Ohio bill targets conservancy district

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SALEM, Ohio – Proposed legislation in the Ohio House of Representatives could change the face of Ohio’s largest conservancy district and revise which property owners have to pay assessments.
href=”http://www.house.state.oh.us/jsps/MemberDetails.jsp?DISTRICT=97″target=”_blank”>State Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, introduced House Bill 47 in response to recent problems in the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District.
The district is proposing a 20-year, $270 million assessment to residents and businesses in the watershed, but public outcry has slowed the process. Last year, about 5,200 residents filed appeals against the assessments.
Where it applies. The bill applies to any Ohio conservancy covering more than 16 counties, although the MWCD is currently the only such conservancy in the state.
According to Darrin Lautenschleger, MWCD public information officer, the bill has been assigned to the House Economic Development and Environment Committee where it will remain in the hearing stage until mid-April.
Court. One of biggest changes in the bill is the elimination of the conservancy court. The bill hands the district’s operating functions to the board of directors, which would be appointed by the district’s county commissioners instead of the county courts of common pleas within the district.
The board would increase from five members to seven, taking over the duties currently performed by the court.
The county courts of common pleas would still hear appeals.
Jason Warner, Gibbs’ senior legislative aide, said the conservancy court currently functions as all three branches of government – legislative, judicial and executive.
“What they’re doing is they’re wearing all three hats,” Warner said.
He added that the reasoning behind this portion of the bill is to separate those branches of government and make the district’s governing body more responsive to the public.
Property. Another significant change in the proposed legislation involves which properties in the watershed can be assessed. Land that doesn’t directly benefit from improvements associated with the assessment, such as high ground where flooding is rare, can’t be billed.
“There has to be a clear direct benefit to the property,” said Warner.
Property that is tax exempt – like churches, parks and government buildings – would also be excluded from any assessments.
Priorities. Lautenschleger said the overriding concern is simply to continue effective service in the watershed.
“The conservancy district, from day one, has pledged to work with legislators,” he said. “It’s not a contentious situation at all.”
Lautenschleger added there are about 500,000 parcels of land in the MWCD that would be assessed and 94 percent of those would pay the minimum fee of $12 per year. Commercial and industrial property owners are among those who would pay more.
Gibbs agrees that maintenance needs to be performed in the watershed, but also wants assessments to be fair and equitable. Warner said the legislation would help keep rates low and protect those who won’t be affected by any improvements from having to pay.
Action. The representative is hoping to see the legislation go into effect this year.
“We just want to ensure property owners are given a fair shake when it comes to these kinds of taxes,” Warner said.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

Related articles:
Watershed fee delayed at least a year (6/29/2006)

Error in MWCD assessment estimates (3/30/2006)

MWCD residents are still angry about proposed assessment in watershed (2/23/2006)

MWCD presents assessment method at public hearing (2/23/3006)

Muskingum Watershed assessment talks continue (2/9/2006)

Area residents say watershed district’s plan still vague (8/25/2005)

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