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Future funding uncertain for 'Clean Ohio' programs

The decision to transfer revenue from state liquor sales to Governor John Kasich's new JobsOhio initiative leaves a voter-authorized program to clean up polluted industrial sites without a funding stream, but administration officials say they will come up with a fix.

Office of Budget and Management Director Tim Keen said the administration has been reviewing ways to continue the Clean Ohio Brownfield Revitalization program now that the biennial budget (HB 153) calls for liquor profits to be diverted to the new private, non-profit JobsOhio entity.

The administration still has time to propose a replacement revenue source since the program is funded through the current fiscal year, Keen said.

"The question is what the program will look like and how we will fund it as we move forward. But we are committed to a Clean Ohio program that will provide resources to try to do some of the brownfield remediation work that leads to job creation,” he said. “We are supportive of that program.”

A proposal to fund the brownfield program could be included in the mid-biennium budget correction bill that the administration will likely propose in the spring, Keen said.

Sen. Michael Skindell (D-Lakewood), a member of the Clean Ohio Council and a vocal critic of JobsOhio, expressed concern about leaving the brownfield programs without liquor revenue-backed bond funding.

“We’re already shortchanging the taxpayers, the citizens of Ohio by doing this liquor profits deal,” he said, asserting the administration’s plan to lease the revenue stream for $1.5 billion was severely undervalued. “And now we’re not going to adequately fund a program that Ohio voters strongly supported.”

The constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2008 extended the original Clean Ohio program created in 2000 by authorizing the state to issue bonds of up to $400 million outstanding at any one time, with a limit of $50 million a year. The money is divided equally between brownfield cleanups and green space conservation efforts.

Skindell and environmental advocates are also concerned about the future of programs designed to preserve green space and expand outdoor recreation, which traditionally have been funded through the issuance of general revenue bonds.

Normally, the General Assembly would have enacted a capital appropriations bill in 2010 and authorized bonds for the conservation programs at that time.  However, given the dire budget situation facing the state at that time, legislative leaders opted not to authorize any new borrowing for capital projects.

A Kasich spokesman said the administration expects funding for the Conservation General Obligation program would be made in the next capital appropriations bill, which presumably will be considered yet this year.

However, Senate President Tom Niehaus (R-New Richmond) said there had been no recent discussion of a capital budget among his caucus. He expressed support for the brownfield cleanup portion of Clean Ohio, but was less enthusiastic about the conservation programs.

“I think everyone recognizes that Clean Ohio has been a good program – in particular the brownfield redevelopment – so we will be looking for ways to continue that program,” he said.

However, General Revenue Fund-supported green space conservation programs appear to be less of a priority for the Senate Republicans, who are focused on proposals that create jobs, he said.

“Obviously green space, by definition, means no development. Brownfields are areas that were developed and now need to be redeveloped to create the opportunity for business and jobs,” he said.

Skindell disputed Niehaus’s views that Clean Ohio conservation programs don’t yield much in terms of employment.

“Green space does lend to economic development and a sustainable community without question,” he said. Preserving natural areas in and around urban centers makes the nearby communities more attractive for development, he added.

“I don’t believe they’re committed to the program and they’re not adhering to the wishes of voters who overwhelmingly supported the extension of Clean Ohio – all aspects of it – in 2008,” he said.

Niehaus said the state was facing very different circumstances now, compared to when voters passed the amendment, which authorizes, but doesn’t require the state to issue Clean Ohio bonds.

“The voters, when they did vote on these, we were in very different economic times than we are today,” he said.

Adrienne Dziak, director of government relations for the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, said getting the legislature to authorize future bond sales for Clean Ohio conservation programs was a priority for her group.

“We’re not really certain where that’s going but we certainly have some concerns about the future of that program,” she said.

Dziak defended the conservation aspect of Clean Ohio, saying it ensures clean drinking water, increases recreational opportunities, preserves farms, protects natural resources, and catalyzes economic development.

“And it certainly positions the state as an environmentally sound and economically viable place to come and live and do business,” she added.

“Overwhelmingly approved by the voters twice, it’s traditionally had bipartisan support, every county in the state has benefited from Clean Ohio funding, so its obviously a program that’s been successful and is appreciated by the general public outside of the conservation and environmental community,” she said.

The state issued bonds earlier this year for the brownfield program and will disperse $50 million over the remainder of the fiscal year, according to William Murdock, director of the Department of Development’s Urban Development Division.

About $10 million of that will go to the Clean Ohio Assistance Fund for smaller grants that fund ongoing projects and the Clean Ohio Council will appropriate the remaining $40 million during meetings in fall and spring.

Since 2000, the Clean Ohio program has issued 331 grants totaling about $350 million that leveraged a projected $3.8 billion in brownfield cleanup and redevelopment spending, he said. Funding has been dispersed among 116 communities throughout the state and has created an estimated 17,000 jobs.

The Ohio Public Works Commission, which oversees financing for Clean Ohio’s green space programs, typically appropriates $37.5 million a year for open space acquisition. The remaining $12.5 million is split between the Department of Natural Resources for recreational trail development and the Department of Agriculture for farmland preservation.

Gongwer News Service

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