ST. CLAIRSVILLE - After a lengthy second public hearing Wednesday, the Belmont County Commissioners voted against a proposed license plate fee increase of $10.
The commissioners were faced with the task of balancing the needs of a financially troubled population with the clear and imminent danger posed by deteriorating roads and bridges. Commissioners Ginny Favede and Charles R. Probst Jr. voted against the increase while Matt Coffland voted in favor.
The hearing included testimony by Fredrick Pausch, executive director of the County Engineering Association of Ohio, regarding the state of Ohio's bridges.
T-L Photo/ ROBERT A. DEFRANK
Fredrick Pausch, executive director of the County Engineers Association of Ohio, speaks in favor of an proposed $10 increase on license plate fees. The commissioners voted down the proposal, 2-1,?Wednesday.
Favede leveled a stern indictment against Gov.?John Kasich and his policies. She referenced Pausch's 2008 report from the Federal Highway Administration, placing Ohio fifth in the nation in the number of local bridges classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Some $770 million would be needed for critical repairs statewide and an annual $230 million for resurfacing.
Meanwhile the state holds a $2 billion rainy day fund.
"Ohio needs to acknowledge these issues," she said. "All levels of government are struggling because of the lack of local government funding."
She added that the gas tax has not been increased since 2003. Meanwhile, costs of materials continue to mount.
"It's a very difficult issue to deal with," she said. "We need a commitment from the state."
She said while she respected County?Engineer Fred Bennett and the genuine need for infrastructure repairs, she noted her duty was to represent the people. She mentioned the outpouring of public response in opposition to tax. She said the commissioners may decide to place the issue before the people in the form of a levy. The public has indicated a preference for such a route. She added that an annual increase of $10 is more than some residents can afford when combined with the increasing number of levies. She said she would continue to testify at the state level.
Coffland said his vote in favor was motivated by the present need. He added that he has also been contacted by the public about the poor state of roads and guardrails.
"Columbus is not coming to our rescue," he said, speculating on the cost of defending against a lawsuit or facing the loss of life. "One liability case, one litigation on one bridge is well worth $10 an individual of this county."
He referred to a fatal flood of the past and noted the temporary pillar at Pike Creek as one example of a risky site, since it would collect debris in the event of a flood. In addition, he noted the trustees are in support of a measure to restore some funding to the villages and townships.
"Much as I hate to," he said. "I don't know any other answer."
Probst concurred with criticism of the state, noting that stimulus funding was spent primarily of state routes while county roads were ignored. He suggested the county may be able to raise more funds locally.
"I think we can accomplish the same thing without putting the $10 on the people," he said, adding that the commissioners, engineer and auditor could put together a road plan. "I think we need to be more aggressive."
He said the county may utilize casino revenue and increased sales tax, which has been tied up due to the recession. The county will also be receiving royalties from oil and gas interests and ground leasing continues.
"I think we could move forward with that type of an approach," he said, adding that the public has recently passed the 911 levy and is facing a senior services levy. The public has voiced their concerns about the compounding financial demands.
He said county's financial outlook may improve in six to eight months, allowing the commissioners to provide those funds to the engineer.
Favede speculated that oil and gas interests may repair more roads as their operations expand and demand more use.
Bennett said these hopes offered few guarantees.
"People are very frustrated because they've been suffering so long," Favede said.
During his presentation, Pausch underlined the issue of public safety, adding that the county has 115 deficient or obsolete bridges.
Meanwhile, numerous residents voiced their opposition. Chief among their concerns was the continued addition of levies and expenses and the desire to see the issue placed before the people on the ballot. Several also raised concerns that the money might not be earmarked specifically for roads and bridges but might be used for other purposes.
DeFrank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org