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Jefferson County Commission lets sun set on solar power proposal

STEUBENVILLE — A solar power proposal was again a key topic of discussion at Thursday’s meeting of the Jefferson County Commissioners — and this time the talks produced an answer.

After discussions at previous meetings and exploring questions the commissioners had about a proposed letter of intent from the County Commissioners Association of Ohio to commit 20 percent of the county’s energy utility cost to solar power, it was decided the letter would not be signed.

“I’m open to solar, but the program as submitted has way too many open questions at this point in time,” Commissioner Dave Maple said. “I’m glad the CCAO continues to work on these opportunities and I will keep working with them, but for me at this time, I can’t support the program.

“I know all three of us did not take this issue lightly. I put in a lot of research, asked a lot of questions and I don’t think this would be in the best interest of our citizens or I would support it.”

Adding to the discussion on the letter, which would have shown the county’s interest in purchasing solar power at a fixed rate during a 20-to-25-year period, were a letter from the prosecutor’s office addressing questions raised at last week’s meeting and a letter from Dave Ramsey in opposition of the proposal, citing concerns for those in the county who are employed at the two power plants located along the Ohio River.

“There are very few counties in Ohio that have two major power plants shipping electricity all over the state,” Commissioner Tom Gentile said. “We are blessed to have that and the jobs that go with that. We get a lot of jobs from the oil and gas industry and the coal industry.

“I just don’t think, personally, this would send a good signal from this office to those working in the power plants, the coal industry and the oil and gas industry.”

The decision not to sign the letter, which was requested to have been done by this week by the commissioners association, was not unanimous. Commissioner Thomas Graham disagreed with his colleagues and wanted the letter to be signed.

Like Maple, Gentile pointed out while he is opposed to the proposed letter of intent, he’s not against solar options in general and would be open to future programs.

“I’m not opposed to solar, but I am very opposed to how this deal is put together,” Gentile said. “It’s a long timeline. I don’t feel I should be making that decision for what will be going on 25 years from now. That’s a long time. If you roll the clock back 25 years, our lives were very different than they are today. The way technology is advancing, we don’t know what will be the case in 25 years. There’s too many unknowns for me in this deal.”

Commissioners also discussed the Jefferson County Port Authority’s year-long search for a director. The search is still at least two months from completion, Maple learned while attending Wednesday’s meeting of the port authority board.

“I made it known we’re a little disappointed that we’re at a year now with a vacancy,” Maple said.

The position has been open since Aug. 28, 2019, when Evan Scurti shifted from being the full-time executive director to a part-time role as incentives manager. Scurti had served as director since December 2013.

“The process has taken way too long,” Graham said. “They had some good applicants to potentially hire somebody, or at least interview them. It’s hard to figure out.”

The possibility of the commissioners creating an office of economic development, which would essentially take away the need for a port authority director, was raised by Maple and had support from Gentile and Graham.

“It may be a better way to handle hiring, and I think it would give us a closer feeling to what is going on a weekly basis, instead of monthly meetings,” Maple said.

The prosecutor’s office will be consulted about the proper legal options for the potential creation of the office.

“I think there are some very positive reasons for that happening that way,” Gentile said. “I really support that course of action and I think it is a nice way of taking a little of the burden off of that board and at the same time keeping the commissioners’ office engaged in what is going on.”

Maple made it clear even if the new office is the route the commissioners go, the port authority will remain important to the county.

“There are other counties that function this way,” Maple said. “The port authority will still be a valuable tool for us. This is not getting rid of or going around the port authority — this is a better way to make it function.”

The commissioners approved the appointment of Mark Mihalyo to the Jefferson County Prevention and Recovery Board of Directors during a teleconference with him and board Executive Director William Holt.

“I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to serve your community,” Gentile said.

Mihalyo is a Steubenville resident.

The commissioners heard from representatives of the board of health, who are requesting more space in the Towers building to accommodate the increases in work force and workload that have been caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maple raised concerns that the last time the board of health received a space increase, the space was not used as it was intended. The commissioners requested the board provide a floor plan of current space and a plan for how additional space would be used for consideration.

Maple urged the board of health to be more creative in limiting traffic in the office, citing that other county agencies have done so.

The commissioners did approve the addition of a hand-washing sink for the nurses in one of the current rooms.

Brandon Andresen, water quality coordinator at the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, appeared to discuss an MS4 draft permit from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which he had several concerns he wanted to submit to the public comments of the portion.

Among the concerns were proposed new regulations for salt water pools, storage of salt and work on ditches.

The commissioners agreed to send a letter of support for Andresen’s comments to the OEPA.

“I’m incredibly disappointed the EPA does all of this, goes through all of this for situations where there might not be any problems,” Gentile said, referencing the OEPA’s lack of action about pollution concerns at the Satralloy and Crossridge Landfill. “They do nothing about those significant problems in our county and they’re worried about these things.”

The commissioners received bids for a center line marking program for the engineering department. Three bids were received ranging from $88,589.80 to $113,358.25. The estimate was $98,287.50.

(Grimm can be reached at agrimm@heraldstaronline.com)

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