Friday, May 12th, 2017
State closer to ag pollution penalties
Committee reviewing rules
By Nancy Allen
State officials may soon be able to issue civil penalties against agricultural polluters, Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District board members learned on Thursday.
State agriculture engineer Terry Mescher said Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review members are reviewing the statewide agricultural pollution abatement program's rules. Committee members review all program rules every five years.
Penalties could range from $250 to $10,000 for infractions, he said at Thursday's SWCD board meeting.
When county SWCDs were under the authority of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, no civil penalties existed for agricultural pollution violations, Mescher said. Among violations are manure and silage leachate entering state waters. On Dec. 28, 2015, authority over SWCDs was transferred from ODNR to the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
"Our enforcement options were limited," Mescher said. "With our division (of soil and water resources) moved over to ODA, those penalties are becoming a reality."
Mescher said he did not know how long JCARR's review process would take.
District administrator/education specialist Nikki Hawk also reported that the SWCD is unlikely to receive increased state matching funds.
Hawk said she and a few board members along with SWCD officials from several other counties went to Sidney on April 24 to meet with state Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, who was unable to attend. On May 2, she and board members met with an aide to state Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, at the statehouse. Hawk said she submitted to Faber and Huffman's office a Mercer County commissioners' resolution supporting a one-to-one state match for local funding.
"We talk to these people and they all say 'you're doing a great job, and we support what you are doing, but there's no money.' " Hawk said. "The only way there will be an increase to SWCD funding is through fee increases, which is another tax," Hawk said.
The proposed two-year state budget, set to take effect July 1, does not include a funding increase for SWCDs. Ohio's 88 soil and water conservation districts are financed by local appropriations and matching funds from the state legislature that flow through ODA, Hawk said.
Hawk noted the SWCD office's goal is always a one-to-one match. During her 15-year tenure Hawk said she has seen the state match vary from as high as 97 percent to as low as 68 percent. Last fiscal year, the state matched local appropriations with 74 percent funding. That percent may drop to 68 percent under the proposed budget, she said.
Board members also learned that the SWCD office was able to purchase numerous pieces of office furniture through a government auction site at a much lower cost than had been anticipated.
SWCD officials last month priced two work stations and an upper cabinet at between $8,000 and $9,000, the lowest state contracting price. The board tabled the matter until Hawk could look into other options.
Hawk on Thursday told board members that her personnel had found office furniture that was just a few years old that had been used by the Cuyahoga County SWCD. Through the auction site, the Mercer SWCD purchased seven full work stations and three partial work stations for $1,162, for nine employees.
Board member Bob Maurer stored the office furniture in his trailer until Mercer SWCD staff could assemble it over three days. Maurer commended staff members for their work, saying the staff "does more than is required."
"It's great," Hawk said. "We got thousands of dollars worth of office furniture for under $1,300."
Board members on Thursday also,
• learned that Fort Recovery High School students participated in the April 25 Envirothon event at Fernald Nature Preserve in Butler County. Other Mercer County schools were unable to attend due to state-required testing.
• set the next SWCD meeting for 8:30 a.m. June 13.