes and financed over 20 years. Ryland said that could amount to $85 per month.
Nicolard estimated it could be even less.
“The assessment would be about $60 a month,” he said. “It’s pizza money.”
There are many variables in estimating the costs, so the estimates can change, leading to confusion, advocates for both sides say.
Additionally, the city often refers to upfront cash cost, which is a lower number than opponents cite because they often figure in the interest a homeowner pays of the 20 years financed on the tax bill.
Pierson, for example, says the costs are far more than the city estimates, even for the upfront costs, and Rodgers estimates bottom lines as high as $30,000 or more. He fears that’s enough to force low-income elderly residents from their homes.
“I don’t assert anything I can’t prove,” Pierson said. “That’s why I think these people are liars. I don’t THINK they are liars, they ARE liars.”
Mayor Mike Zita said even the engineers who made the assessments are having their integrity questioned.
“They say, well, you paid them to come in, they are lying for you,” the mayor said. “Professional engineers that are putting their careers on the line and lying on our behalf because we are paying them to be here?”
Other disputes over facts included the availability of grants to help pay for the project. The opponents said the city didn’t look for them; the city administrators said they did and none could be found or are not yet available.
Dispute over tests
Opponents contend the environmental tests were flawed because the samples were taken from ditches where effluent is supplied by many homes and could be influenced by a single bad septic system. They want the broken septic tanks fixed and the rest left alone.
“I think the city allowed the numbers to get so high that the EPA had no action to take but what they are about to take,” Rodgers said of the possibility of having the sewer project ordered by the federal government.
Rodgers, who is opposed in Ward 1 by Ted Weinsheimer, does not accept the findings of the EPA.
“What I am going to do is always err on the side of the homeowner because a thorough investigation has not been made on the problem in Nash Heights,” he said. “Identify the bad systems. … If 50 percent of the systems are failing, run sewers in there, but if only 5 to 20 percent are failing, fix the systems and get off the backs of those people.”
That’s the kind of talk that frustrates Ryland, who suspects the debate is a form of entertainment for some Norton residents
“Septic tanks are not an acceptable solution,” he said, quoting a letter from the EPA. “You can’t say it any clearer, but yet we have people stand up and say we don’t know how to read the letter, it doesn’t say that. Now if that’s not sport I don’t know what it is.”
Opponents, reading the same letter, make different conclusions.
Participants in the debate can’t even agree on health of the community.
“We have cancer in some of our schools in children that we believe to be higher than others,” Ryland said. “We also have the report filed with us a few weeks ago that our infant mortality rate is higher than areas … I can’t say that [the lack of sewers] is the reason for that but you would think that in middle income, middle class individuals we would not have that kind of issue here.”
Pierson sees no evidence of a threat from the septic tanks and their effluent.
“Has there ever been a citizen in the community that’s had, as a consequence of pollution, a health problem? There isn’t any,” he said.
James Gainer, a 31-year resident of the city and supporter of the sewer project, said there is danger in so many disputes over the facts: “If you tell lies enough times, some people believe it … And if you get enough people believing it you’ve got a group of citizens who will raise hell about everything.”
In summary, proponents of the sewer project say their rivals can’t accept the conclusions of EPA scientists that Nash Heights must have sewers. Meanwhile, opponents say the city won’t accept their contention that many residents can’t afford it. In council meetings and in interviews, both sides often return to these contentions rather than directly addressing the concerns of the other side.
In addition to the council races, the city faces a Dec. 10 election issue to limit the sewer cost of a homeowner to $5,000. A similar issue failed Aug. 6. City taxpayers as a whole would be responsible for the rest, probably out of the general fund.
When the council voted to put the issue on the ballot, Nicolard said, “I will go to jail before I would vote to hold a special election on this issue.” He voted no, but the council approved it.
At a subsequent council meeting, a resident rose to speak carrying bread and water for Nicolard to eat in jail.
Another resident brought in potatoes to represent what residents said would be left to eat after paying their sewer bill.
Nicolard tells a story about a crowd that packed a special city council meeting in the community center that “booed Sen. [Marilyn] Slaby out of the room.” She had told them there were no grants available for the sewer project.
Earlier this month, William Paluch, the man who started the petition drive for the August and December charter issues, entered the council chamber with an anti-Nicolard T-shirt. Nicolard used his authority as council president to tell him to leave, saying he was violating council decorum.
The next week, Nicolard heard of a move by the council to change its rules to allow political T-shirts. He told a Beacon Journal reporter that he would vote for the issue, rise from his chair, remove his coat, shirt and tie to reveal a T-shirt of his own. The issue was never raised, and Paluch rose to speak wearing his shirt without incident.
Nicolard had his own shirt under his clothes but decided not to reveal it.
“I chickened out,” he said after the meeting.
Paying the price
Joe Kernan is a former at-large and ward councilman and mayor who is returning to politics after a few years off to face Pierson and incumbent Bill Mowery in Ward 3.
“Norton has a long and storied history of politics that can sometimes get very, very nasty,” he said. “As I look at this particular debate it seems that this one has been nastier than anything I have seen in a long time.”
Mowery said the debate could be transformative.
Without an affordable solution to the sewer issue, he’s afraid houses will become too expensive, people will leave and “it’s going to be a very unaffordable community and it’s going to get away from the reason people are here: Nice, good schools, a good place to raise a family, not a lot of industry. How much industry do we really need?”
Ryland, who considers the addition of sewers as partly a community development issue, sees the resistance hurting growth.
“I have not seen a very business-friendly attitude from individuals in this city,” he said. “I hate saying that to you but I have seen resistance to it. Resistance to change in this community is the strongest I have seen in any place I have ever visited or I have ever been in. Everybody wants it but ‘not in my backyard. Do it some place else.’ ”
Pierson agreed that the vitriol hurts the city, but then added some of his own.
“Just the mere image in the paper, absolutely it’s hurting,” he said. “I wouldn’t deny that. I mean some people write in editorials that are just borderline crazy. It’s just ridiculous. A lot of it just stems from the damn mayor and some of the things they say.”
Danny Grether, who is running against Nicolard in Ward 2, compares the mood in Norton with national politics: “The problem we have in our country and our local politics is if you don’t agree with the government, they start to classify you and usually they classify you in a negative light. So if you don’t agree with their stance on sewers, all of a sudden you are a socialist. And when you have officials making comments like that and it’s in the paper, right away it’s difficult to sit both sides down to negotiate.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.