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Watershed district’s foes seek to halt loan
SOURCE: The Columbus Dispatch
Tom Sheehan
December 14 2006

Opponents of an eastern Ohio conservancy district that plans to tax property owners in 18 counties hope to block a $1.6 million state loan sought by the agency.

The loan would help the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District pay for several things, including completing a study of the proposed assessment. The district hopes to enact the assessment on Jan. 1, 2008, to generate $270 million over 20 years.

The Ohio Water Development Authority is scheduled to consider the loan request during its monthly meeting today at 480 S. High St. in Columbus.

The authority approved a $3.8 million loan to the conservancy district in December 2004 to begin the study, provide educational programs for the public and establish a billing system for the 700,000 parcels of land in the district. Watershed officials plan to ask for an additional $1.6 million loan in 2007.

"We don’t think it is right for them to take this money to fight us," said Melanie Wintrich, a Noble County hay farmer. "They are going to borrow money to tax us."

Wintrich is vice president of Citizens Against MWCD Assessment. That group and others are upset that the conservancy district wants to impose property taxes on landowners without any say from residents in 18 counties stretching north from the Ohio River, including Licking County.

More than 5,000 landowners filed appeals this year, delaying by a year the planned imposition of the assessment. Yearly fees would range from $12 for most homeowners and farmers to thousands of dollars for some businesses.

Churches, schools, cities and other entities that are generally tax-exempt also would pay fees. That situation has attracted the attention of the General Assembly. The state legislature created conservancy districts in 1914 and could change how they operate. Muskingum is the largest of 21 in the state.

Muskingum needs the money so it can pay for maintenance, flood control and other watershed needs, district spokesman Darrin Lautenschleger said. Current funding sources include camping and boatdocking fees and land leases for farming.

Steve Grossman, executive director of the water authority, said the board is expected to rule on the loan today.

Typically, the agency approves about 220 loans a year, totaling nearly $500 million, for various water and wastewater facilities.

"This particular loan has created some interest," he said. He has received about a dozen e-mails and other correspondence from opponents.