Commissioners divided on paving

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – As a result of a turbulent Wednesday meeting, the Belmont County commissioners took steps to transfer $1 million for the pavement of county roads. However, the funds had to be removed from a long-anticipated development project.

Commissioners adopted a resolution requesting the transfer of the N37 Capital Projects Fund to the Belmont County General Fund. The Interstate 70/Mall Road Interchange Projects Fund was established in 2009 to accumulate resources for the acquisition, construction, or improvement of fixed assets. Since the purpose of the fund has not been met, board transferred the entire balance of the fund and dissolved it.

Commissioners passed the resolution with a vote of 2-1, with Commissioner Matt Coffland voting against.

Commissioners then unanimously voted to authorize the county auditor to establish a Capital Projects Fund for the purpose of accumulating resources for the mall project. The auditor was authorized to transfer general fund monies in the amount of $914,473.53.

The move came in the wake of the board’s decision a few weeks earlier to refrain from placing an additional license plate fee on the taxpayers. Commissioner Ginny Favede noted the strong outpouring from residents opposed to the measure.

Coffland opposed the decision, saying that progress was being made to make the project a reality.

Timothy J. Matune, senior vice president of Cafaro Co., was invited to speak. He argued that such a decision could endanger the project by sending a message to the Ohio Department of Transportation that the county was no longer committed to its completion. He said the presence of a road had the strong potential to bring additional businesses into the mall.

He said the project was first conceived in 2004. In 2005, an earmark of $7 million was awarded for the construction of an interchange or other appropriate access on I-70 west of the existing Mall Road. Matune said that the project has acquired momentum during the past few months. He noted recent meetings between the county and related stakeholders, with commitments to completing and developing sections of the segmented project.

He noted a further meeting was set for Friday with ODOT in New Philadelphia.

“If this money is moved and the local people don’t have the money, if we go to this meeting and say Phase I cannot be done, well then the entire project will go downhill,” he said.

“I think we’re making a major mistake. I think we’re sending the wrong message to ODOT, to the federal highway systems, that we are no longer committed to this project,” Coffland said, adding that the design work is being done. “We are jeopardizing possibly two retail centers in our county for 10 miles of pavement.”

He said he believed this was not the best decision for the future of the county. He said the fund represented the county’s last savings account and the possibility of building up the coffers through sales tax generated through additional businesses.

Coffland referred to his record on prioritizing paving and added that other funding sources such as a half million dollars in Issue 2 funding was available.

Commissioner Charles R. Probst, Jr. said the move was necessary to ensure the safety of residents and motorists traveling through the county. He noted the clear and present danger of an accident and major lawsuit leveled against Belmont County.

“We’ve had numerous complaints about the condition of our county highway system. It’s come to a point that it’s become critical,” he said.

Probst added that the commissioners had every intention of restoring money to the fund and continuing with the project. He added that a letter will be sent to ODOT reaffirming their commitment to the project. He added that ODOT only needed to indicate when the funding is needed.

He added that the board will continue to look into other funding sources.

“We want to see the development continue. But we look at this as a win-win,” he said, adding that they will be able to address county highways that had not been paved in four years. “This commission needs to act and keep the county out of a liability situation.”

Favede agreed that the need for attention to the roads was dire. She added that the fund was set aside partially for paving and 911 expenditures.

“This is not a new practice. This is something that is being done for years, and I do feel that it is prudent that we invest in infrastructure for the safety of the residents,” she said, adding that she remains committed to the Mall Road project. “At this time, our residents and their safety needs to take precedent.”

When contacted for a statement, County Engineer Fred Bennett said he was happy to hear of the availability of funds. He added that he hoped to have roads picked out and advertised as soon as possible.

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