WOODSFIELD, Ohio – Voters in Monroe County, Ohio, must decide just how valuable OSU Extension is to them.
Is it worth, say, a .7 mill levy on property taxes – or about $180,000 a year for the next four years?
How about the local Soil and Water Conservation District office?
Should another .2 mill levy worth around $50,000 a year be added to property taxes to keep the doors of that office open?
As residents in neighboring Noble County did 12 years ago, Monroe County voters are faced this election with having to decide whether these services are important enough to begin to pay extra taxes in order to keep them.
And Monroe County’s situation now is much like what Noble County’s situation was then. Mandated county expenses and the need to expand county services have eaten up the tax revenue the county commission has available for distribution.
In Noble County, a 1 mill levy to support the local extension office passed in the late 1980s. It was defeated once when it came up for renewal, but was passed again in the next election.
The levy has now been approved by Noble County voters three out of the four times they have seen it on the ballot. It provides about 90 percent of the county extension office’s operating budget.
What Noble County pioneered, Monroe County commissioners now see as the best route for their county out of a financial bind that leaves it with no discretionary tax funds left to distribute.
Monroe County is located in the southeast corner of Ohio, on the border to West Virginia.
It is considered part of the Ohio Appalachian region, with more scenery than resources. More than half of the county’s land is included in the Wayne National Forest and permanently removed from the tax base.
With an Appalachian-based economy, a shrinking population base of less than 15,000, and the largest town under 3,000, Monroe considers itself a “small county,” and has worked to shepherd its resources.
It has paid for its senior services out of the county budget, and has not initiated a child services mill levy.
But Monroe County was forced last December to close its antiquated jail built in 1872.
Since then it has been paying other counties to house prisoners. The cost of that arrangement, however, is due to triple next year, from the current $130,000 to a projected $360,000.
With state funding available, the only practical solution seemed to be to build a new jail. Financing a new 25-bed facility is going to eat up the county commission’s discretionary funds.
“We were informed that there would be no money available from the county to fund our office in 2001,” said Monroe County Agricultural Extension Agent Mark Landefelt.
The SWCD and the county senior center got the same message.
The commissioners suggested the three agencies ask for a mill levy to provide themselves with operating funds.
“Extension, soil and water, and senior services are all very vital to us,” said commissioner Mark Forni. “We want to see them succeed. But the pot of money we have available to us is shrinking, and with the new jail, discretionary money had become nonexistent.
“These three agencies are the largest non-mandated funding that we have.”
Landefelt said the three agencies have formed a central committee to promote the levy. They have been stressing, he said, that for each dollar spent on the three offices combined, there is about $11.50 that comes into the community from project funding, state and federal funding, and grants.
From 1996 to 2000, the services have cost the county about $937,000, but have generated a total of $10.8 million from other sources.
What might happen if the levy is not approved is unknown at this point, Landefelt said.
Whether OSU might be able to provide temporary loan until the levy can be placed on a future ballot has been discussed at this point.
Public opinion, Forni said, seems to favor the three levy questions. Some opposition does exist from those who think the offices will continue to be funded even if the levy is not approved.