Local county commissioners headed to White House

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Belmont County commissioners continued discussing plans for several infrastructure improvements during their regular meeting this week. They also said they will participate in the Ohio County Commissioners’ White House Conference in Washington, D.C.

The commissioners have been invited to the conference, slated for Aug. 29, to discuss issues impacting Ohio’s counties. Commissioners from all 88 counties have been invited to attend.

Commissioners Mark Thomas and J.P. Dutton will attend, but Commissioner Josh Meyer will be occupied with prior family business.

Harrison County Commissioners Don Bethel, Paul Coffland and Dale Norris also will be attending the conference, Bethel said on Thursday. He said they are all grateful to have been invited to the meeting. Bethel said the three have already made their reservations to attend the event.

Monroe County Commissioner Mick Schumacher said he is considering attending the conference. Commissioner Tim Price said he is “certainly interested” in going as well, but that he may not be able to make arrangements to attend. Commissioner Carl Davis could not be reached for comment.

The meeting, Bethel said, will give the commissioners the chance to bring any issues they might have to the table on a national level. For Bethel and his colleagues, they will be discussing the Pittsburgh to Columbus Corridor, as well networking with other counties working in the Marcellus and Utica shale to put together a consortium to support of enacting a 1 percent gross severance tax brought back to affected counties.

“This gives the Ohio delegation of county commissioners, county executives, the opportunity to not only tour the White House but also have a briefing from the administration on issues such as the budget, issues on infrastructure, potentially issues on the opioid crisis,” Thomas said, adding he will attempt to convey the infrastructure needs of the area.

“The nation’s infrastructure, our roads, our bridges and the need for additional monies from the feds to come back to the state of Ohio and passed down through the counties so that we can improve the infrastructure here as we continue to do. That would be the biggest take away I could see,” he said.

Thomas said the commissioners could also address impact fees and severance tax money from the oil and natural gas industry and how this might help assist infrastructure.

“We’ll talk about the administration’s platform and how it relates to counties,” he said. “I think one of the big issues will be infrastructure and then the second would be how the nation addresses the opioid crisis as it effects counties.”

The board of commissioners will hold their regular Aug. 30 meeting instead at 9 a.m. Aug. 31, due to the scheduling conflict.

In other matters, Martins Ferry resident Richard Hord also inquired if the commissioners had made any progress in meeting with Stark County officials and looking into ways Belmont County might manage beds at the county jail to reduce crowding and costs.

Thomas said the board has looked into the matter, but incarceration remains at the discretion of the judges, who must prioritize the safety of the public while deciding on matters of incarceration.

Dutton agreed.

“We’ve had some conversations with the judges. We’ve tried to find efficiencies, but at the end of the day, our population is such that we’ve almost routinely been above our limit,” Dutton said, adding the jail sometimes held 40 more inmates than capacity.

The commissioners will also continue reaching out to find solutions for the issue of stray cats since the animal shelter has ceased taking in cats.

“We simply do not have any more room for cats at the animal shelter,” Dutton said, adding the Ohio Revised Code does not require the housing of cats.

There are currently about 90 dogs and 50 cats housed in the shelter. The cats currently at the location will not be sent to other shelters.

The board also reminds the public that the minutes of the commissioners are posted on their web site. Thomas addressed rumors about the animal shelter on social media and invited the public to speak to the commissioners, to attend meetings or to visit the shelter.

The board approved forwarding $20,000 from the Belmont County general fund to the Belmont County Department of Job and Family Services to be used as local funds for their public assistance fund. These funds can be used as local funds for federal food stamp and Medicaid matches, netting an additional $20,000 from the federal programs.

The board also approved issuing of notes not to exceed $1 million of notes, to renew notes previously issued to pay part of the cost of acquiring and constructing water system improvements. This will cover replacing and repairing water laterals along the river where county wells are located.

The board also authorized the issuance of notes not to exceed $3 million in notes previously issued to pay part of the cost of road improvements. These are funds pledged by the county toward the ongoing Mall Road Connector project. These funds will be repaid as part of the tax increment finance district, beginning with this year’s 2017 taxes, paid in 2018. Real estate taxes from any new construction located in the tax increment financing district will go to pay down that note.

The board approved applying for federal assistance for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the estimated amount of $12,256,439 for the construction of wastewater system improvements.

Staff Writers Dylan McKenzie and Janell Hunter contributed to this report.