By CARL E. FEATHER - firstname.lastname@example.org
Given the state of things in general, Ashtabula County is in good shape, according to its three commissioners.
The board gave a “state of the county” presentation to the Ashtabula County League of Women Voters on Tuesday evening. The presentation has become an annual winter event for the group, which hosted commissioners Peggy Carlo, Joe Moroski and Dan Claypool at their monthly meeting.
Moroski said the question they are constantly asked is “what kind of financial state is the county in?” The short answer, Moroski said, is “sustainable.” Commissioners said that while they may disagree on some issues, they all agree that they won’t appropriate more money than the county has to spend.
“We’re not going broke, and we’re not anywhere near a fiscal emergency,” Moroski said. “Unlike the people at the federal level, we have to balance the budget every year.”
“The county has lived within its means. It’s made the necessary cuts we need to make it live within its means,” Carlo said.
Commissioners, when speaking about the state of the county’s budget, frequently referred to the citizen’s budget committee, a group of five county residents who attend the budget work sessions with elected officials. Moroski said the tone of those meetings has improved greatly with the taxpayers’ presence, and the group has come up with some good suggestions for making county government more efficient and leaner.
“You can’t imagine how much the behavior of these elected officials has improved since these voters have been in there sitting across the table from them,” Moroski said. “I can’t tell you how much more civil these proceedings are.”
The board was also quick to praise the cooperation of the elected officials in working within the tight revenue forecasts facing the board. More than $1 million was trimmed from the initial requests, and the commissioners praised the county’s judges for working with the board rather than exercising their option of journalizing the budget requests.
“We got a bunch of great elected officials,” Claypool said. “We really do. There has been a whole different attitude in the county as far as cooperation goes.”
Economic development was very much on the minds of the commissioners and the league’s members, who tossed out questions about the shale drilling boom, lodge and Plant C, owned by the Ashtabula County Port Authority. Commissioners defended the purchase of the former power plant on Lake Road as essential to job retention and growth. Claypool pointed out that 1,200 jobs depend on the raw water it supplies and that with the improvements a federal grant is funding, more jobs could be added.
“When you look at the manufacturing ... 80 percent of new jobs that you are going to get come from the facilities that are already there,” Moroski said.
Commissioners said that a task force on energy has been formed and it will deal with issues related to shale drilling. At this time, protection of township and county roads is the main issue. The commissioners said it is important to make sure that any industry that comes into Ashtabula County does not detract from the county’s flourishing tourism industry.
They pointed to the Lodge and Conference Center as a key player in the growth of tourism, although the county-owned lodge has yet to turn a profit after debt payments. Claypool pointed out that if $20 million were invested in sewer lines there would be 50 years of benefits in economic development that would not be questioned. He said the $21 million invested in the lodge also pays economic dividends: a payroll of $4.5 million, 80 jobs and up to $10 million annually in spin-off tourism activity.
“What other economic development tool could the commissioners have built and done the same thing?” Claypool asked.
Commissioners said one of the items on their agenda later this year will be to review the county Senior Services Levy, which generates $1.5 million annually. The money is no longer sufficient to cover all the senior transportation needs in the county, and a replacement levy may be necessary.
“We’re providing 2012’s services with 2000’s dollars,” Claypool said.