The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

April 11, 2013

Ashtabula County Metroparks Board mulls putting levy on ballot

Star Beacon

JEFFERSON — Ashtabula County Metroparks Board Commissioner Terry Berkey urged fellow board members to start thinking about running a levy campaign for the 2014 general election.

Metroparks has seen its local government funding cut from about $45,000 to $17,000 this year. Berkey, who ran the board’s meeting Tuesday night, said the board has no choice but to look to the county’s taxpayers for help.

Berkey recently sent a letter to every Ohio legislator requesting that they re-visit the section of the Ohio Revised Code that allows park boards to be created and receive .5 mils of the inside, or unvoted, millage in the county in which they operate. The problem is, all of the inside millage in Ashtabula County is already claimed. Berkey wants the law changed so the .5 mills would be added to the tax bill as unvoted millage above the inside millage.

Since sending his letters, Berkey has learned that the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, as well as other interests, would lobby against that plan. Berkey compared getting the law changed to trying to push a rope up a cliff.

Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, said he agrees that metroparks are important to the community, but he’s unsure about how they should be funded. Patterson said parks funding is just one of many fiscal issues facing Ohio’s legislators. He compared the process to playing the game of “ Budget Jenga.”

“Every piece is intricately connected,” Patterson said. “We got to keep this tower from falling over. But it is critical to fund our parks.”

Patterson said that it used to be that people moved to an area because of an employer. He said young entrepreneurs, who work in cyberspace, select a location based upon its quality of life.

“We have the making of a fine park system. We are in a good position, however, due to cuts in local government funding, (parks) have been squeezed out of the budget. We need money to operate our parks if we are going to have a quality of life,” Patterson said.

Both Geauga and Lake counties have well-developed park systems that are supported by taxpayers. But all efforts by the county’s Metroparks board have failed to convince Ashtabula County voters of the benefits of a levy.

Berkey said the board has no other choice at this point but to try once again to pass a levy. He suggested that the board will need to raise at least $75,000 just to get the issue on the ballot and sell it to voters. He’s looking for volunteers experienced in the process.

“We need somebody who knows how to run a levy,” Berkey said.

As to how large of a levy to seek, Berkey suggested the board first figure out what needs to be done at each property and come up with estimates for the work and ongoing maintenance. He suggested the board also set aside money for grant match money and pay a grant writer. By doing so, the board could leverage the taxpayer’s money. Berkey said it will be important for the board to have a plan so it can show voters how the money will be used.

Metroparks’ holdings include the Western Reserve Greenway Trail and two parks built around covered bridges. It also has large tracts that have not been developed due to lack of funding. The Lampson Reservoir, formerly owned by the county, is due to transfer to the board, as well.