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Communities punished for traffic cams

Under new state law, use of cams slashes LGF money for all

LISBON — Columbiana County’s cities, villages and townships are going to receive significantly less in state funding next year because of a bill meant to punish communities that use traffic cameras to catch speeding motorists.

As a result, all local communities and county commissioners will receive a combined $944,972 in state Local Government Fund (LGF) money in 2021 compared to $2.29 million had the state legislature not passed a bill in 2019 meant to penalize communities using traffic cameras.

News of the unanticipated cuts came to light at Monday’s county budget commission meeting, which was called to approve the county’s LGF distribution formula for 2021 based on estimated figures provided by the state. This is usually a routine meeting by an obscure county board, but county Prosecutor Robert Herron, who is commission chairman, raised the issue when it came time to vote, saying he was outraged by what had occurred.

“I don’t think the budget commission should be allowing anything to be swept under the rug here. I’m seething, I’m seething over what is happening here,” he said.

The law that is the focus of Herron’s ire required communities with traffic cameras to report to the state how much in fine money was generated, with the amount deducted from the community’s annual state LGF allocation.

At the time, traffic cameras were being used in East Liverpool, Wellsville and Liverpool Township. Wellsville quit using traffic cameras and East Liverpool voters repealed its camera law last November, leaving only Liverpool Township still using the devices.

Unbeknownst to the budget commission members — which includes county Auditor Nancy Milliken and county Treasurer Linda Bolon — and other local officials was wording in the law requiring the fine money be deducted from the county’s entire LGF allocation if the traffic fines exceeded the LGF allocations received by the communities using the cameras.

That was the case in East Liverpool, which collected $1.26 million in fine money in 2019, well in excess of the $84,282 in LGF money it was to receive through the county next year. Liverpool Township’s cameras generated $124,853 compared to $40,045 in LGF money.

As a result, East Liverpool and Liverpool Township will receive no LGF money next year. Because Wellsville’s fines were less than its proposed LGF allocation ($2,295 v. $36,914) the village will still receive an LGF allocation in 2021, albeit significantly less.

Chief Deputy County Auditor John Goempel said East Liverpool and Wellsville will also be stripped of their direct LGF allocation. This is separate pot of LGF funding for qualifying municipalities.

The LGF program is funded largely with a percentage of state income tax and state sales tax collections. Counties can distribute the money using a formula allowed under the state or come up with one of their own, which is what Columbiana County does.

The county’s plan, which has the approval of the majority of communities, gives county commissioners the 50 percent share they are entitled to by law. The rest is distributed among cities, villages and townships on a per capita basis, with each guaranteed at least $15,000.

As for Herron’s comment about the budget commission trying to hide what was going on, “I don’t know why he said that,” Milliken said.

Milliken said she became aware fully of what was going on last week after receiving the next year’s estimated LGF numbers from the state. After calling the state for answers, she contacted Bolon and an assistant county prosecutor her office works with on Thursday. She then advised Herron on Friday what was going.

“I let them know as soon as I knew” the reason for the cuts, she said.

Herron said he could not believe state Rep. Tim Ginter, R-Salem, voted for the legislation. He said a cursory Google search and reading of the traffic camera law made it clear the entire county could be penalized.

“This is gross incompetence or political malpractice, and I don’t know which is worse. Ginter should have known what the impact was going to be on Columbiana County,” he said.

Ginter said he, too, was caught unaware of the extent of the penalty wording included in the bill, which was not subject to a separate vote but added as an amendment to the state transportation budget.

He said the original bill he voted for included only a dollar LGF reduction for every dollar in fine money. “That was not the intent,” Ginter said, adding the transportation bill he supported also included a nearly 2 percent increase in the LGF allocation.

The cuts come at a time when the county’s projected LGF allocation was being decreased anyway, likely to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Herron said this will only make things worse.

“We have township trustees and fiscal officers, city and village mayors and councilmen who are trying to operate on a shoestring budget to provide services who now have to cut a lot out of their budget because of, I don’t know, Tim’s tax here,” he said.

Ginter said he realizes the impact this will have, which is why he is taking immediate legislative action to correct it, and that includes a head’s up phone message left for Gov. Mike DeWine.

“I’ve already called Columbus to begin measures to correct this. It’s been put on a list of priority work to be done,” he said.

“While Mr. Herron is certainly entitled to his opinion of me, I believe my service to the people of Columbiana County and the state of Ohio over the years speaks for itself,” Ginter said, adding it his understanding one of the duties of country prosecutor is to review laws that could potentially affect the county.

Milliken said notices are going out today advising communities of what is coming.

tgiambroni@mojonews.com

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