Belmont County commissioners questioned on costs, qualifications

T-L Photo/ ROBERT A. DEFRANK Steve Hill, retired oil and gas liaison, tells the Belmont County Commissioners that Road Use Maintenance Agreements should be a higher priority for the engineer’s office.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Belmont County took steps in pursuing costly infrastructure projects Wednesday, and fielded questions from residents.

Commissioners J.P. Dutton, Josh Meyer and Jerry Echemann adopted a resolution authorizing the county engineer to sign off on project agreements with the director of the Ohio Department of Transportation to complete slip repairs throughout the county. Dutton noted that these are Federal Highway projects, 80 percent federally funded and 20 percent paid by the county.

Dutton said the projects are located on Belmont County Roads 16, 4, 56, 46, 24, and 214.

“Some of those roads have more than one project on them. That’s just starting the process of trying to get those projects repaired,” he said, adding that the commissioners hoped the projects would begin soon. “There’ll obviously be more projects to come. Particularly on the (Federam Emergency Management Agency) side.”

According to the engineer’s office, heavy rainfall in February of 2018 has caused and exacerbated numerous road slips around the county. While state and federal aid has been committed to pay for the majority of the damage, the commissioners have been finalizing plans to borrow funds for more immediate work, to be reimbursed later. However, this means revenue generated by license plate fee increases will be committed to these projects rather than road paving.

In other matters, guests included Steve Hill, retired oil and gas liaison, who said he believed the Belmont County Engineer Terry Lively should place a higher priority on managing road use maintenance agreements.

“In my opinion, that’s disrespecting the taxpayers of this county, because these RUMAs are important,” he said, adding that the agreements were necessary for the maintenance of the county’s roads.

Hill was involved in establishing RUMA procedures during the initial influx of the oil and gas industry. The engineer’s office has been handling RUMAs since Hill told the commissioners of his intention to retire in 2017. He added that multiple agencies had developed the procedure in 2011 to protect the roads.

Hill also suggested writing to the Ohio legislature asking them to alter the requirements that all county engineers be a licensed professional engineer and a licensed professional surveyor so that more people could run for the post.

“It’s a monopoly in my eyes,” he said, adding afterward that more people would be eligible to run if the job only called for a professional engineering license

Lively was contacted afterward, but declined to comment until he knew more of the issues brought up.

Dutton reminded those present that the engineer’s office was separate from the commissioners.

“We understand the situation with the county roads and know that there’s improvement needed, both just from general maintenance and as it relates to RUMAs.”

Also, John Jurovcik of Blaine commented on the latest increase of water and sewer rates and when work would begin on the planned water and infrastructure improvements and a new treatment plant.

“A lot of people in the county are pretty upset about the water and sewer, those rates are going up,” he said.

“We’re working with the (United States Department of Agriculture) on both water projects and sewer projects,” Dutton said, adding that the county has been approved for loans and grants from the USDA for water and wastewater system improvements. Legal work must be completed before the money is received.

“For the sewer projects, we are not yet completed all the necessary paperwork with USDA. … Those sewer projects that were part of that package should be starting soon.”

Dutton added that the county has been approved for $9 million in loans and $3 million in grants for sewer projects, and $45 million in loans and $15 in grants for water projects.

“It was the largest package awarded from USDA Rural Development in the State of Ohio’s history. We’re very proud of the work that was done on that. It’s going to be a great benefit to the county. Unfortunately, rates had to be raised as part of this process,” he said, adding that the rates had not been adjusted for many years, and the increases were required to be eligible for other funding sources.

He added that while the citizens have seen steep increases last year and the beginning of 2019, further adjustments would be incremental and tied to inflation. He said the infrastructure delivers water to 10,000 Belmont County homes, and there are 3,000 sewer customers.

When the commissioners raised the rates in 2017, they noted the likely result for customers would be an increase of almost 46 percent to the average sewer bill, and one of almost 23 percent to the average water bill, by 2018, and after 2019 the rate increases should limited to three percent or less.

The commissioners will hold a reorganizational meeting at 8:30 a.m. this Monday, with the regular meeting to be held at 9 a.m. Wednesday.