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County looks at CARES funding for help with LGF cuts

LISBON — Columbiana County commissioners are investigating whether they can use some of their federal coronavirus relief funds to benefit local communities losing state funding because of a bill meant to punish only those towns using traffic cameras.

Commissioner Mike Halleck reported at Wednesday’s meeting he is researching whether they could use their share of the $3 million in CARES funding to help offset some of the $1.3 million in state Local Government Fund (LGF) monies local communities are scheduled to lose in 2021.

CARES, or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, was passed by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the $4.6 billion received by Ohio, $350 million went to counties with population of less than 500,000.

The county’s share was $3 million, with $1.5 million going to commissioners, and the rest for distribution among cities, villages and townships.

The money must be spent on coronavirus-related expenses and cannot be used to cover budget shortfalls due to the economic fallout caused by the pandemic. Halleck believes commissioners may be allowed to use some of their share to help those communities losing LGF money.

“It’s my understanding that … maybe we can use some of the money for revenue enhancement,” he said. “I can promise you this that your board of commissioners is working with Rep. Ginter (state Rep. Tim Ginter) very hard to correct that.”

Passed in 2019 by the state legislature, the bill requires communities using traffic cameras to lose a dollar in LGF funding for every dollar received in fine money. Although the bill was thought to affect only communities deploying traffic cameras to catch speeding motorists, it included additional language requiring fine money be deducted from the county’s entire LGF allocation if the fines exceeded the LGF allocation received by the targeted municipalities.

That is what happened with the two local communities that used speed cameras — the city of East Liverpool and Liverpool Township. Both received considerably more revenue from speeding tickets — a combined $1.38 million in 2019 — than the $124,000 in LGF money the two communities were scheduled to receive in 2021.

Under the law, the difference has to be deducted from the entire county’s LGF share. So instead of the county receiving $2.29 million in LGF money, it will only get $944,972.

Voters in East Liverpool have since voted to repeal legislation allowing for continued use of the traffic cameras, but Liverpool Township is still using the devices.

Halleck also took issue with the comments of county Prosecutor Robert Herron, who is chairman of the county budget commission, which met Monday to approve the county’s LGF distribution formula for 2021 based on estimated figures provided by the state. The other members of the budget commission are county Auditor Nancy Milliken and county Treasurer Linda Bolon.

Herron pointed out why they were losing LGF money saying, “I don’t think the budget commission should be allowing anything to be swept under the rug here.”

He also criticized Rep. Ginter for voting for the bill and being unaware of the language penalizing the entire county, saying the Salem Republican was guilty of “gross incompetence or political malpractice …”

“I’ve known Nancy Milliken, Linda Bolon and Tim Ginter for many, many years. They are impeccable public servants and (of) unquestioned character,” Halleck said.

Ginter said he has begun working on a possible legislative solution. Halleck, who is a past president of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, said he has been in contact with the CCAO to seek support for Ginter’s efforts.

Halleck said commissioners would only try to use their share of CARES funding to make communities whole if Ginter’s legislative efforts are unsuccessful.

“I don’ think we’ll have to do that, but I think we can,” he said.

Herron, when contacted after the meeting, said he simply meant the budget commission should not downplay the financial impact the traffic camera legislation had on the county.

“I want to make something clear: I was in no way suggesting the budget commission was involved in sweeping this under the rug … That was not my intent,” he said, nor was this meant as a criticism of Milliken or Bolon.

Herron stands by his criticism of Ginter, however, and he said even if the legislator is successful in getting a law passed, it is likely too late to be of any help in 2021.

Herron is a Democrat, while Halleck and Ginter are Republicans, but he said this has nothing to do with politics. Herron noted that state Sen. Mike Rulli, R-Salem, voted against the bill.

“This is not a partisan attack,” he said of his criticism of Ginter, who is up for re-election this year.

tgiambroni@mojonews.com

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