Belmont Budget Outlook Clouded

Two new Belmont County commissioners may be taking office this month just in time to preside over a period of belt-tightening.

Incoming Commissioners J.P. Dutton and Josh Meyer, both Republicans, will join incumbent Commissioner Mark Thomas during a time in which the fiscal outlook is uncertain. The two, elected last fall, were to begin their duties during a meeting today.

County government does not appear to face a serious financial crunch right now. Relative prosperity in some ways during the past several years has given the county a solid financial foundation, largely because of the efforts of outgoing Commissioners Matt Coffland and Ginny Favede.

As Thomas pointed out last week, county officials have restructured some debt to save taxpayers money and have achieved an improved bond rating that should save even more cash in the future.

But, Thomas added, “There are some concerns that the new board will have to look at with the county auditor.” Revenue from some accounts, including sales taxes, declined during the past nine months, he noted.

Another worrisome sign has been commissioners’ stance on providing county funds for local road paving projects. “The county today, with its current financial status, does not have the money to give to the county engineer to pave roads,” Thomas said last week.

One means of providing more funding for highways would be for the General Assembly to increase taxes on motor fuel, thus funneling more cash to counties, Thomas suggested.

Now may not be a good time to count on Columbus, however. The state’s general fund budget also is feeling the effects of revenue declines. Legislators’ minds this year may be more on shoring up the state budget than on helping local governments.

Commissioners Dutton, Meyer and Thomas face a period of challenge but also of enormous opportunity. Sometime during the next few months, PTT Global Chemical is expected to make a decision on whether to construct an ethane cracker plant in Belmont County. If that happens, the entire region’s economy could be revitalized.

Unless and until it does, however, commissioners may have to keep a tighter rein on spending than has been customary during the past few years.

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