Commissioners respond to letter on casino funds approach

LISBON – Columbiana County commissioners wasted little time responding to a letter in Wednesday’s Morning Journal suggesting they have taken a selfish approach with money received from the state casino tax.

“We were elected to take care of all the people in the county” and that is what they have tried to do with the casino tax revenue received by the county, said Commissioner Jim Hoppel.

Hoppel’s comments were in response to a letter to the editor published in the same day’s edition from former county commissioner David Cranmer, who suggested a local committee be created to to disburse any money that might flow back to the county from a proposed increase in the state’s oil and gas severance tax. He said that such a committee should represent a cross section of the county so everyone has a say.

Cranmer reminded readers that when the county began receiving casino tax revenue in 2012, officials from local communities asked commissioners to share the proceeds, “with the most obstinate response from Commissioner Halleck … Don’t hold your breath …”

Commissioner Mike Halleck vehemently denied ever saying that, challenging Cranmer to produce the evidence to support his claim. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen. But it’s the political season,” said Halleck, who is up for re-election this year.

The Morning Journal reviewed its related stories from that period and found a headline from an Oct. 25, 2012 story about the possibility of sharing casino tax money directly with communities. The headline read “Message on casino cash: Don’t hold your breath,” which was about Halleck’s defense of their decision to keep the money and promise to use it to help communities when possible. Nowhere in the story does Halleck say “don’t hold your breath.”

Commissioner Tim Weigle said they have done just that and then ticked off more than $500,000 in expenditures made with casino tax money to help other agencies, such as the county fair board, the 4-H program, the Soil and Water Conservation District, and stream-flow monitoring of the Little Beaver Creek.

Commissioners also used casino tax money to beef up law enforcement efforts, providing more than $100,000 to police departments to help pay the salaries of officers assigned to the county drug task force. The county sheriff’s office was provided enough casino money to acquire a K-9 unit and add an additional deputy, with another deputy on the way this year.

Hoppel pointed out they used casino money to help Madison Township trustees and the county engineer’s office construct salt-storage buildings, while Yellow Creek Township trustees received funding to serve as a match to qualify for a state public works grant to repair storm-damaged Hibbetts-Mill Road.

Casino money has also been used to close a funding gap in the Kensington sewer plant project, to qualify for additional state funding to demolish more abandoned homes, county dog pound improvements and on a number of courthouse repairs and improvements.

“Anytime (Cranmer) wants to come in we have a whole list of things we’ve spent the casino money on,” Hoppel said.

Commissioners received a total of $1.2 million in casino tax money between July 2012 and the end of 2013, and another check in the amount of $323,211 arrived just two weeks ago.

Halleck defended their approach of holding onto the money and spending it as they see fit, while helping specific communities with projects when the need arises.

“I’m proud of what we’re doing,” he said.