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Belmont County commissioners looking toward virus aftermath

T-L Photos/ROBERT A. DEFRANK Belmont County Commissioner J.P. Dutton fields several questions Wednesday about financial and budgetary expectations after the coronavirus pandemic.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Several familiar faces were back at the commissioners’ office Wednesday. Several people who previously had been regular guests had absented themselves from attending the weekly proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, they wore their masks and waited in the chamber itself or the hall outside to ask questions.

“I just wanted to come back and catch up on what I missed, what’s going on around the area and what’s new,” Frank Papini of St. Clairsville, who had been dealing with other medical issues, said. “I had been locked in the house for awhile. I finally had a chance to get out, and I’m going to enjoy the weather and try to resume things … get back to semi-normal.”

“I’m trying to get back, with this 10-people limit in a meeting,” Pease Township Trustee Michael Bianconi and a candidate for a commission seat in the fall, said. “Wanting to educate myself about what’s going on in the county.”

In the interest of limiting people in the room to 10, guests left the chamber after asking their questions and others were invited in. A monitor and speakers in the hall allowed those outside to view proceedings.

“We really appreciate the public’s patience during all this,” Belmont County Commissioner J.P. Dutton said, commenting on social distancing procedures and keeping county offices open by appointment-only. “It was very important for us to try and keep to as normal a meeting as possible, within reason.”

Other guests included Richard Hord of Martins Ferry, who asked if the commissioners had any new information about the pandemic’s financial impact.

“Are layoffs down the road? Are cutbacks in services possible?” Hord said.

“It’s too early to tell,” Dutton said, adding the board does not have conclusive numbers for the loss of sales tax, but there was a decrease in March. They continue to meet weekly with the county auditor. Dutton said he hopes the conservative financial practices during the past three years and payment of debt obligations may reduce the financial hit. “It’s going to be an impact. You can’t have as many local businesses close for the amount of time they were closed and not expect a repercussion.”

Commissioner Josh Meyer said federal funding may be available.

Papini asked about the future of the county budget. Dutton said they expect no major changes in this year’s budget.

“Next year’s budget is a different story,” Dutton said, pointing out potential lower sales tax and general fund numbers. “We’re in for a potential rocky road, here and everybody needs to do their part with their own budgets.”

Hord also asked about the delays in a decision by PTT Global Chemical America and Daelim Chemical USA on whether to build an ethane cracker plant in the Dillies Bottom area. Dutton said the company remains in contact with the commissioners about the investment decision and delays caused by the pandemic.

“There are just certain aspects of what they needed to do that wasn’t possible,” Dutton said.

Also, a county morgue is now operational at the health department’s property. In other matters, Belmont County Treasurer Kathy Kelich said in recognition of recent hardships on taxpayers, county residents would have a one-month extended due date for second-half property tax collection.

“We extended it to Aug. 21,” she said. “It helps the individual and it helps the governmental entity.”

Next week’s meeting will be held at 9 a.m. Thursday at the courthouse.

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