Assessment approved in MWCD

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SALEM, Ohio – It’s been more than two years since the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District proposed an assessment to pay for maintenance and improvements in its 18-county area.
Late last month, the district got the answer it was looking for when the MWCD board of directors gave the controversial fee a green light.
What it does. The assessment will begin in 2008, with most landowners paying $12 per year. Over the next 20 years, the assessment will generate $210 million for the MWCD’s official plan, which includes flood reduction, access, water quality, water supply, tourism spending impacts, land preservation, environmental quality and construction impact.
The board approved the fee Aug. 28 based on reports that said improvements to the watershed’s dams and reservoirs will provide billions of dollars worth of benefits.
However, some residents aren’t happy with the idea of paying the fee. And while the approval is disappointing, it came as no surprise.
“There was no way that the board of directors would put it down,” said Marlys Barbee, the secretary and treasurer for Citizens Against the MWCD Assessment.
But Barbee’s group doesn’t plan to abandon its goal of stopping the assessment. Members are fighting the fee in court and through state legislation.
Landowners. About 500,000 property owners will be required to pay the fee, which is expected to raise $10.5 million every year. The assessment was calculated based on land use, with residential and agricultural property being assessed $12 per parcel. A parcel is “one or more adjoining tracts of land with the same property use code and the same owner … .”
The district’s conservancy court paved the way for the assessment Aug. 20 when it ruled that the benefits of the plan outweigh the costs. A cost-benefit ratio report was completed early in 2006 by Jack Faucett Associates, a Maryland-based consulting and research firm.
A large portion of the assessment funds will be used for safety repairs at a levee in Zoar and at dams in Beach City, Bolivar, Dover and Mohawk.
The dams are owned by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers and the MWCD will need $95 million to $135 million to meet its cost-share obligations for the repairs. Total repair costs for the dams and levee are estimated at $510 million to $680 million.
When the district began forming its official plan, officials estimated it would take $270 million to make all the necessary repairs. Currently, the assessment is projected to raise $210 million.
MWCD Public Affairs Manager Darrin Lautenschleger said the district will have to be conscientious in its spending to make up for the difference.
“It will force us to be more keen in prioritizing the types of projects that need to be done,” he said.
The first project is already under way, as board members approved a resolution to install a temporary anchor relief for Dover Dam on the Tuscarawas River. Right now, the dam is being held in place by its own weight. Using steel bars to anchor the dam in place will add some stability until a permanent solution can be reached, according to Lautenschleger.
Unhappy. But MWCD residents like Joe Carlisle say the fee isn’t justified and the conservancy court is simply a “rubber stamp” for the district.
“This whole thing has been a railroad job from the beginning,” he said.
The tree farmer, who is also a member of the MWCD Concerned Citizens Coalition, said the district has tried to distract residents by pointing out that a $12 assessment won’t have much impact on individual finances.
“They’re doing that to get you to take your eyes off the ball,” he said.
And Carlisle doesn’t appreciate being forced into a fee that never went before voters.
“The MWCD has declared eminent domain on our wallets,” he said.
Safety concerns. In response to the opposition, district officials have continually pointed to the safety issues related to the dams and levees, many of which were built decades ago.
“This plan is focused squarely on public health and safety by properly maintaining and rehabilitating the aging structures and reservoirs,” said John Hoopingarner, MWCD executive director.
Of the 21 conservancy districts in Ohio, the MWCD was the only one that did not collect an assessment. It relied on income from its recreational facilities for funding, but officials said the rising cost of repairs are more than the district can generate on its own.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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