MWCD responds to public concerns
By Bob Hecker Contributing Writer
Columbus — In response to public concerns, the Muskingum
Watershed Conservancy District will delay seeking court approval
for a property tax assessment plan until it has taken more time to
explain the process and the need for the taxes.
That was the outcome of a two-hour meeting on May 11 in Columbus
between MWCD officials and state legislators representing counties
within the watershed district.
Darrin Lautenschleger, public information officer for the MWCD,
said the district had planned to present its assessment proposal to
the conservancy court for approval in June but has agreed to wait
“In the meantime, we will kick up our public awareness campaign
by hosting or attending additional public meetings on the matter,
by promoting our toll-free hotline for answering questions about
the assessments, and by answering the questions and meeting the
needs of legislators,” Lautenschleger said, noting that district
officials attended or hosted more than 60 public meetings about the
plan in 2005.
The MWCD wants the assessments to help finance a 20-year, $270
million maintenance and improvement plan to reduce flooding and
improve water quality within the district’s 18-county region
starting in 2007.
Throughout its more than 70-year history, the MWCD has operated
primarily on revenue generated by fees on the use of facilities at
its 14 reservoirs and dams, but the district says that is
inadequate to maintain the aging system.
The MWCD officially filed the assessment plan in March, after
which public notices were posted and property owners were given a
chance to file objections to be heard by the conservancy court,
which consists of common pleas court judges from each of the 18
counties within the conservancy district.
Approximately 5,000 objections have been filed, including one by
Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, on behalf of the DNR.
In recent weeks, state legislators have been swamped with
complaints from angry constituents, prompting some talk about
possible legislation to delay the plan or to exempt local
governments, schools, and churches from being assessed.
After Ohio Senate President Bill Harris, R-Ashland, questioned
the plan and asked the Legislative Service Commission to conduct
research about conservancy district assessments, the MWCD pledged
to fully brief all state legislators and public officials within
the district in an effort to heighten public understanding.
That’s what prompted the May 11 meeting, which was designed to
enable lawmakers to better answer questions from constituents.
“With 2.2 million people living within our watershed, and with
more than 700,000 parcels of land involved in the assessments, it
is understandable that it takes time for everyone to become
knowledgeable about the plan and the process,” said MWCD Executive
Director/Secretary John Hoopingamer. “We appreciate the interest
being expressed by area representatives and by Sen. Harris and the
Hoopingamer said the MWCD will discuss in detail the latest
budget plans, proposed projects, and how each community will
benefit from the plan.
MWCD officials estimate the watershed region will receive about
$2.5 billion in future benefits from the maintenance and
improvement plan, which would generate more than $11 million per
year to fund dam safety improvements, sediment removal, shoreline
protection, water quality enhancements, watershed management, and
The district says projected benefits would far outweigh the $270
million overall cost of the plan, in which owners of residential
and agricultural properties would be assessed $12 per parcel
Commercial and industrial property owners would pay more, based
on higher levels of water runoff from the greater amount of
buildings, concrete, asphalt, and other items that produce
impervious areas on their parcels, the district says.
Since its inception, the MWCD system of reservoirs and dams has
prevented more than $6 billion worth of potential flood damage,
according to federal government estimates.
“We firmly believe that the more people learn about the history
of the past seven decades, the better they will understand the MWCD
and the need for the assessments,” Hoopingamer said.
Maggie Ostrowski, communications director for the Ohio Senate
Republican Caucus and spokesperson for Sen. Harris, said the
lawmaker found the May 11 meeting informative.
“He thought it was good to bring legislators from all the
affected counties together to talk and ask questions about the
plan,” Ostrowski said. “He has been advocating for a delay so more
time can be spent educating people about what the needs are and how
the money will be spent.”
Ostrowski said Harris hopes there will be no need for
legislation regarding the plan, “but it is an option that’s
available if necessary.”
“He thinks the district really needs to sell this plan and to
realize that they’re going to be accountable to the people they
want to collect the money from,” she said.
Lautenschleger, the MWCD spokesman, said if the assessment is
approved by the conservancy court in August, the district board of
directors would have the authority to levy assessments in 2007 and
begin some of the projects.
“There are some projects that we’re chomping at the bit to get
started on,” he said.
Among them are renovations and safety updates to Dover Dam,
resolving acid mine drainage problems in Carroll and Tuscarawas
counties, dredging Leesville Reservoir, correcting a hydrogen
sulfide gas emission from the dam at Tappan Reservoir, making sewer
and wastewater treatment updates at Seneca Lake, constructing a
floodgate on the Muskingum River near Marietta, and shoring up a
bank erosion problem at Dillon Reservoir.