AUSTINTOWN - Fearing possible additional fees or surcharges on Youngstown municipal water service at the Austintown site of a planned new thoroughbred racetrack, track operators said Thursday they have begun exploring other options for water.
One of those options could involve the city of Niles running water lines to Austintown to provide service to the facility at state Route 46 and Interstate 80.
Niles City Council President Robert Marino confirmed Thursday evening that Niles officials this week instructed city Service Director Neil Buccino to contact Austintown trustees about the possibility of that city providing water to the racetrack under construction by Penn National Gaming.
Buccino could not be reached for comment Thursday evening, and Austintown Trustee chairman Jim Davis did not return a message seeking comment.
"We have other options and we are investigating them. We are looking at all our options," Penn National spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said earlier the day. He declined to disclose further details.
Discussion about other utility options began when concerns were raised following recent attempts by the mayor of neighboring Youngstown to negotiate a Joint Economic Development District with Austintown Township to encompass the 190-acre racetrack site. Youngstown sells water from Meander Water to Austintown Township users.
Ironically, Niles also sells water to nearby communities from the same source, Meander Water.
Tenenbaum expressed his frustration with the latest development that could put the project in jeopardy again.
"We are appalled at what appears to be an 11th hour money grab by the city of Youngstown, and frankly, we are baffled at what the mayor's purpose is. What he's doing is putting the progress in jeopardy," Tenenbaum said. "On the water situation, everything we know is secondhand because we haven't heard from the mayor."
Tenenbaum declined to elaborate on whether those options include only public providers who may be interested in selling water to the race track or other sources.
Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone on Thursday refused to discuss water sales involving the racetrack property, saying only that the proposal he made to Austintown dealt solely with a JEDD to help bring income tax revenues to both communities. Under Ohio law, townships like Austintown cannot assess an income tax. However, if a JEDD were created, Youngstown could assess the income tax on the expected 1,000 workers at the property and then share the proceeds with the township.
Sammarone admitted the proposal is an attempt to increase tax dollars for the city.
"As you lose population, you lose your tax base. Your basic services run on tax money. We should be looking at new ways of generating tax dollars," Sammarone said. "I could just sit back and do nothing, but I am not that way."
But trustees this week denounced the idea.
"JEDDs are just another way to tax middle income individuals," Trustee Lisa Oles said during this week's regular township meeting. "I have a problem with greedy politicians wanting to tax hard-working people."
Although he said he does not favor the JEDD idea, township Trustee Jim Davis at this week's meeting proposed moving forward with a meeting.
"We do need to continue to talk to our neighbors," Davis said.
While Penn National has said it would meet about the topic, Tenenbaum described it as a "moot point" because no one from the city has ever contacted his company.
Sammarone said he has not contacted Penn National because he was waiting to get an answer from the township trustees first. He said he would not force the issue, but rather put everything on the table and negotiate.
In the meantime, work continues at the site toward a targeted mid-2014 opening. Groundbreaking was held in May for Hollywood at Mahoning Valley Race Course.
"We are certainly hopeful that nothing is going to slow this down at this point, but we have to proceed in a way that is best for us and for the project," Tenenbaum said. "While we are really disappointed in the way the city (of Youngstown) has handled this, the Austintown trustees have been very supportive."
Town Crier reporter J.T. Whitehouse contributed to this story.