Proposed license fee hike gets mixed reviews

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Belmont County Commissioners held the first of two public hearings Tuesday to discuss a proposed $10 increase in license plate fees.

County Engineer Fred Bennett noted that each registration will cost an additional 83 cents monthly, or less than three cents per day.

Belmont County has 308 miles of roadways to maintain, along with 280 bridges located on these county highways and township roads. This requires employees, equipment and materials.

Due to the economy, income in 2012 was $181,500 less than that received in 2007. Some outside funds are also received from the Federal Highway Administration and Ohio Public Works Commission.

Meanwhile, the cost of doing business has risen steadily this past decade. An example is the cost of paving one mile of highway 20 feet wide has risen from $29,500 in 2003 to $65,400 in 2012. The construction cost index has risen close to 30 percent during that period.

“Our roads need resurfaced,” said Bennett, adding that the last paving of any county highway was during 2012 when 1.5 miles of County Highway 4 was resurfaced, paid 100 percent by a local coal company.

He related other projects. The last time county funds were used entirely to pave a county highway was 2008, involving portions of County Highways 30 and 214, totaling only 2.48 miles. Prior to that, the county paved five to 10 miles yearly.

Meanwhile, the county’s bridge problem continues. Although 10-15 bridges have been replaced per year during the past decade, 80 bridges cannot carry legal loads and are posted with load limits between 32 tons and four tons. Half of them cannot carry school buses, emergency vehicles, and fuel trucks.

“We are able to replace small bridges, 10-50 foot spans with our employees, but larger bridges must be replaced by private contractors, most are funded by OPWC or FEMA, which costs between $500,000-$1,200,000. These bridges require a local match of 20-26 percent of contract costs.”

Bennett outlined cost-saving efforts from his department. The department has 25 dump trucks with more than half purchased prior to 2000 and only eight with less than 100,000 miles. About half of the department’s heavy equipment was purchased prior to 2000.

Bennett concluded that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles delivered an estimate based on 2011 registration determining $536,006 will be raised by enacting the increased fee. The 16 townships will receive $141,384 and 12 of the 14 municipalities will receive $59,910. Due to part year registrations, they recommend for budget purposes they use 85 percent of the amount.

“This will not solve all of our problems, but it will be of great benefit,” he said.

Guests spoke out in support and opposition.

Michael Bianconi, Pease Township Trustee and former county commissioner, also speaking on behalf of the Township Trustee Association, voiced support of the measure. He praised the hard work of the road and bridge crew and said the motion was necessary.

“We need the funds to do their job,” he said.

Frank Papini of Bridgeport recognized the need but could not totally agree, noting the extra burden on those with fixed incomes. He said there should be a greater effort on generating other revenues from the oil industry and as attempting to tap into the state’s rainy day fund. He pointed out Monroe Township, Pennsylvania, which he said received $271,000 from the state from drill sites. He said the oil companies’ truck drivers put considerable wear on the roads.

“Make them pay their fair share,” he said.

Ed Hood of Shadyside illustrated the situation of many residents, pointing out that he is on Social Security and facing mounting expenses, the loss of health insurance and the need to purchase his own. He noted his increased property taxes, electric bill, car and homeowner’s insurance, combined with more levies on the ballot. This has meant he and his wife dipping into their savings for necessities.

“Everybody’s running out of money, but it falls back on the ones who can afford it the least,” he said. “We’ve been married 57 years and we can’t take care of ourselves anymore.”

St.?Clairsville businessman John Swan concurred with his own examples. He added that financial burdens are shared by all. He suggested a tax for businesses that utilize vehicles.

Frank Schaeffer, Pultney Township trustee, was in favor. He said the measure was the cheapest option available. He cited the need for services.

Robert Vincenzo, mayor of St. Clairsville, speaking as a private citizen, voiced support due to the need for safety, asking that people compare the cost incurred by an accident due to poor roads.

Commissioner Matt Coffland said there was some paving activity in the western part of the county where oil and gas industry was active. He shared first-hand knowledge of the poor state of the bridges and roads. The road paving program had to be given up to try and maintain the bridges.

“If we do not do something soon, a lot of our paved roads are going to be back to gravel roads,” he said, adding that in the last three years the county was appropriated $17-18 million from the $22 million the year prior. He added that the Township Association agreed to turn over the Issue 2 project to the commissioners to apply for up to $390,000 in grants to pave some county roads.

“The money that is missing from this county has not been lost, it’s been taken by the state,” said Commissioner Ginny Favede. “To brag that we’re sitting on a $2 billion rainy day fund while our schools are struggling and our townships are down (building and lights).”

She underlined the need to avoid complacency and continue pressing the state for the return of local government funds now that the state is stable.

Michael Wahl, deputy county engineer, said many bridges cannot support the weight of a fire truck and replacement efforts cannot keep up.

“If there are people in this county near and dear to your heart, for safety’s sake alone we need to do something with these bridges and we need to do it quickly,” he said.

DeFrank can be reached at