Ferry Town Hall features Cera

MARTINS FERRY – The city held a town hall meeting Tuesday. State Rep. Jack Cera was present to give a personal account of progress in Columbus and to hear local concerns and bring them to the state capital.

He spoke about the state budget passed at the end of June and its local impact. The $61.7 billion general revenue package was the largest in Ohio history and an increase by several billion dollars more than the last budget.

Cera noted that he voted against the budget. He pointed out the added spending, which failed to address issues such as education, local governments and the prison system. He criticized the state for a focus on changing tax policy rather than restoring funding cuts to local government now that Ohio is seeing an increase in revenue. He pointed out the transfer of $1 billion into the rainy day fund, now at five percent.

In the realm of education, he noted a reduction of half a billion dollars to public schools through the expansion of vouchers. In addition, the property tax change will make passing new levies more expensive, since the state will no longer pick up that percentage from the general fund. Cera recounted the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1990s that Ohio’s method of funding schools through property tax was unconstitutional, since it favored wealthier areas.

Cera opinioned that one contributor to the situation in education is the biannual budget and the succession of governors with different agendas. He said a budget with longer terms might allow more stability, consistency and planning.

He added that the quarter-percent increase in sale tax is regressive for the average Ohioan, who will pay more overtime than with an income tax.

“Overall I’d say the budget is not good for Eastern Ohio,” he said. “It could have been a much better budget.”

Another major concern is the future of coal, as older power plants are being closed. Cera said new technologies are being developed that could address environmental issues, but a strong energy policy from the federal level and more short-term responses are needed in the meantime. He also criticized the policy of deregulation, saying investors prefer to construct power plants in a regulated state.

“In general, deregulation has not been helpful,” he said.

City officials brought their concerns to Cera.

Development Director Kathy Wade Gagin brought up the question of whether temporary workers who have resided for more than 90 days are considered residents and required to pay municipal income tax. Mayor Paul Riethmiller noted the use of roads and utility as a result of the influx.

Riethmiller also brought up a plan to install traffic cameras at the Hanover Street intersection for the purpose of safety. According to the Ohio Municipal League, House Bill 69 would forbid municipalities the use of traffic cameras. Cera said the bill passed the House and was pending in the Senate. He agreed that the presence of cameras would benefit safety.

Finance Committee Chair Robert Hunker pointed out the 29-percent increase in health care, which meant $200,000, and health care reforms could mean a further increase. Cera said there was little the state could do beyond setting up exchanges.

A representative from the library system pointed out it faced cuts of 35 percent under the prior governor and is in the process of changing to a county district library by the end of the month. Due to the rising costs of the library’s six buildings, they are considering a levy or face the need to close locations. Public libraries have also been asked to assist in helping people register for health care changes.

Guests also inquired about several Ohio House bills that Cera had co-sponsored.

House Bill 63, which aimed to increase Ohio’s workers on the oil and gas industry through a tax incentive, may have constitutional issues. A House bill to return local government funding to former levels was rejected. House Bill 134, which would allow funds generated from water sold to fracking companies to be placed in the general fund, has been stalled by the EPA.

Cera also noted that the state’s prison system, mentioning Belmont Correctional Institute, is badly overcrowded. He noted the institute has had to privatize food service. He added that he has reservations about the privatization measure, fearing this may facilitate contraband and a threat to safety.

Riethmiller thanked Cera for his accessibility and availability to his constituents. He also thanked Richard Hord of Martins Ferry for organizing the town hall.

DeFrank can be reached at rdefrank@timesleaderonline.com