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Thursday, September 7th, 2017

County ranks high for federal funds

Mercer stands No. 4 among Ohio counties

By William Kincaid
CELINA - Mercer County Engineer Jim Wiechart's office, while jockeying among much larger counties', has brought home oodles of federal funds over the last several years to help pay for road and bridge projects.
Mercer County ranks No. 4 in the state, behind the much more populous counties of Cuyahoga, Butler and Franklin, in federal funds awarded from 1999 through 2023 - $39.16 million.
County commissioners Greg Homan, Rick Muhlenkamp and Jerry Laffin on Tuesday afternoon applauded Wiechart's efforts upon learning of the report released by the County Engineers Association of Ohio.
"It is truly mind-boggling; over a little less than a score of years, the capital improvements on local roads and bridges that have been completed by engaging in these competitive programs here in Mercer County," Wiechart wrote in a newsletter to township trustees and fiscal officers. "The interesting thing is to look at the population in that we are competing well against the 'big boys.' "
According to the CEAO report, over a 24-year federal funding cycle, the counties of Cuyahoga, with a population of 1.2 million people, is poised to take in $53.06 million; Butler, 368,130 people, $46.9 million; Franklin, 1.16 million people, $44.3 million; Mercer, 40,814 people, $39.16 million; Summit, 541,781 people, $38.93 million; Montgomery, 535,153 people, $34.42 million; Stark, 375,586 people, $33.05 million; and Muskingum, 88,074 people, $31.19 million.
Federal funding is awarded by varying competitive criteria specific to each type of program, not per capita, Wiechart pointed out to the newspaper.
"Each year there is a set time when applications are submitted to Columbus for each type of funding," Wiechart said. "Every year, we see these programs as great opportunities to do more good for our local infrastructure. We always make the effort to apply."
County officials apply to the state for projects that benefit local infrastructure and fit the criteria of the specific federal program, Wiechart said.
"Many times our worst bridge or worst road does not necessarily fit the criteria of the specific program and may not score as well, but with some work you find your 10th-worst bridge might score much higher," Wiechart explained. "Why not put it in a program where federal gas tax pays 95 percent of it, and our local road and bridge funds only have to obligate 5 percent toward the improvement?"
Laffin noted that Wiechart's office has aggressively gone after dollars that have really helped the county pay for bridge renovations and repairs.
Moreover, by having several projects planned out for the future, Wiechart has been able to capture funds near the end of the federal government's fiscal year from program officials looking to distribute the remainder of their yearly appropriations, Laffin pointed out.
"Having environmental approval through (the Ohio Department of Transportation), having construction plans ready well in advance and bird-dogging a very bureaucratic process has paid off in the past and as much as possible, we will continue in this way," Wiechart told the newspaper. "Some counties are turned off by the challenges of these red-tape-laden projects, which for us can be frustrating as well but over these years the benefits have far outweighed the frustrations."
Wiechart said he welcomes those challenges, including navigating "through the myriad and maze of the bureaucratic minefield that a federal project has."
The only regret to which Wiechart admits is not being able to use the federal funders for more maintenance activities, "rather than simply capital improvements on only the roads and bridges the feds prescribe."
Wiechart came to the county engineer's department in 1999 under Roy Thompson before becoming county engineer in 2002. He said Thompson gave him the freedom to go after federal funds.
He also credited his staff for administering the funds and completing the projects.
"This success in a small-county office isn't just me; There are three other principal people that are such a big part of this," Wiechart said, pointing to Mark Linn, Karen Heinrichs and Jerry Martens.
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