Commissioners hear support for $5 fee

Seneca County citizens and community leaders spoke in support of a $5 permissive tax for registered vehicles at the commissioners meeting Tuesday.

Commissioner Fred Zoeller proposed the permissive tax at a meeting April 2, and said the fee would generate money that the county could put toward improving SR 53.

He said the last major highway project in Seneca County was the US 224 bypass in 1954.

“I believe this is the time as commissioners, we have to set politics aside, and we have to do what we think is right for the community,” Zoeller said. “What’s going to help push this through is community support.”

McCutchenville resident Joe Parker spoke in support of the fee, and said his brother died in crash on SR 53 14 years ago.

Parker said if the ditches along the road were filled in, his brother might have survived. He said the ditches have started to be filled in, but at a “snail’s pace.”

“It’s a nightmare,” he said about SR 53. “It scares you to death, and we would like to see improvements keep going.”

Local contractor Lenny Clouse said he has been hoping commissioners would put the permissive fee on for 20 years.

“We’ve got to move ahead here,” Clouse said. “If we want to do the same thing, we’re going to get the same results. And guess what we’ve done for 59 years, we’ve done the same thing. We’ve got to make this change.”

Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz said improving the highway is “paramount” and the fee would cost the citizens “one Little Ceasar’s $5 Hot-n-Ready pizza per year.”

Montz said cities and counties are collaborating to work toward improving the highway.

“I can’t think of any better $5 investment to make than this one here,” he said.

Seneca Industrial and Economic Development Corp. CEO and President Rich Focht voiced his support of the fee and improving the safety conditions of the county’s highways.

Focht said Seneca County is in the top five highest per mile accident rate in the state, and highest in any rural community in Ohio. He said there have been 12 fatal crashes in Seneca County in the last three years.

He said in 2011 alone, there were 21 deaths in the county and 215 serious injuries.

“Every time we’ve taken a chance on ourselves and reinvested in ourselves, good things have happened,” Focht said. “This is the last thing we need to push us over.”

During the meeting, 11 people – not including commissioners and County Engineer Mark Zimmerman – spoke in favor of the tax. No one spoke against the permissive fee.

All three commissioners must agree for the fee to be implemented.

Commissioner Holly Stacy said she still is undecided on whether she supports the tax.

“It’s only been eight days since I’ve been researching this,” Stacy said. “I’m just gathering my facts. I’m not saying I won’t support it. I’m not saying I’m going to support it. I want to gather facts I’m appreciative of you being here today, to help me understand how you feel about it.”

Commissioner Jeff Wagner had to leave the meeting early due to a medical appointment, but said he would watch the tape of the meeting and listen to the comments.

When the permissive tax was brought up initially, Wagner said he was “pretty reluctant to add another fee of any kind.”

Zoeller, who has discussed the possibility of a permissive tax in committees that he is a part of, said he “kind of broadsided them” last week when he proposed it, and due to Sunshine Laws, he was not able to discuss the fee with the other commissioners before the meeting.

He said he would like to turn SR 53 into a super-two-lane highway.

Zimmerman said a super-two is a “glorified two-lane highway” with wider shoulders and berms for safety and turn lanes at most intersections so traffic would not have to stop.

He said any time someone has to turn on SR 53 it slows traffic, and when traffic slows down, it affects safety, which affects whether people traveling or businesses transporting goods want to use that road.

“We can have the great effects of a four-lane highway without having the huge costs and burden of maintaining a four-lane highway,” he said.

Zoeller said getting a four-lane highway in Seneca County would be “out of the realm of what is foreseeable.” He said even if the license fee is approved, the super-two highway is not a guarantee.

Also during the meeting, Zimmerman gave an overview of the permissive tax, and said how much money it would generate and explained where that money would end up.

He said there is a $20 flat fee for registered vehicles across the state of Ohio. In additional to that fee, counties, villages and cities can add permissive taxes.

Zimmerman said counties are able to approve three $5 permissive license fees, which have different laws regarding how the revenue is disbursed.

In one of the fees, the county would get 100 percent of the revenue, but if a city or village already has approved of that fee, that money would continue to go to the municipalities and the county would not receive money from those people.

Zimmerman said Attica, Bloomville, Green Springs and Tiffin already have enacted a $5 fee.

He said since the county cannot collect fees from registered vehicles in those municipalities, the total revenue generated from adding the license fee would be just less than $200,000 a year.

Zimmerman said 47 out of Ohio’s 88 counties have enacted at least one $5 permissive tax. He said 40 counties have enacted two, and 33 have approved three $5 fees.

All funds collected from license fees are for highway purposes, he said.

Zoeller had proposed to only have the fee enacted for five years, but Zimmerman said there is no legislation regarding enabling the fee for a set period of time.

Zimmerman said if commissioners wish to remove the fee at some point in the future, they could do so.

Stacy said according to the Ohio Revised Code, commissioners are required to have a detailed plan with the county engineer before the fee can be collected.

“It’s a process,” Zimmerman said. “I think those assurances were put into law, in my opinion anyhow, to make sure that if the commissioners go out on this limb that it will never be used for purposes other than highway improvement projects. That’s what it’s for.”

He said that having this money will allow the county to work with Ohio Department of Transportation, and might help receive some of the state’s $1.5 billion in turnpike money, which is required to be spent on highways north of US 30.

Zimmerman said the purpose of the money is to improve safety and generate more traffic to the turnpike.

He said Seneca County meets all the requirements for receiving the money, except it does not have any available funds to match a grant.

“If we have no money, no skin put into this game, there’s no point of us even putting an application in,” Zimmerman said. “As a result that leveraged $1.5 billion that is to be spent north of US 30, we have almost zero chance in Seneca County of recovering any of those funds, even though we qualify on so many levels.”

In other business, the board approved a resolution accepting a bid from Warner Mechanical for the county’s HVAC control system project.

Earl Reid, operations manager at Palmer Energy, reviewed the bids and said Warner’s bid was the lowest by $80,000.