Explaining the I-70 Mall Road project truths

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Mark Twain, “A lie gets up and runs around the world before the truth even gets out of bed.” It seems the perfect comment when dealing with the issues surrounding the I-70 Mall Road debacle we are dealing with. Somehow, I kept waiting for the truth to rise to the top. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case and I feel it is my responsibility to explain the truth of the situation. I will first preface this issue with the fact that both Commissioner Probst and I do support this project and we are both strong advocates for economic development. I have personally worked on this project for more than five years, as I did serve as a councilwoman for the City of St. Clairsville prior to becoming a county commissioner. The project has changed dramatically since its inception and does not even remotely resemble what was first planned. The original design was a $50 million braided diamond interchange that addressed the exits at both Route 9 and Banfield Road, as well as additional exits ramps between exits 218 and 216. The first year in office I worked diligently with former Congressmen Wilson and Space to repurpose nearly $30 million worth of existing federal earmarks that have been sitting unused in Belmont County for years. One such earmark was left by former Congressman Applegate, which should give you an idea of how old it is! The federal government intended to address this in the Transportation Reauthorization Bill but unfortunately it was not. Additionally, we submitted a downsized version of this project to Stimulus Funds in 2009, but did not receive any funding. We spent years working with ODOT to try to get this project back on track. We were convinced that building this road and ramp would open up this property for development and put our county back on the road to recovery. Over the past few years, Belmont County has experienced a rebirth and our retail has ignited once again. There is tremendous growth and development. We were successful in getting ODOT back on the project when we finally committed county dollars toward the project. Our intent when committing the money was to show how important this project was to our county. The project, when the funds were committed, was a road from Route 40 through the property behind Lowes that connects to a ramp that goes over I-70 and connects to Willow Grove Road. The project was a coordinated effort between the City of St. Clairsville, TID (Transportation Improvement District) and the Belmont County Commissioners. The total for the project still exceeded the amount of dollars we currently held. The city possessed a $6.9 million earmark of which $5.2 million still remains, TID possessed $700,000 and $900,000 in TRAC funds and Belmont County Commissioners $1.9 million. The total of the project at this point was estimated to be $18.8 million. These figures are taken from the BEL 70/Mall Overview PID 89314 distributed on 5/16 by ODOT. It was and is my understanding that the remaining amount could be obtained through a grant application process known as TRAC funding. The TRAC application is due in May of 2014. Then and only then will we know whether or not this project will ever be funded by the State of Ohio to the extent that it can actually be fully completed from end to end. Up until May at the meeting held with ODOT, TID and the City of St. Clairsville, the plan was one project that started at Route 40 and ended at Willow Grove Road. A project that still needed money, a great amount of money that would be applied for in May of 2014. At this meeting, ODOT began talking about a project that would be broken into three segments. #1 Route 40 through the property behind Lowes #2 A road built by the Cafaros off of Mall Ring Road and #3 the connector bridge (overpass) The discussion was that the county would “swap’ their $1.9 million in cash for the City’s $5.2 earmark allowing the City to build their road into Mr. Stein’s property. Then, the Cafaros would fund and build their road and the earmark would be held until the TRAC funding application was filed. I immediately moved out of my chair and down the table where I communicated with the city’s service director that I would not support turning over the county money like that. Our commitment was to a total project and that having been a former City of St. Clairsville Councilwoman that the people of Belmont County would run me up a flag pole for turning that kind of money over to my city. I reiterated this concern in the parking lot after the meeting, on the phone several days later when I called to clarify he’d rectified the situation with ODOT. I also telephoned the mayor at home to share this concern with him and to let him know I could not support giving the county money to St. Clairsville. The issue at hand is that several individuals made the decision to use county money to fund their portion of the project without the express approval of the Board of Commissioners. This “swap” concept is a farce as the earmark cannot be used for anything other than this project regardless. The problem is twofold, one you cannot allow people outside of the commission to make decisions regarding county dollars without the support of the county commissioners. After making this decision, during a TID meeting when again I asked why this particular individual had continued to make decisions involving county dollars knowing I had repeatedly made clear I wouldn’t support it, he replied ” I know you told me no and I just ignored you, I figured you were mad about something and you’d get over it!” The second is if we allow this precedent to be set, what prevents this from reoccurring when other municipalities work with a single commissioner and make decisions for county dollars without involving the board of commissioners? This is a very dangerous path and one that needs to be strongly considered before progressing.

The board does indeed support economic development. I support this project as a whole but do not support lies, half-truths, manipulation and deceit. These decisions cannot be made without the county commissioner’s approval. The issue was ONLY brought before the commissioners AFTER they waged their very nasty media campaign. Now I ask you, is that how you want your government run? There is no record anywhere that prior to this media campaign, that the City of St. Clairsville or the TID ever met with or discussed this project or funding their portion of the road with the board of Belmont County Commissioners. The Ohio Revised Code governs how we operate and no decision is to be made without a majority of the board, on the record with a motion, roll call and vote.

The board supports this project but there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. Behind closed doors deals and nasty media campaigns isn’t the right way. Contrary to what an ex-commissioner would like you to think I do not have a political agenda or a personal agenda. I just do not believe government should operate like this.

Beyond this, it is important to note that there is a lawsuit from 1999 where Mr. Stein, the owner of the property where this road is to be built that will open his property up for his own development agreed in the Belmont County Common Pleas Court under Judge Jennifer Sargus to pay to have the road built himself and pay the Stewarts $49,000. He paid the money but has failed to pay to have his road built and now wants you the taxpayers to pay for his road to be built for him.

We filed a motion in court two weeks ago to have the judgment enforced. The case will be heard by Judge Frank Fregiato. I believe an additional motion will be filed by the Stewarts in regard to this issue. I think we can all agree that anyone should be held to the standard of the court and held to the task of what they agreed to do in a court of law. Both of these documents are available in the commissioner’s office should you want to review them. I think it is time for the truth to have an opportunity.

Now there is hope for this project and a way for it to be done right. To date there is no END USER for this project. A great amount of hype has been spread but it is my understanding that as of today there is no company that has signed a letter of intent to build anything on Mr. Stein’s property. There has been discussion of a $110 million project that it is going to be lost if the county commissioners do not transfer this money by February. Again, I don’t appreciate the half-truths. Do you really think that if there were a $110 million project on the table that it would be lost over a $1.4 million road? If there’s truly that much on the table wouldn’t the investors just ante up another one and a half million? Or why doesn’t the City of St. Clairsville borrow the money, or TIF the project or apply for 629 Road funds through Jobs Ohio? Why doesn’t the city use its TRAC funds already secured? Why is it that the only answer to building this road is using county funds? I believe this is a dangerous precedent that is being set. Please do not get caught up in the Chicken Little “the sky is falling” drama that is being staged. This project can and will happen. If there is an absolute need to get into this project to start now, then Mr. Stein needs to build his road. I cannot and will not turn $1.9 million tax payer dollars over under these circumstances and with NO GUARANTEE that the rest of this road and over pass will ever be fully funded or built! Waiting to put the county dollars into the pot when the TRAC application is reviewed is the prudent thing to do. I will not support building a dead end road, road to nowhere! ODOT recently communicated that they would review this project with the City of St. Clairsville officials to determine whether or not they put this portion back into the overall scope of work and build it themselves. I spoke with one long time councilman who informed me that the council had not been informed of any of this. That quite frankly they know nothing! How is this possible? You have a city fighting with the county over nearly two million dollars but the elected officials have not even been included in any of the decision making? So those involved in this have skirted their own elected officials and the county commissioners? I think we all need to be worried about what is really going on here! Lord knows, I don’t even understand what is going on, but I am doing my best to protect this county and its money!

My own mother had many sayings about lies, one of my personal favorites is, “there is no such thing as a lie, there’s only delaying the truth.” I believe you deserve an honest government that does things the right way. I know many of you are frustrated and angry because you want this county to grow. I am committed to Belmont County, to each and every part of it and committed to what will satisfy and benefit the entire county, not just a small group of people with personal agendas. This county will grow and continue to bounce back. I’ve always told my kids that being patient reaps the greatest reward and it will. In five months we will have the opportunity to submit the grant. After waiting for many, many years, a few more months certainly will not hurt, especially if it means that the project will get done and done without throwing away your hard earned money. The truth may have forgotten to send an alarm clock, but he’s awake and ready to fix all of the damage that has been done.