News: Let the Cleanup Begin

Local governments set priorities for brownfield funds

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Last November, Ohio voters approved Issue 1 — $400 million in bonds divided evenly between preserving land from unchecked development and revitalizing old industrial sites, or brownfields.

But Issue 1, which passed 57 to 43 percent, didn't include a plan for spending the money. So who will decide which farms are saved, which brownfields are cleaned up and which communities receive bike paths and other environmentally friendly projects? The answer is a lot of people, mostly from local governments.

Ohio Rep. Chuck Blasdel (R-East Liverpool) has been working with environmentalists, bankers, business leaders and other interested parties on that question since January.

Blasdel has been preparing to introduce Thursday a new, full version of House Bill 3 in the House Energy and Environment Committee. The bill, expected to be 70 pages long, calls for the state's 19 Public Works Commission (PWC) districts to handle much of the leg work.

"Doing it locally will take it back to the people and give them control," says Ryan Stenger, Blasdel's legislative aide.

The state created the PWCs in 1983 to prioritize spending of state and local transportation dollars. PWC District 2, which has the same boundaries as Hamilton County, whittled $100 million in requests down to $14 million in spending last year, according to District 2 liaison Joe Cottrill.

The money comes from a combination of sources, including gas taxes.

District 2's nine-member committee is comprised mostly by people in local government knowledgeable in road and bridge building. They include:

· Committee Chair/Hamilton County Engineer William Brayshaw, and Richard Huddleston, a partner with Miller-Valentine Group, both appointed by Hamilton County;

· Cincinnati City Engineer John Deatrick, Deputy Cincinnati City Solicitor Peter Heile and Deputy City Manager Richard Mendes, all appointed by the city;

· Wyoming Mayor David Savage and North College Hill Mayor Daniel Brooks, both appointed by the Hamilton County Municipal League; and

·Committee Vice Chair/Miami Township Trustee Joseph Sykes and Springfield Township Trustee Thomas Bryan, both appointed by the Hamilton County Township Association.

There are also six alternate members, and every committee term expires in May 2003.

Cottrill says the committee will probably need some new members with expertise in brownfields and other related topics, and might need more staff to handle the new work. Four county employees now work part-time on the District 2 committee.

A recent draft of House Bill 3 allows cities, villages, townships, counties, non-profits and conservation districts to apply to the PWC districts for brownfield project funding. Each district would forward its top six projects to the newly created seven-member Clean Ohio Council, headed by the Ohio Director of Development. The council will pick $50 million in brownfield projects in each of the next four years.

As for the remaining $200 million, House Bill 3 calls for PWC districts to create 11-member "natural resource assistance councils" to choose projects, pending final approval by the Ohio Public Works Commission. Of the $200 million, the bill designates $25 million for farm preservation, and the rest for land preservation and other environmental projects. Seventy-five percent of the remaining $175 million would be divided among the 19 PWC districts on a per capita basis. The other 25 percent would be divided evenly among Ohio's 88 counties.

In February, the Ohio Conservation and Environmental Forum, which speaks for 55 environmental groups, proposed a spending plan that emphasized preservation of open space, protection of streams and watersheds, development of recreational trails, preservation of farmland and cleanup of brownfields. Ohio ranks 47th of 50 states in preservation of public open space, according to the forum.

Before Issue 1 passed, a few environmental groups declined to endorse it because of concerns it would be used to bail out polluters who should be held accountable for their damage.

But Stenger guaranteed House Bill 3 would not let that happen.

"That's the whole theme of the language throughout the bill," Stenger says.

This is not a bill expected to languish at the statehouse.

"It's a priority piece of legislation for the House," Stenger says.

Local development officials are watching House Bill 3 closely. The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority hired a lobbyist to watch this and other legislation and represent the authority at the state level. ©

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