A group of mayors and city managers from 15 counties in southern and southeast Ohio are trying to change their communities for the better, and a new position paper released by the group last month outlines its goals for the year and beyond.
The Mayors’ Partnership for Progress – which represents 10 communities in Athens County alone – is seeking reform and state and federal government attention on a number of issues, including: The financial burden small communities face from state audit requirements; a lack of broadband internet access across rural southern and southeast Ohio; and the restoration of local government funds to communities.
MPP members will be meeting with state elected officials this month to pursue the agenda outlined in the position paper, including group President (and Amesville Mayor) Gary Goosman and Vice President (and Athens Mayor) Steve Patterson.
“We really just want to be a voice for the region, which we feel is oftentimes ignored,” Goosman said in an interview earlier this week.
The position papers notes that this area faces a significant number of challenges.
“The lack of affordable transportation, childcare, internet access are just a few of those very deficits of services for low-income families,” the paper reads. “This is greatly exacerbated by the increase in low-wage jobs that often have variable working hours. This challenge is more severe in communities like ours in which the available jobs often require a long commute or non-traditional working hours.
“The reality is that the economics of many low-income workers is overwhelming. The greatest issue that impacts all the other sectors is the opioid epidemic. Local municipalities and nonprofits lack the resources to provide criminal-justice services, prevention/treatment and other needed intervention resources.”
In total, the position paper lists six “positions” the MPP is seeking progress on. Those positions are:
• The MPP opposes the financial burden created by state audit requirements. The paper asks the state to provide auditing services to communities as a “line item” rather than through fees. Additionally, it asks for the “significant expansion” of training opportunities provided through the state Auditor’s Office.
• Changing the access of CDBG (community development block grants) to an annual disbursement with matching support from the state of Ohio. Currently, these grants are available in two-year cycles, and allowing access on an annual basis would help communities, the paper reads. Additionally, it asks the state to provide matching dollars to help communities meet their required local dollar match for those grants.
• The expansion of broadband access into the MPP region. “The MPP believes that the state and federal government will need to play an active role in policy and funding to make this a reality,” the paper notes.
• Restoration of local government funds. The MPP paper asks the state to restore the level of local government funds to “pre-2012” levels. “Some communities may have been inefficient and could find savings through shared services, but in our region, we have (had) shared services (formally and informally) for decades,” the MPP paper reads, quoting a letter to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich in 2016. “We have also been skilled at frugality for years and years.”
• Continued support for Medicaid expansion and regional transportation options. The paper notes that the “regional economy” is “very dependent on these dollars,” in addition to Medicaid expansion being “one of the few hopes for services dealing with the opioid epidemic.” The paper also opposes Ohio’s attempts to find one central vendor for Medicaid non-emergency transportation services.
• A request for $13 million in unspent TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds for use in the MPP region. The MPP paper notes that reductions in this program have left many families in “challenging situations.” At the same time, Ohio has amassed an unspent balance of those funds of over $600 million. The paper cites a request sent to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services proposing two TANF-funded programs, one to provide a subsidy for non-food assistance to low-income families with children in the MPP area, provided through area food pantries (at a cost of about $4 million in TANF funds). The other proposal is for a one-time $500 payment to low-income families with children to help pay for water and sewer services (at a cost of about $9 million).
Mayor Goosman said that for a town the size of Amesville, with an annual budget of around $110,000 to $120,000, a state audit (once every five years or so) can cost upward of $10,000, which is a “huge” burden for such a small town.
Meanwhile, continued decline in local government funds provided by the state continue to impact the level of services that small towns can provide, Goosman said, especially when those communities don’t have their own income tax .
Mayor Patterson said that he sees a “real need” in the region, and in Athens, to increase local government funds so that cities can keep up with costs for capital improvements (like pavement) that have only increased over time.
Patterson and Goosman also both talked about the significant need for improvements to broadband accessibility in the MPP region, which is addressed in this companion article.