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Pandemic to have impact on Census count

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The COVID-19 coronavirus will have a long-term impact on Belmont County, especially with the Census count, the board of commissioners said Wednesday.

Commissioner J.P. Dutton said the county’s response to the 2020 Census has been uneven, with St. Clairsville having the highest turnout so far with more than 70 percent, while some villages had less than 50 percent.

Richard Hord of Martins Ferry during Wednesday’s meeting asked about progress of the current Census, and how it compared to the 2010 Census. Dutton said the commissioners have not attempted to compare with the previous Census.

“The pandemic has really changed (everything),” Dutton said. “What they’ve been able to do at this point compared to what they would have been able to do at this point in 2010 is drastically different. The committee had a lot of events and ideas that kind of had to be put on the shelf because it would have involved direct public engagement March, April, May into June … thankfully the deadline has been pushed back.”

The commissioners met last week with the Rev. William Webster of Grace Presbyterian Church, who also serves as chairman of the Belmont County Census Committee, for an updated on the progress of the count.

The City of St. Clairsville has been making a push for residents to respond. A projection from the U.S. Census Bureau showed the county seat was close to dropping below the 5,000-resident mark needed to maintain a city status.

“Parts of the county are performing very well. Parts of the county are not performing very well,” Dutton said. “They’re focusing on those areas,” Dutton said.

People can respond online at www.2020census.gov, by phone at 1-844-330-2020 or by using the paper form in the packet.

“It’s a very simple process,” Commissioner Josh Meyer said. “It’s very simple, very few questions, and it’s confidential.”

In answer to other questions, Dutton said Belmont County’s response during the pandemic has been commendable considering the unprecedented situation and factors such as the early arrival of the virus due to two residents who attended a conference out of state in March. Another contributor to the comparatively high numbers was the presence of Belmont Correctional Institute and its high concentration of inmates, the economic activity in Belmont County and the presence of major highways such as Interstate 70 also poses a danger of bringing the virus here.

“I think the businesses are doing the best they possibly can,” Dutton said. “It’s still a very difficult time for these businesses. It’s very much a struggle.”

Commissioner Jerry Echemann said he has been very impressed with how many restaurants have adapted, employing such measures as masked employees, disposable menus and condiments on request rather than salt and pepper shakers sitting on the table. He added this has undoubtedly cut into the restaurants’ ability to turn a profit.

“They earn money in a packed house,” Echemann said.

Dutton said the commissioners are holding informational meetings with Auditor Anthony Rocchio and conferring with state officials. Some funding may be available to compensate for coronavirus-related expenses.

The county is also making ready to hear the impact of sales tax loss. The county has projections of sales tax for April and May, but not hard data as yet.

“The projections are not good for April and potentially May. It does seem like economic activity’s picked up since late May, since the state began to reopen,” Dutton said.

Dutton said current pandemic-related restrictions at county buildings will remain for the foreseeable future. The board meetings will continue being limited to no more than 10 and the public is asked to make appointments with county offices before arriving. Masks are required for county employees, but not the public.

The commissioners continue to prepare for water system upgrades using United States Department of Agriculture funding. Most recently, they voted last week to utilize eminent domain to take a small piece of property on St. Joe Road in Neffs that houses a pump station. The matter will go through the courts to determine price.

The board is also working with the City of St. Clairsville toward a plan for the city to purchase water from Belmont County in the coming years, since the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has mandated the city’s water treatment plant be discontinued.

“Everything with trying to connect St. Clairsville to Belmont County on the east end of town seems to be progressing very nicely,” Dutton said.

He added the commissioners have spoken with various Belmont County communities during the past two years about their respective water systems and how they can work together in the future.

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