Editorial Roundup: Ohio

Cleveland Plain Dealer. April 30, 2021.

Editorial: H2Ohio needs assured funding to protect Ohio’s precious water resources

The H2Ohio fund created by Gov. Mike DeWine and legislators in 2019 is a critical long-term work in progress. It aims, most prominently, at reducing, and eventually ending, dangerous toxic algal blooms in western Lake Erie by creating more local accountability on phosphorus-reduction plans, more farmer buy-in, improved monitoring of streams and rivers, widened use of agricultural best practices and the creation of new wetlands and other buffers.

But that’s far from H2Ohio’s totality. The program also seeks to ensure that both Ohioans and the state’s priceless freshwater resources are protected amid soaring water infrastructure costs, as price tags climb for lead service-line replacements, mandated septic-system upgrades, and modernized drinking-water and wastewater treatment plants.

If all that sounds like a big order, it is. It’s a critically big order that needs sustained funding to match. The payoff will be equally grand, in ensuring that Ohio doesn’t squander its most important natural asset -- bountiful freshwater resources.

But do state lawmakers share DeWine’s commitment to H2Ohio? The first big test is here, as the General Assembly debates the next biennial budget for fiscal years 2022-23, that is, for the two years starting this July 1.

And judging from the 38% slice the Ohio House just took out of DeWine’s H2Ohio budget request, lawmakers are failing that test. The Ohio Senate, of course, has a chance to restore the governor’s full request, and it should -- and House legislators should reconsider.

But the uncertainty of relying on biennial budgets is why a bipartisan proposal from two northern Ohio lawmakers to put a $1 billion, ten-year, clean-water bond issue on the Nov. 8, 2022 ballot to underwrite H2Ohio for the next decade is so welcome.

Senate Joint Resolution 2, offered by state Sens. Theresa Gavarone, a Wood County Republican, and Kenny Yuko, a Richmond Heights Democrat, if passed, would put before voters a constitutional amendment next year allowing up to $100 million in bond proceeds annually to go to “clean-water improvements.” SJR 2 should be adopted.

The legislature set up the H2Ohio fund in 2019 with initial funding of $172 million over the FY2020-21 biennium. The actual funding appears to have been much less, according to figures compiled as part of the current budget process by the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission. This may be because of the pandemic, or because the program is so new. In three separate line items for the Ohio Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, LSC reports that a little more than $10 million was spent on H2Ohio in FY2020 (which ended June 30, 2020), and a little more than $18 million is estimated for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2021.

In his FY 2022-23 budget proposal, DeWine sought a large boost, reflecting an opportunity to use H2Ohio to make a real difference in land and water management practices in the state.

The $120,425,000 DeWine requested for each of the next two fiscal years would have been divided primarily between the state Agriculture Department ($49.3 million annually) and Ohio EPA ($46 million), with $25 million for ODNR and a small $125,000 H2Ohio annual appropriation for the Ohio Lake Erie Commission.

In its version of the budget passed April 21, the Ohio House left DeWine’s H2Ohio requests for ODNR and the Lake Erie Commission untouched -- but it slashed his Ohio EPA request by more than 78%, to $10 million, and cut the Agriculture Department’s proposed H2Ohio funding by more than 20%, to $39.3 million.

Overall, that works out to a $92 million cut to DeWine’s H2Ohio budget request over the next two fiscal years.

The Ohio House budget still seeks to provide $74,425,000 yearly for H2Ohio, but in eliminating most of the requested H2Ohio funding for the Ohio EPA, the House budget, if sustained, could compromise efforts to help lower-income communities improve drinking water and wastewater treatment systems and replace failing septic systems and lead service lines.

The House reductions to DeWine’s Agriculture request also are head-scratching, given the urgent need to engage more farmers and other agricultural operators in the Maumee River watershed, a primary source of toxic-algal-causing phosphorus runoff into Lake Erie.

In H2Ohio’s first year, 1,815 agricultural producers in the 14-county Maumee watershed, representing more than 1 million acres of agricultural land, entered into H2Ohio agreements that include nutrient management plans, according to a Dec. 22, 2020 update. That’s a good start -- but it’s not enough.

Those who care about the well-being and quality of life of Ohioans and about the state’s future prosperity should recognize how critical H2Ohio is to the calculus of both. That means sustained, meaningful funding for this initiative -- if not by the legislature, then through a bond issue.

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The Marietta Times. April 27, 2021.

Editorial: Closing plants mean mess

Federal and state officials have another question to answer, as communities across the country — but particularly here in Appalachia — face the realities of a changing economic and energy landscape. What happens to the shuttered coal-fired power plants once they are no longer keeping the lights on?

Unfortunately, the folks in Clermont County are getting a first-hand look, as pieces of the retired Walter C. Beckjord power plant toppled into the Ohio River … and stayed there this winter. Metal, bricks, mortar and more mess created enough of a problem that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ordered contractors to clean it up.

“I do have huge concerns,” Pierce Township Fire Chief Craig Wright told another media outlet. “It’s not just Clermont County’s drinking water, it’s the city of Cincinnati’s and Hamilton County’s and Northern Kentucky’s. It’s much larger than just us.”

According to the Sierra Club, Ohio has more coal plant closures and retirements announced than any other state. Who, then, will be responsible for making sure those closings don’t leave dangerous and unmonitored sites to create bigger problems down the road? Will we see an increase in the number of former facilities listed as Superfund sites, or will there be measures put in place to ensure the owners of these properties do the job properly from the start?

It is yet another piece of the puzzle that will require careful planning as we forge ahead with the diversification of our economy and our energy portfolio. Federal and state officials must be sure the work they are doing does not leave behind both a literal and figurative mess.

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Columbus Dispatch. April 30, 2021.

Editorial: Columbus needs a change agent in top cop spot

There’s little chance the man or woman selected to be Columbus’ next police chief will have an easy journey.

He or she will have to use revolutionary tactics to mend generations of mistrust between the city’s Black and brown communities and law enforcement.

“Research Evaluation of the City of Columbus’ Response to the 2020 Summer Protest,” the 111-page review the city commissioned for $250,000, spells out the ever-growing gulf between the Columbus police and many of the people its officers are sworn to serve.

A “community reconciliation process” is among the recommendations to fill it.

“Reconciliation” is a tricky word without explanation. There is little evidence that the city’s Black community and police ever had a great relationship. That does not have to continue.

The B.R.E.A.D. Organization (Building Responsibility, Equality And Dignity) is among those encouraging the city to reimagine public safety with support from National Network for Safe Communities, a national organization already commissioned by the city for violence reduction assistance.

NNSC reconciliation method includes facilitated, frank “engagements between harmed communities, authorities, and other institutions that allows them to address grievances, misconceptions, and historical tensions, and reset relationships.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley on Friday granted a preliminary injunction against Columbus Police. It bars officers’ from using tear gas, pepper spray, wooden bullets and other so-called “non-lethal force” against nonviolent protesters.

There is real hurt on both sides, but the fear many Blacks feel is on a different level and supported by statistics.

Even before Ma’Khia Bryant’s killing, Franklin County had one of the highest rates of fatal law enforcement shootings in Ohio, according to a study released this year.

It was the 18th highest among the 100 most populous counties nationally, according to the study by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health.

Franklin County has 20% of Ohio’s Black population but accounts for 33% of deaths of Blacks shot by law enforcement in the state.

Cuyahoga County, which is home to Cleveland, is 25% Black and accounts for 16% of Blacks fatally shot by law enforcement.

Fourteen percent of Hamilton County (Cincinnati) is Black and accounts for 11% of Blacks fatally shot by law enforcement.

Black residents make up about 28% of Columbus’ population but accounted for between 49% and 53% of use-of-force incidents between 2013 and 2017, according to a 2019 city report by Matrix Consulting Group.

Among other findings, that report recommends that Columbus Police “increase training on de-escalation and procedural justice” and “continue to work on building community trust.”

That trust will not come with a wish or a changing of the guard.

Difficult conversations and strategic actions are necessary to reverse this course.

Thirty-four people, including two current deputy chiefs, applied for the chief’s position by the deadline.

Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther has repeatedly said the city’s next police chief will be selected from outside the department and that he wants a “change agent.”

That change is clearly needed.

A major shift in culture and perspective might be the only way to start to fill the gulf between police and the people.

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Toledo Blade. April 28, 2021.

Editorial: Time has come for DeWine’s police reform plan

In the wake of the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial — and yet another fatal shooting by Columbus police — Gov. Mike DeWine is once again trying to make the case to his sensible police-reform proposals. Mr. DeWine argues that Democrats and Republicans should be able to come together on the plan and he’s right.

The governor, whose background as a former prosecutor and attorney general give him good insight in the issue, has proposed a smart and comprehensive package of measures that would make Ohio’s law enforcement officers and the communities they protect safer.

DeWine’s police-reform proposal, which he initially introduced in 2020, calls for psychological testing for officers, body cameras for all police officers as well as more state aid to fund them. He’s called for creation of databases to track use-of-force complaints and officer discipline.

Mr. DeWine also would require law-enforcement agencies to follow standards created by the governor’s Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board for issues such as body-camera use and anti-bias training.

The plan would help communities improve their police departments and make rules and training consistent across the state. It’s full of good ideas and state aid to implement them.

And just as with his sensible gun-safety reform measures, the Republican faction controlling the General Assembly has petulantly ignored it.

In the meantime, only a small portion of Ohio’s nearly 900 law enforcement departments can afford body cameras for all their officers or the kind of training that would help police officers on the streets.

There have been eight fatal police shootings in Columbus since January, 2020. The most recent, the killing of 15-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant on the very afternoon of the Chauvin verdict in Minnesota/, has once again ignited protests, undermined confidence in police, and drawn national attention.

If now is not the time to move ahead with proposals to make Ohio a safer state for both police and the civilians they serve, then when? The shooting in Columbus should be a wake-up call that better policies and better funded statewide resources for law enforcement could potentially prevent the next tragic loss of life.

Republican leaders in Columbus should dust off the governor’s police-reform proposal and get it moving through the General Assembly.

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Cincinnati Enquirer. April 30, 2021.

Editorial: City charter never intended to be budgeting tool

The cause is noble. Create more housing for low-income families and individuals. But Issue 3, which if passed would require the city to put $50 million into an affordable housing trust fund, is not the right way to go about it.

Affordable housing is a real problem for tens of thousands of city residents. A 2017 study by Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) estimated Cincinnati needs about 28,000 more affordable housing units for poor and working-class families. And the fact that more than 9,200 residents signed a petition to get Issue 3 on Tuesday’s primary ballot shows how serious some are about solving the problem.

But just as the need for affordable housing is undeniable, so is the potentially crippling impact of Issue 3 on the city’s budget and essential services to the public. City Manager Paula Boggs Muething has called the charter amendment “catastrophic,” saying that if it passes, basic services would be dramatically impacted and departments eliminated. Police Chief Eliot Isaac echoed those concerns, fearing an already understaffed police force might be further depleted.

The biggest problem with Issue 3 is that it provides no realistic source to bring in new dollars. For a city that has struggled year after year with multi-million budget deficits and generating new revenue, mandating $50 million annually without a solid funding source could open a Pandora’s box of unintended negative consequences. That’s not a scare tactic; it’s common sense.

Further, the city charter was never intended to be a budgeting tool. The charter establishes the structure of city government. It’s not the vehicle to specify the amount for a line item in the city budget. That’s the job – for better or worse – for our elected leaders.

Budgets need to adapt to current financial realities and priorities. Dips in revenue require City Council members to balance the budget by making tough decisions on where to cut. Having one line item – albeit an important one – be a sacred cow ties the hands of city leaders who may see the need to protect funding for police, fire and other essential services.

It’s true that past city councils have been too passive when it comes to affordable housing. That’s why the selection of Cincinnati’s next mayor and council is so critical. The best and most reasonable way to affect affordable housing is to elect representatives who will make it a budget priority.

Lastly, the creation of a trust fund oversight committee, appointed by various concerned organizations, should give taxpayers reason to pause. This non-elected board – a shadow government, so to speak – would be responsible for spending tax dollars. Deciding how to spend public dollars needs to be done in a public forum – on the floor of City Council by elected leaders.

This ballot measure has put the city’s leadership on notice. The lack of affordable housing in Cincinnati can no longer be ignored. But how you fix a problem is just as, if not more important as making the decision to address it.

Issue 3 is projected to create an average of 500 units of affordable housing each year. With a $50 million minimum investment, that’s an average of $100,000 per unit. It’s questionable whether that is a good return on investment, especially when cities such as Columbus generate 600-1,000 units of affordable housing each year with far less money.

Ordering $50 million a year in perpetuity for affordable housing sets a bad precedent. What’s the next charter amendment going to be that restricts tax dollars for one line item?

Using the charter as our budgeting process is not wise or sustainable.

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