Friday, May 2nd, 2014
By William Kincaid
Voters to decide statewide infrastructure issue
CELINA - Voters statewide on Tuesday will be asked to support State Issue I - a constitutional amendment that would provide $1.875 billion in funds for community infrastructure projects during the next 10 years.
If passed, it would authorize the state to issue bonds or other obligations to finance or assist in financing public infrastructure capital improvements for government entities. The funds must be paid back by the state within 30 years.
Mercer County officials said the State Capital Improvement Program is a vital source of funding for local projects. Since 1987, $34 million in state tax dollars have come back to the county to help fund wastewater treatment plants, street and storm sewer reconstructions, drainage improvements, bridge replacements, ditch relocations, sewer separations, new water lines and other projects.
Auglaize County has received $22 million since the program began.
"It's funding that's geared toward local government infrastructure for municipalities, for townships, for counties," county engineer Jim Wiechart said. "It's not for infrastructure for the state; it's for all local governments."
Celina City Council, all 14 boards of township trustees, Mercer County commissioners and several villages recently passed ordinances urging residents to cast their votes in support of State Issue I.
Because no opposing argument was submitted to the Ohio Ballot Board, it prepared one in accordance with state law.
"All Ohio taxpayers will be paying interest on those bonds to cover local government projects. ... "These are community-based projects from which many Ohioans may not see a direct benefit and which local governments should prioritize and pay for using locally-raised dollars," the ballot board noted.
The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, an Ohio nonprofit legal center, also issued a statement claiming State Issue 1 would further increase already historically high state spending.
"Given recent spending increases at the state level, passage of State Issue 1 is likely if not certain to increase taxes, undermine Ohio's balanced budget requirement, further expand already historically large state spending and indebtedness, create perverse political incentives and cronyism, legitimize the notion of state spending as a viable means of job creation, further clutter an already bloated-beyond-recognition section of the Ohio Constitution and redistribute wealth from poor- and middle-class Ohioans to wealthy out-of-state investors," said Maurice Thompson, executive director of the center.
Celina Safety Service Director Tom Hitchcock, county community development director Jared Ebbing and Wiechart support the program.
"There's no increase in taxes as a result," Ebbing said. "It's just using the bonding capacity (of the state)."
The program is administered by the Ohio Public Works Commission, officials said. Its integrating committees from each of the 19 districts to solicit, score and select local applications for state funding, with grants available for up to 90 percent of the total project cost for repairs and replacements, and 50 percent for new and expansion projects, they added.
District 13 comprises eight counties including Mercer and Auglaize, and is represented by county commissioners, engineers, township trustees and municipality officials, Wiechart explained.
The district is guaranteed a portion of funding each year and its executive committee tries to spread the dollars throughout the jurisdiction, he said.
"They can't always do that with the way the district allocation is, but it is a little bit of a philosophy to have as much spreading of that as possible," Wiechart said.
Ebbing reviews applications from local municipalities and submits them to Wiechart, who works with communities to develop long-term plans to leverage as many funding sources as possible.
"I work with the communities to kind of determine when is their best year (for application)," Ebbing said. "Is this a good year because we can get CDBG (Community Development Block Grants)? Let's match that with OPWC, and you've probably seen (projects) in Burkettsville, Mendon, Rockford Montezuma; so in a roundabout way, my role is to try to help communities plan for, have a five-year plan."
Some of the OPWC grant funds for Mercer County this year include $117,000 toward a $210,000 repaving project in Mendon for streets torn up in previous years during water line replacement, and $294,000 toward $588,000 in paving projects in 14 townships.
"My perception is there would not be nearly the paving going on on their roads were it not for this program because, quite honestly, not many boards (of trustees) any more are doing much, even asphalt paving resurfacing, with money from their own budgets," Wiechart said.
The increasing lack of roadwork is due to cuts in state funding and escalating material costs, he said.
"You may not realize it's there, but they'll miss it if it is gone," Ebbing said about the State Capital Improvements Program. "It's going to be much tougher to continue to do these kinds of construction projects ... but they're so important for our communities, our county and our townships."
It's also more than just a set amount of dollars - OPWC money is part of a funding matrix of multiple sources making many expensive infrastructure initiatives possible, Ebbing added.
Within the program exists a Small Government Commission that provides grants and loans to villages and townships with populations in incorporated areas of less than 5,000 people, according to the state. Applications are selected from projects not funded directly by the district integrating committees.
These grants are extremely competitive with political entities not just vying against one another in their districts but statewide, Ebbing said.
"And every year we've been very successful in getting that, again because we have match money," he said. "The scores go up if you have a good project and you have match money from other sources."
State Issue I was passed in 1987 and was renewed by voters in 1995 and 2005. If approved again, it will provide $175 million a year for five years and then $200 million a year for five additional years.
Proponents say the money borrowed to fund the program is already built into planning for future state budgets and argue it has created tens of thousands of jobs during its 27 years.
Hitchcock said State Issue I is noncontroversial and has bipartisan backing, noting legislation to put the issue on the ballot passed the House 90-2 and the Senate 31-0.