A recalled Akron councilman considered by a top city official to be "one of the worst landlords in the city" is buying a massive former public school and trying to turn empty city lots into free outdoor libraries for low-income children.

The Akron Board of Education, following state rules for selling public assets, will vote Monday to accept offers on 10 recently auctioned properties. They include Ernie Tarle's winning bid of $36,300 for Goodrich Middle School, originally built in 1930, left vacant for nine years, in need of extensive repairs and worth $5.2 million, according to a county appraisal.

"I went to that auction out of curiosity, and the prices were so low the Lord moved me to bid," Tarle said. When he told his wife, "she wanted to strangle me," he said. His business partner, Councilman Zack Milkovich, approvingly said: "That's alright."

Milkovich and Tarle, longtime associates who buy, flip and rent previously foreclosed homes, grew up a few blocks from the 300-foot-long megaschool in East Akron. "I see this as two poor boys who used to walk to school," Milkovich said, and now they own it.

Tarle's history in Akron politics includes being the only councilman ever removed mid-term by voters, feuding with Mayor Don Plusquellic and pushing ballot initiatives to lower sewer bills and let the public speak at meetings. In private life, he got rich on Florida real estate, went bankrupt after the housing crisis and clawed his way back on thin profit margins in Akron's tough housing market.

No one knows how many homes his businesses manage or own, or who his investors are. He won't say. But the city tracks tenant complaints, housing code violations and condemnation notices on his properties, of which the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com could find 84 in public records.

It could be 85 come Monday if the school board accepts the bid on the 117,151-squre-foot Goodrich Middle. Tarle wants to dedicate the gymnasium to local basketball legend and mentor Jimmie Gooden, who can use it for his training camps and charitable Joe Siegferth Basketball Classic, a tournament that funds scholarships for Akron Public School (APS) students.

"Wow. No way. That's a big blessing," Gooden said. "Ernie and I have collaborated on a lot of events to improve the community, and a lot of things have come in the way."

Gooden has complained about the $68 hourly rate and liability insurance needed to rent APS gymnasiums for charitable events. He paid $1,000 (of which $400 was later refunded) to insure a five-hour police vs. firefighters basketball game this month. All proceeds helped the homeless.

"I'd have been better off giving $1,000 to the homeless," said Gooden.

Tarle, an unsuccessful 2015 school board candidate, wants to give the rest of Goodrich Middle School "back to the community." He said call him at 330-810-1976 with suggestions on how to use it.

Parts of the building lack air conditioning. Tarle said the boilers look brand new. APS Business Affairs Manager Debra Foulk said the heating system needs updated, as well as the roof, electrical, plumbing and interior. That could be costly because the plaster walls are asbestos and would need to be carefully replaced before Tarle could apply for an occupancy permit.

Tarle plans to transfer ownership of the school to his tax-exempt Leap Frog Summer Reading Program.

 

Current properties

Tarle said he fixes up more foreclosed homes than anyone in Akron. After filing bankruptcy and reportedly losing millions of dollars betting on Florida real estate before the housing crisis, he's emerged from the brink of ruin, but not without controversy. "We're the best we've ever been," said Tarle, who's been accused by judges and city inspectors of using shell companies to hide his properties from creditors and code enforcement.

Tarle said that his undisclosed companies pump $3 million a year into Akron's distressed properties, fixing up homes often purchased after bank foreclosures. "No one in Akron buys more foreclosed homes or fixes more housing code violations than my companies," he said.

But some of his properties never get fixed. Last year, he and his partners, which include unnamed investors, Milkovich and business partner Garth Starks, quit maintaining a plundered colonial at 1071 Mercer Ave. "We let it go," he said, promising to pay the city when it's demolished.

The site of another of his demolished buildings on Kenmore Boulevard, which he legally owns, has a $26,573 delinquent tax bill, which continues to grow.

The city took the rare action of criminally charging him in 2012 for neglecting to perform repairs or provide heat to another tenant in Kenmore. Today, eight of his properties have active building code violations. If left to languish, the city and Summit County Land Bank will eventually take ownership.

Tarle said his partners own some of these properties, which were purchased out of foreclosure already needing repairs.

 

Library boxes

He recently worked with friends on council to urge Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan to donate empty city lots to his Leap Frog program. He said he would have maintained the grassy lots to house birdbox-shaped, wooden lending libraries for neighborhood kids.

“We want to make sure that every child has access to books within a short walking distance in their neighborhoods,” he said, noting that it would be unfair to his tenants if put the public library boxes on his rental properties.

His first free library box is on land maintained and owned by Archbishop Hoban High School. Families can take or leave a book. No questions asked.

Tarle exchanged text messages with Councilwoman Tara Samples. Councilmen Russ Neal and Bruce Kilby authored a resolution in the last public session. The bill, which Neal eventually pulled, would have urged the city and land bank to donate city lots to Leap Frog.

James Hardy, chief of staff to Mayor Horrigan, agreed with the "Little Free Library" concept. There are dozens around Akron, often on owner-occupied property or elementary schools. Hardy also said he liked the idea of not having to pay to mow some city lots.

What gave him pause was Tarle.

“Mr. Tarle is one of the worst landlords in the city. Why we would ever discuss giving him land — not to mention a disgraced former city councilman — is ludicrous to me,” Hardy told City Council at the meeting in late July, just before council recessed until after Labor Day.

In defense of Tarle and the program they created, Milkovich responded: “Boy, I’m just taken aback by what I heard. It’s something. It really is something. My friend and I started this six years ago.”

Milkovich said that “there are three failing schools” near Antioch Baptist Church in Ward 3 where Leap Frog tutored children this summer.

“The adults need to get out of the room; it’s about the children,” said Milkovich, whose testimony in support of legislation that would benefit his organization raised eyebrows.

Ellen Lander Nischt, an assistant law director and spokeswoman for the city, said the Ohio Ethics Commission clearly states that public officials must "completely abstain from making decisions about or influencing," which would include discussing, any matter that might benefit a sitting public official.

"Mr. Milkovich has already participated in discussing the potential sale or licensure of property to Leap Frog, which is problematic," Nischt said.

Neal said he'll reintroduce the resolution Monday with language urging the mayor not to donate the land but simply license it to Leap Frog, similar to how community gardeners use city lots without owning them.

The free library movement, however, is already growing, and not on city lots.

All that's needed is "a little bit of money and a lot of love of books," said Sharron Connor, a community activist who beat Milkovich in the Ward 10 Democratic primary race.

As the former president of Residents Improving Goodyear Heights Together, Connor won a $1,500 Millennium Fund for Children grant through the Akron Community Foundation. Then she got two local elementary schools, an old post office and a handful of neighbors who own their property to agree to host the free libraries.

The effort brought 10 lending libraries to Goodyear Heights, which now has more than half of the couple dozen free little libraries scattered throughout Akron.

Connor, whose husband installed a free community book box in her front yard as a birthday gift years ago, said a national map of certified lending libraries and instructions on how to create your own can be found at Little Free Library website (https://littlefreelibrary.org).

 

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivignston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.