Possible transportation improvements, beneficial to both Highland County and the region, were discussed at the Highland County Board of Commissioners meeting Wednesday and centered on the importance of transportation to jobs and economic growth.
Members of the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission (OVRDC) met with commissioners in regard to the Regional Transportation Planning Organization recently formed to identify transportation improvements and in a discussion led by the OVRDC’s Kara Willis, Highland County Engineer Dean Otworth outlined possible projects that included improvements to U.S. Route 62 and SR 73 to Wilmington, improvements he said would benefit Highland County and the region.
He said those improvements would allow traffic to be pulled from Cincinnati’s congested roadways and into the area.
OVRDC representative Kim Reynolds said that was also suggested at their Fayette County meeting.
Otworth said they were improvements that made sense because routes would be connected together and tied to the airpark in Wilmington.
“It’s a big, untapped source of transportation and economic growth in that area,” Otworth said. “It just makes sense.”
Commissioner Shane Wilkin also said that the Highland County’s distance from a four-lane highway is an ongoing struggle.
Wilkin also talked about the importance of increasing access to the Leesburg Industrial Park as well as the importance of Greenfield’s rail spur, which is used by Candle-Lite in Leesburg, Huhtamaki in New Vienna, and Johnson Controls in Greenfield, and the more than 1,000 jobs those employers provide to the area. He also highlighted the ongoing improvements to Greenfield’s rail spur.
Leesburg Mayor Danny Daulton pointed out the use of the roadways, particularly U.S. 62 and SR 28, in farming and the traffic of grain trucks on those routes.
Otworth also discussed the reliance of farmers and jobs in the area on transportation and said it “is the key to everything” for Highland County.
According to Willis, the goals of the RTPO are as follows: safety, efficient system management and operations, economic vitality, preservation of existing systems, system integration and connectivity, accessibility and mobility options, security, and environmental protection, energy conservation and sustainable development.
Willis said the RTPOs were established by the federal government in 2012 through MAP-21 and enables states to create the planning organizations to look into the non-metropolitan areas “left behind” by the traditional MPOs, or metropolitan planning organizations.
There are five in the state that Ohio is putting money toward and it is a two-year pilot program through ODOT. The purpose, Willis said, is to identify and document the county’s short and long term transportation plans as well as future needs. A comprehensive plan will be presented to ODOT in 2015, Willis said.
In other business, Job and Family Services Executive Director Debbie Robbins provided an update on foster care in the county and told commissioners that there are currently 112 children in care.
At the end of December, that number was 105, she said.
When asked about what she attributes the rising numbers of children in care to, Robbins said drugs and alcohol, adding that 90 percent of the children in custody are there due to those factors.
With 11 foster homes in the county, Robbins said, a lot of children have to be sent outside of the county. Not only does that increase the agency’s cost to shelter the children, but the children lose their connection to their family, friends and community, she said.
However, Robbins added that there are currently six more homes in the county working on getting licensed to provide foster care.
An upcoming levy renewal, according to a fact sheet provided by Robbins, is “vital” for the agency to be able to continue to provide services which include: investigating reports of child abuse and neglect, providing ongoing help when children are at risk of serious harm, involving families and community partners in decisions, temporary placement of children, the seeking of temporary and permanent custody through the juvenile court, recruiting and training of foster and adoptive families, the supporting foster homes, preparing children for adoption, arranging post-adoption services for families, and training of teenage foster children in skills for independent living.
The cost of maintaining foster children last year was more than $1 million, Robbins said, a cost greatly increased by the fact that so many kids have to be sent outside of the county.
Robbins said the levy, which is set for the May ballot, is essential to be able to continue to foster the children.
“We just need to be able to put them in a safe place while their parents are getting the services they need,” she said.
Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent can contact Robbins or Samantha Grooms at JFS by calling 937-393-4278.
In a related matter, Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins and Robbins presented a contract to the commissioners that outlined how JFS would pay a portion of the payroll on the prosecutor’s staff, assistant prosecutor Molly Bolek and juvenile administrator Debbie Zile, who handle juvenile and Children Services cases.
The contract, Collins said, has allowed her to be able to hire assistant prosecutor Ross Greer without having to come to the commissioners for more money.
Robbins said this arrangement is “common practice” in other counties, and some counties are able to pay for a full-time attorney to handle the juvenile and Children Services cases.
JFS will be reimbursed by the state for the portion of the payroll paid to the prosecutor’s office.
On another matter, Sandy White with Highland County Recycling Resources requested to be able to use the agency’s carryover of $1,987 from last year for this year’s county cleanup set for February through May.
White also said that the Solid Waste Management Board has authorized Ohio counties to do tire and electronics collections again this year.
White said the cost for tire collections will be 50 cents for each light passenger tire. Fees for other kinds of tires will vary depending on the type of tire. She said last year about 2,400 tires were collected.
She proposed a May date for those collections.
Also on Wednesday, the first round caucus for OVRDC was held and included application protocols for next year. Also discussed were Economic Development Administration (EDA) and Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) appropriations for fiscal year 2014.
Additionally, other discussion points involved projects that were originally slated for funding last year, but are now targeted for funding this year. Those projects are phase II of the Hobart Drive project as well as an employment training project at Turning Point.
The second round caucus meeting to rank ARC projects will be held in May or June.
Commissioners also passed a resolution naming Marc Lewis as Apiary Inspector for the county. Inspections will be requested by beekeepers in the county and Lewis will be paid $50 per inspection.