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Blanchard River program funds at risk

Federal money to ease flooding is victim of budget cuts

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    Damage from Blanchard River flooding in 2007 cost Findlay $100 million and Ottawa $20 million.

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Damage from Blanchard River flooding in 2007 cost Findlay $100 million and Ottawa $20 million.

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FINDLAY — Funding for a blueprint to ease chronic Blanchard River flooding is in jeopardy, leaving dozens of businesses in Hancock and Putnam counties in limbo as they try to decide how much of a commitment they should make to the region.

“If we got off track now, it would be a real setback,” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) said Friday at a news conference in the Findlay Municipal Building, where he was joined by U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) and Findlay Mayor Lydia Mihalik.

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Mr. Portman and Mr. Latta were in Findlay to inform area officials that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding for the project has been cut off until further notice because of accounting rules that took effect to keep the government operating. They said the Corps needs to come up with $500,000 to $600,000 to keep the study from being derailed. Otherwise, the cost will be passed on to area communities, which already need to come up with $1.5 million to meet their 50-50 match obligation for federal funds.

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The optimal amount of money from the Corps this year is $750,000, Dave Romano, chief of planning for the Corps’ Buffalo district, said.

Mr. Romano, who oversees the project, was not at the news conference. But in an interview with The Blade, he said $3 million of work remains to do the third and final phase of the study.

The current target date for completion, now early 2015, would be in jeopardy if the government can’t find a way for funds to be released, Mr. Romano said.

The project is an apparent victim of Washington’s latest continuing budget resolution, enacted to avert a government shutdown. It forbids projects in the 2013 fiscal year from receiving funds if they weren’t authorized for funding in the 2012 fiscal year.

The Blanchard study received funding during the 2012 fiscal year. But that money came from funds carried over from the 2011 fiscal year, Mr. Romano said.

He said the Corps shares the frustration over budgetary rules. The Blanchard flood-control study is the Buffalo district’s No. 1 research priority, he said.

Mr. Romano said the Corps will attempt to locate funds from other projects that can be reprogrammed, under federal rules, to keep the Blanchard study on track.

“We appreciate the challenges they’re facing,” Mr. Romano said.

The master plan is a multimillion dollar hydrological study that has taken years to develop. It is an essential first step for the Corps as it contemplates whether the Blanchard needs to be re-channeled or have more flood-control structures built along it.

The preferred fix won’t be identified until the study is completed. But area officials learned at the end of 2012 that the long-term remedy could cost $150 million or more.

Under a best-case scenario, any engineering work wouldn’t begin until at least 2017 — a decade after a 2007 flood cost Findlay $100 million in damage and Ottawa, Ohio, $20 million.

“We need to know the nature of the problem before we can try to solve it,” Mr. Portman said, referring to the ongoing master plan.

The potential delay causes more uncertainty for the business community. It makes the area less attractive to businesses contemplating whether to relocate there or expand, Mr. Latta said.

Ms. Mihalik said the situation is especially frustrating because of how close the study has come to completion.

“We can see the finish line,” she said.

The meeting between Washington representatives and local officials was intended as a status update among those closest to the project.

Some area farmers, concerned that changes were being planned that would affect their businesses, showed up unannounced. They were granted access to the meeting after complaining about not being invited.

“They’re very concerned, naturally, about what the final plan will be,” Mr. Portman said.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.

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