MARTINS FERRY Monday's town hall session saw a high turnout from the city and surrounding area. Representatives from the county and several villages were present to review state policies that are impacting or will impact the area.
State Sen. Lou Gentile spoke and answered questions. He led his talk by noting the biennium budget passed at the end of June. He voiced concerns about the priorities of the $63 billion budget, criticizing the focus on tax relief rather than investment in communities and schools. He noted the failure to restore numerous cuts made during the last budget.
"The fund wasn't cut this last time," he said, adding that communities and local governments were still suffering from the cutbacks.
He underlined the importance of strong communities and said local services such as safety, protection and education were necessary in order to grow the economy with the incoming investments of oil and gas industries.
"Income tax cuts are going to be a huge part of this budget bill. Phased in income tax reduction," Gentile said, adding this will be a small benefit for average Ohioans. "Those tax cuts were made at the expense of most Ohioans."
In addition, in order to derive revenues for a tax cut the budget eliminated the rollback provision of 12.5 percent on new levies, which will make passing levies more difficult.
Also, the Ohio Homestead Exemption for seniors no longer has a means test. Seniors turning 65 will no longer be eligible. Gentile noted that legislation has been introduced to repeal the change.
Regarding the issue of a severance tax, Gentile noted the proposal was not part of the budget and was tabled. The proposed expansion of Medicaid was also left out of the budget.
He noted several ongoing initiatives including veterans' legislation to streamline the process of helping veterans seeking further education to convert their skills into credit. Although some schools already adopt such policy and the governor has issued an executive order in support, Gentile said legislation would create a uniform and stable policy.
Gentile added that a key issue for future debate is the need for local government to capture its fair share of revenue from the expanding tax base. Gentile hopes for legislation to ensure the return of 50 percent of income tax funds to the local counties from landowners leasing their mineral rights.
"We've got to find new ways to capture revenue going forward and make sure we leave a legacy behind," he said, noting infrastructure and a skilled workforce.
There is currently $2 billion in the Ohio's surplus funds.
The issue of Ormet and the jobs that depend on the business was also discussed.
"This is a major, major employer. We cannot afford to lose this massive employer on the riverfront," Gentile said. "This is the top priority for my office at this time."
While PUCO gave a deferment on some utility bills owed to AEP, in the long term PUCO must grant a rate reduction so Ormet can emerge from bankruptcy and install a gas-powered generator to fuel the site.
Gentile said the loss of jobs, property taxes, unemployment and health care would be close to $1 billion.
"They have cut the funding so far down that it makes it difficult to operate," said Mayor Paul Riethmiller, adding that smaller communities are facing worse hardships. "They actually balanced the state budget on the backs of the small communities."
Belmont County Auditor Andrew Sutak underscored the burden placed on the municipalities by the funding cuts. He said any income tax alleviation will be more than drained by the cost of maintaining police and fire services and infrastructure maintenance without state funding. He pointed out the further drain of an increased sales tax without a local benefit.
"We're the backbone of the state," Sutak said.
Several guests brought up issues related to education, pointing out that new standards have been instituted too quickly, with an evaluation and ratings system that may not reflect all the components of the building and classroom. An undeservedly low rating will also make the passage of levies more difficult.
Representatives from the county library district also pointed out the added services the library was expected to offer, while having limited resources.
Other guests pointed out issues such as oil and gas vehicles operating without Ohio plates and giving no local benefit. Sutak suggested requiring permits. He added that this could generate funds to maintain streets utilized by the out of state vehicles.
Gentile said efforts are being made at the Office of Workforce Development to produce an annual report of the number of Ohioans and Ohio-based companies working in the oil and gas industry.
Martins Ferry Auditor Rita Randall pointed out some cases where the city has been unable to gain income tax on workers who reside here but have permanent addresses elsewhere. She also voiced concerns about local burdens.
"I don't know how we're supposed to meet state mandates, federal mandates, and still have police and fire and everything else we offer," she said.
Other guests pointed out the increase in prices as to meet the oil and gas inrush. Some guests noted instances of welfare abuse.
Bellaire Police Chief Mike Kovalyk agreed that services, police protection and strong communities were vital in providing an environment for businesses.
Among other issues, Commissioner Ginny Favede pointed out the possible environmental concerns of fracking water being stored in the county when it is banned in other states. She noted the state is collecting a fee for use of the two disposal wells in the county.
Riethmiller thanked Gentile for his availability. Thanks went to Richard Hord for his efforts in organizing the event. Gentile noted the communication between representatives and elected officials.
DeFrank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org