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Published: Saturday, 2/12/2005

Budget plan seeks to add $56M in fees

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Consumers may have to reach deeper into their pockets for trash hauling and for birth and death certificates under the $51 billion, two-year budget proposal Gov. Bob Taft presented to lawmakers this week.

Most food safety and inspection fees would be doubled. Nursing homes would be assessed new fees on top of a proposed 3 percent cut in their Medicaid payments. The indigent would have to pay $25 to apply for the free services of a public defender.

In all, Mr. Taft's budget proposal contains $56 million a year in new or increased fees. That does not include the revenue the administration is counting on from a state park parking fee under review for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

"We're trying to apply user fees wherever appropriate and adopt as much as possible a pay-as-you-go program because of the pressure on our general fund," Mr. Taft said.

In most cases, existing fees for inspections, tests, and permit applications were increased to more accurately cover the cost of providing the services. In other cases, most notably a $2-per-ton hike in the amount trash haulers must pay to dump at landfills, they are revenue generators designed to compensate for the state slashing taxpayer support for some programs.

"Fees are a tax in many ways as well," said David Hansen, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Issues, a conservative think tank. "We would be concerned about the net impact of fee increases, and the impact would have to be netted out against the governor's tax initiatives."

The increase in the Environmental Protection Fee from $2 to $4.75 could be passed on to consumers as higher trash-hauling bills. Of the increase, $1.75 would go to EPA to compensate for the cut of the last $19.8 million in state funds for its air, water, and waste-monitoring programs. The higher fee is expected to raise $16.3 million next year and $25 million in 2007.

The remaining dollar from the fee would raise $9.3 million in 2006 and $14.3 million in 2007 to make up for the loss of the ODNR's recycling program share of the corporate franchise tax, slated for elimination under Mr. Taft's tax reform plan.

Ohio Environmental Council spokesman Jack Shaner praised EPA's proposal to raise fees that developers must pay to apply for water-quality certification.

"They are making out like bandits," Mr. Shaner said. "This makes guys who make millions and millions filling in wetlands and rerouting small streams to build a megaplex mall pay their fair share."

Currently, fees for certification range from $15 to $200. Under the proposed budget, that would be set at a flat $200 for each application. It would cost $500 per acre to renew a certification for wetlands and $10 per linear foot for stream impacts.

The Ohio Home Builders Association said it does not necessarily object to the increases, but it wants something in return.

"We've dealt with this in prior budgets," said Vince Squillace, OHBA executive vice president. "We didn't want fee increases alone. We wanted programmatic changes, but they weren't willing to talk. Now I think they are. Some of the wetland-quality programs are outrageous and punitive in nature.

"It's either this or no money at all," he said. "This is one of the agencies slated for deep cuts."

Ohio Public Defender David Bodiker hoped to raise $400,000 a year for his office by charging the poor $25 to apply for free representation in court. Eighty percent of the cost would be kept by counties.

Even so, Mr. Bodiker said the $400,000 represents a fraction of what the fee could generate if collection could be assured.

"The governor's office said to us that if we wanted any extra money, we had to come up with our own program," Mr. Bodiker said. "We were not allowed to ask for any more than we got last year after all the cuts. We came up with this idea, which is being done in 20 other states right now. The sad part is that the state decided it really was a good idea, so they reduced our budget."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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