Butler VA facility's developer Westar pulls request for property tax breaks

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 12:20 a.m.

The developer of a new VA health care complex in Butler County said on Friday that it fired its senior vice president on learning he was indicted on federal fraud charges this week.

Westar Development Co. also said it withdrew its request for $3.2 million in property tax breaks for the $75 million project to cover unanticipated costs.

The announcements overshadowed the groundbreaking of the VA Butler Healthcare outpatient center.

Westar Development President Sam Calabrese said in a statement that the company will “fully fund the construction of the project for all the necessary requirements. The company will also cover any potential project shortfalls, if any.”

The statement did not say how the company would absorb the increased construction costs, and Calabrese did not return several messages.

Calabrese's statement did not say whether the decision to abandon the request was related to the revelation that company Senior Vice President Robert Berryhill was indicted on Wednesday on charges of mail and wire fraud, impersonating a federal employee and aggravated identity theft. They stem from actions four to five years ago when Berryhill worked for an Ohio company.

“Upon learning of the charges filed against Mr. Berryhill, he was immediately terminated as an employee of Westar Development,” Calabrese said in a separate statement. “None of the alleged actions occurred while he was an employee of the company.”

Calabrese added that the VA project “will continue to remain a priority for Westar Development.”

Berryhill, 51, who was hired by Westar in June 2010, could not be reached on Friday. Butler County Commission Chairman Bill McCarrier said Berryhill was among Westar officials who met with local government representatives regarding the project and a TIF, or tax-increment financing district.

According to an indictment in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Berryhill of Aurora, Ohio, set up a fake company, American Excavators Co., while he was a senior vice president at Carnegie Management and Development Corp.

Between Aug. 27, 2008, and Sept. 15, 2009, Berryhill submitted fake invoices to several companies involved in the building of FBI offices in Knoxville, Tenn., and Indianapolis, authorities said.

In all, according to the affidavit, Berryhill stole more than $226,000 from the companies. He also impersonated an FBI agent, federal officials alleged, to demand payment from one company in July 2008.

Westar had sought the property tax breaks from Butler Township, Butler County and the Butler Area School District to help pay for construction of the VA facility. Developers last month asked the three taxing bodies to approve a TIF, which would use property tax revenue from the project for eight years to help finance the work.

McCarrier said there was little support for the TIF proposal among the three taxing bodies. The project is expected to generate more than $440,000 in property taxes annually.

He said he was pleased with the TIF news.

“If they really needed a TIF, why didn't they pursue it before they bid on the project?” he asked.

Calabrese said drainage problems, the cost of connecting to a power grid, road improvements and other issues added millions of dollars to the construction total.

The VA will lease the building from Westar for an average of $7.6 million a year for 20 years.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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