The Clean Ohio Fund helps local communities to clean up polluted, abandoned industrial sites for reuse and to conserve open space and farmland. Its benefits are evident throughout northwest Ohio, in upgrades to the Metroparks system and in protection from development of thousands of acres of land on family farms and in natural areas.
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In 2008, Ohio voters authorized the state to sell $400 million in bonds through the fund. Yet state lawmakers and Gov. John Kasich's administration are balking at approving $100 million in bonding authority for the fund's "green" programs -- not only preservation of open space and agricultural land, but also construction of recreational trails.
That's hard to understand. Clean Ohio has enjoyed strong, bipartisan public and business support since the fund's creation in 2000. If this reluctance is an effort by Columbus politicians to show fiscal austerity in an election year, it's misguided and unnecessary.
Proceeding with the bond sale would not require a tax hike. This would be an especially good time to sell Clean Ohio bonds, because interest rates are low and the state's credit rating has improved.
Advocates estimate that private and public investment already generated by Clean Ohio projects has had a statewide economic impact worth $2.6 billion. That's an impressive return. The projects create jobs and attract private business.
They also protect water quality, maintain wildlife habitat, and promote outdoor recreation. And they strengthen agriculture, still a critical Ohio industry.
Kevin Joyce, executive director of the Black Swamp Conservancy in Perrysburg, says the land trust has used Clean Ohio funding to preserve working family farms and open space in northwest Ohio. Under Clean Ohio's agricultural easement program, he adds, the conservancy has brought more than $7 million in grants to the region to preserve 7,900 acres of prime land on 53 farms, largely in Fulton, Henry, and Seneca counties. That's vital, because Ohio loses 40,000 acres of rural land every year to development.
At the same time, Mr. Joyce says, Clean Ohio funding has helped the conservancy create three public nature preserves along the Lake Erie shoreline in Ottawa County. These preserves attract migrating birds -- and help maintain the more than $20 million in tourism money generated each May by bird-watchers who come to the Port Clinton area. The state's failure to approve new bond funding has forced the conservancy to abandon its plan to buy and preserve a wild cave on South Bass Island.
Tim Schetter, manager of land planning and acquisition for Metroparks of the Toledo Area, says his agency has worked with the Nature Conservancy and other groups to compete successfully for Clean Ohio money. That funding, he says, has helped lead to acquisitions and improvements at Oak Openings, Pearson Metropark, Howard Farms, Sylvan Prairie Park, and Kitty Todd Preserve.
Such gains are replicated across the state. Yet in the new two-year capital budget, the only "green" Clean Ohio commitment made by the Kasich administration and legislative leaders is $6 million for trail maintenance. The program deserves better than that.
The Clean Ohio Fund has shown its value to the state and its people in enhancing Ohio's economic revitalization and competitiveness, community development, environmental protection, and agricultural preservation. It promises to do even more. But that can't happen until Governor Kasich and state lawmakers keep the promise.