Paying Down Debt Is Wise

Belmont County commissioners are doing the smart thing with a windfall of more than $3 million. They are using part of it to avoid saddling taxpayers with the kind of burden that has crippled local governments in some regions of the country.

Long-term debt and unfunded liabilities have been the downfall of more than one city, county or state. Detroit, for example, filed for bankruptcy after officials there decided there was no way the city could pay off its debt of between $18 billion and $20 billion. The same thing happened to Jefferson County, Ala., in 2011.

Belmont County’s indebtedness is nowhere near that overwhelming. County Commissioner Matt Coffland estimated last week the county has around $30 million in obligations.

But after receiving a check for more than $3 million as the “up-front” payment for leasing some county land to a gas company, commissioners unveiled a wide-ranging plan to cut the debt burden.

First, $2 million of county debt will be paid off. The remaining $1 million from the lease payment will go toward the I-70/Mall Road project.

In addition, commissioners are refinancing some debt with high interest rates. Money saved on interest will be used to pay down other debts.

Needs for infrastructure repair and expansion may force the county to borrow more money – but that will be done through short-term, low-interest methods.

Too many local officials in other regions of the country spent decades borrowing as if economic growth would never stop. When it did, they and taxpayers found themselves overwhelmed.

Belmont County commissioners’ approach seems to be different. During a long period of economic stagnation, they held budgets down. Now that gas drilling is resulting in a boost, the priority seems to be using at least some of the money to pay down debt.

Again, that is the prudent approach. Commissioners should stick with it.