AUSTINBURG TOWNSHIP — State government officials plan to work together to find additional funding for the proposed sewer project that could cripple the community potentially.

The Austinburg Township Sewer Committee organized a tour of the affected area Tuesday afternoon. Officials representing State Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, Republican, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat, attended the tour to see firsthand the impact the project will have on the community.

Committee members placed markers throughout the township, showing exactly where the sewer lines are going to run and how many members of the community will be affected. Committee members also provided estimates of what residents would be assessed for the project.

The $2.2 million project will include the construction of sewer lines in the vicinity of Route 307 and Route 45 to service area residents and also will service residents on several side streets in the township, including Mill Street, Mill Street Extension, Betts Drive, Chestnut Street and Maple Street.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that area residents hook into the public sewer line by the end of 2008. The majority of the cost of the project will be borne by about 75 area households. Properties required to hook into the sewer line will be assessed proportional shares of the project. The assessments can be amortized over 20 years, and payments, plus interest, will be added to residents’ property taxes. The assessments do not include $4,000 tap-in fees.

The county has secured about $500,000 in funding for the project, but the remainder will be the responsibility of township residents. Some residents will be looking at assessments in excess of $70,000. Commercial properties will see an even higher cost, some in excess of $300,000.

For example, Grand River Academy, a small rural boarding school, is home to 120 students. The estimated sewer fee for the facility is $389,000, which is about 18 percent of the projects’ total cost, said Marcy Hejduk, committee member. Within in the past two years, Grand River Academy made improvements to the two package sewer plants that service the school. The improvements were made to bring the facility up to EPA standards and cost about $120,000. Most of the sewer plants will be scrapped with the new project, said Randy Blum, headmaster.

Jewels Dance Hall and the Austinburg Mill, both landmarks in the community and both recently purchased by new owners during the past few years, may be forced to close because of the high cost of the project. Jewels will be assessed according to occupancy, based on an estimate of 35 gallons per patron, at $10 per gallon. The assessment and tap-in fees for the local watering hole will be in excess of $300,000, Hejduk said.

“Our business is mostly on the weekends,” Brian and Brenda Rodecker, owners, said in a letter regarding the project. “We are open an average of 35 hours a week out of a 168-hour week. The financial impact of this sewer project and the related costs will have a crippling effect on Jewels Dance Hall.”

Austinburg Mill owner Robert Ruck said the price of the project will force him to close the mill. He owns 600 feet of frontage.

“The last thing we need, especially in Ashtabula County, is another business that is trying to succeed — be forced to close,” he said. “If you strap this on me, you’re going to see headlines that say ‘Austinburg Mill closes.’”

John Stilliana, district representative of Voinovich’s office, said he wants to be as helpful as possible, whether it be through grants, U.S. Department of Agriculture loans or appropriations.

“We’re all here to help, to work together to do what we can to help your community out,” he said. “But it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Stilliana said he was very impressed with the formation of the sewer committee and the residents are on the right track to getting additional assistance, but he stressed that it may be a lengthy process.

“It is tough to get earmarks; I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “I just want to make you aware of it and stress the patience.”

Ashtabula County Commissioner Daniel Claypool said it may be possible to get an extension from the EPA to give officials additional time to seek funding.

“The commissioners are going to ask for a line-item appropriation,” he said. “Once that is submitted, we will probably ask for an extension. If there’s money out there, the commissioners are going to go after it. Believe it or not, the commissioners are on your side.”

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