Steubenville, Jefferson County meet on port authority issues

STEUBENVILLE — City Council needs to figure out whether to increase funding or reduce its appointments to the Jefferson County Port Authority, Jefferson County commissioners said Tuesday.

“From my perspective, there’s no urgency,” Commissioner Dave Maple said. “But let’s not lose track of economic development (opportunities) while we’re sorting it all out. I really don’t want us to get bogged down and lose track of opportunities.”

The city had requested the face-to-face meeting to discuss its representation on the port authority board.

Under the current bylaws, Steubenville’s mayor appoints four of the board’s nine members, but there have been grumblings throughout the county that the city should give up a seat or two to increase participation by other communities.

While both governing bodies have discussed the issue separately, Tuesday’s meeting was the first time they’ve hashed things out in person.

“There’ve been comments made here that we need to step up,” 5th Ward Councilman Willie Paul, who chairs council’s financial committee, told commissioners.

“We’re willing to step up some, but we have a lot of problems — we just can’t do all $25,000 at once.”

The city previously had pledged $50,000 a year for port operations, but budget constraints made it impossible to meet that commitment. Since the port authority formed in 2012, the county commissioners have contributed $900,000 for port operations compared to $100,000 by the city.

“I’m really open-minded as to how you proceed,” Commissioner Tom Gentile said. “The option I wouldn’t like to see is for you to have four appointments that have to be city residents and still put in the $25,000. My suggestion is, lift the restriction that you can only appoint someone (who lives) within Steubenville limits, and appoint whoever is best for the job. I don’t want to see the mayor limited to just appointing someone from within city limits.”

Gentile said they have no issue with the way Steubenville’s appointees as well as their own have handled their responsibilities, calling it a “misconception” that members would only support projects in their particular area.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna agreed that, “we all need to work together.”

“I believe the port authority is working for us, I think it’s a good thing.” Villamagna added. “I don’t want to abandon the port authority, whether we stay at four or go to two (appointments).”

Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn said she’d like to see the city up its financial contribution to the port, saying her goal would be to “get us to $50,000 in three years.”

“Really, I (like) the idea of all of our seats being at-large appointments,” Hahn added.

Paul said council appears willing to increase its financial support for the authority, budget permitting.

“We are looking at it,” Paul said. “Once we’re done with our budget hearings, maybe we can do $5,000 or $10,000, we just don’t know (yet).”

Maple told council he realized it’s going to take “time to get this engine moving,” but it’s imperative they avoid getting mired in endless debate.

“I think the sooner you have a decision on how you want to move ahead, the sooner you can budget and do that,” Maple said.

“I think the economy is the best it’s been since as far back as I can remember. I don’t want us to drop the ball. If we let ourselves get tied up in those details, we could miss (an opportunity), and we don’t want to do that.”

Afterward, Gentile described the meeting as “really positive” and said it’s critical that both entities work together to bring development opportunities to the region.

“How much money they want to put in and how many appointments they feel they need, that’s for them to decide,” he said.

Maple agreed, saying he thought there’s “consensus within the city that there is a disparity in representation vs. funding, and I believe they now know that, speaking for myself, the commissioners think it’s something to recognize and work on but not to a point that it disrupts any port authority activities or is otherwise contentious. It sounded like there were quite a few opinions from the council members on how and when to move forward, so it would appear they have some decisions to make before any changes can be made.”

Villamagna, meanwhile, said he’s confident “we’re on the same path” as the commissioners.

“They’re concerned with money,” he said. “Our concern is (money), too, but we just have to try and come up with some (more).”