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Jefferson County slip repairs to be addressed with ARPA funding

STEUBENVILLE — The Jefferson County commissioners agreed Thursday to spend up to $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds to repair road slips, with the possibility that there will be more to come once they nail down how much they’ll need for other infrastructure needs.

County Engineer Jim Branagan weeks ago had asked for $2.6 million to correct the problems, but since then two more have been added to the list.

“I’m ready to approve some of it, but I’m not ready to approve all of it today,” Commissioner Tony Morelli said. “I might be next week.”

Morelli said he’d like to know how many slips $2.6 million would fix. “Does that fix six slips, two slips?” he asked

“I think we’re around 30 slips now,” Chief Deputy Engineer Clay Merrin replied.

“Jim spoke of urgency in his mind of trying to get a decision from this board, I think that’s a fair way to capture last week,” Commissioner Dave Maple said. “I’m still trying to get in place is, $12.5 million is our take, what categories have we spent and where are we now? How much of that is left? I still think we need almost a white board of where those money is going. I don’t have a problem with his request at all, I’ve said from the beginning it should go to long-lasting infrastructure projects. Just looking at it with our other requests, broadband and all that, and putting it in that percentage that seems right with that $12.5 without having that breakdown in front of me, that’s where I’m at. How much is left right now?”

“I just want to clarify,” Morelli interjected. “That’s why I’m not ready to approve the $2.6 million. I think it’s a great project.”

Commissioner Tom Graham suggested approving an expenditure of up to $1 million “and go from there, get them started.”

“I don’t mind that at all once we see the full piece cut up here,” Maple said.

Auditor E.J. Conn reported the county currently has $7.72 million in unencumbered ARPA funds.

“And I still have, in my head, Dave Maple’s head, some capital improvement projects that we’re looking at — parking lots, a broadband request I think is important, some water and sewer projects,” Maple added.

Graham said he agreed with “all the ones you mentioned there, particularly the water and sewer, but I don’t have a problem giving them the million dollars (to repair road slips).”

“(And) we could vote again next week and give him another $1.6 million,” Morelli pointed out.

Maple pointed out Jefferson County doesn’t get extra state funding because of its topography.

“This county gets funded like every other county in Ohio, and that’s based on mileage,” he said. “Topography doesn’t come into question, so a dollar doesn’t go as far in Jefferson County for slip repairs as it does in other counties in Ohio that don’t have slips, and if they do, they’re really flat and cheap to fix. This is almost an unfunded challenge for Jim and his team.”

Merrin told commissioners some of the slips are more critical than others. To address the problem and still comply with ARPA regulations, Branagan will be asked to prioritize the repairs to be done up to the $1 million benchmark.

Meanwhile, commissioners found out putting down new carpet in the law library isn’t going to be as easy as it sounds.

Librarian Jeanmarie Byrge told commissioners when they moved shelves, they discovered when the carpet was last replaced it “was installed around the shelves, not under them.”

“Unfortunately, in addition, it was discovered that there are asbestos tiles under the existing carpet,” she wrote. Carpet vendors are concerned if they pull up the old carpet, “the tile will most likely also come up. I hate to kick the can down the road, that’s what happened last time,” she told commissioners.

Maintenance Supervisor Patrick Boyles warned, “it’s going to be a mess, especially removing all that tile.”

The law books and shelves will have to be relocated before any work can be done.

Estimates were requested.

Commissioners also asked Prevention and Recovery Board Executive Director William Holt to come to their July 28 meeting armed with letters of support from his service community for the two-year, half-mill levy his board is hoping to see on the November ballot.

Holt had asked commissioners for a certificate of necessity, the first step in getting a levy on the ballot. Should commissioners deem the proposed levy necessary, it would then go to the auditor’s office for a certification of estimated tax revenue. It would then be returned to commissioners, who must have it to the board of elections by Aug. 10.

Holt insists PRB needs the money, in addition to its regular operating levy, to help make in-patient services more accessible to county residents, telling commissioners it will save lives. It would bring in about $800,000 a year each year.

“I feel like the community has three options,” Holt said. “Continue with business as usual, which I don’t think has been effective. Increase spending on public safety to target addiction, or what’s more cost-effective, a treatment option — it’s roughly one-quarter of the cost of public safety enforcement and its a much better long-term option.”

He told commissioners expanding access to in-patient drug treatment services is “roughly one-half of the proposal. The other piece is services for children, one piece would be in-home for kids, intensive, in-home services for kids. It makes a huge difference in the lives of our kids.”

Maple voiced concern that Holt didn’t have endorsements from other stakeholders involved in addressing addiction issues, as well as the $2.5 million the PRB currently has in the bank.

Holt said a big chunk of that money “is encumbered, it’s been earmarked for projects already on the books” though keeping some funds in reserve is “a prudent and responsible thing to do.”

“I appreciate you coming here but I can’t support putting it on the ballot,” Graham said. “It’s a horrible time (to ask voters). Maybe there’s never a good time with inflation the way it is, water rate increases … it’s a hard time, and you’re sitting on a $2.5 million surplus and there’s opioid settlement money coming in, so I don’t think it’s the proper time to be asking for this levy. You said four years form now you might be running out of that $2.5 million (in the bank) — that might be the time to come in. I can’t declare this a necessity, and that’s what you’re asking me to do.”

Holt said he hopes to make his case directly to voters “and see what they decide.”

Morelli said he’s known people who have successfully sought treatment for addiction and others who lost their battle.

“We’re voting on whether we’re going to let the voters of Jefferson County vote on this, it’s been a tough one for me,” he said.

“I want to hear from the community at large,” Maple said. “I want to hear (people and organizations) say there’s a need. Unfortunately, in this conversation I haven’t gotten that. My concern is how well are people going to understand what they’re voting on.”

He suggested Holt come back “with a stronger, more prepared argument.”

“It’s concerning to me this is all being done after the fact,” Graham agreed. “All that homework should be done first, before you came to us. That’s my opinion.”

“I feel very strongly this is a good thing and will save lives,” Holt said, adding it would be ridiculous “to not be willing to follow up.”

“I think everyone here thinks we can use more in-patient treatment centers, but that’s not really what we’re voting on,” Morelli concluded.

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