By DENISE GRANT
When it comes to the Hancock County race for commissioner, there’s not a lot to argue about.
The county’s finances are better than they have been in years. The budget is stable. Economic progress is picking up, with the commissioners’ office promising another big announcement soon. There is a deal in the works to merge the city and the county health departments, and a new county engineer’s garage is set to open this spring.
There’s progress on just about every front, but it’s the Blanchard River, and specifically the Army Corps of Engineers’ expected flood-control plan, that has the candidates at odds.
“That’s really the only thing he can argue with me about,” said Commissioner Phillip Riegle about a familiar adversary.
Riegle is being challenged by former Commissioner Steve Oman in the May 6 Republican primary. Hancock County’s commissioners serve a four-year term and are paid a yearly salary of $55,524.
Riegle, of 22525 Delaware Township 184, is an attorney. He is finishing his second term as commissioner.
Oman, of 13123 Hancock County 9, is a farmer. He served two terms as a commissioner between 1997 and 2005, before losing his seat to Ed Ingold. He has tried twice to get it back. He ran for an open commissioner seat in 2006, losing to Riegle. He then challenged Commissioner Emily Walton in the 2008 primary election and lost.
There are no Democratic candidates, and so far there are no independent candidates, so the victor in the May 6 primary will likely win the office.
Riegle is quick to accuse his opponent of spreading misinformation about the river and the corps’ flood study.
For example, Oman insists that the river has lost capacity and is no longer able to tolerate rains of even 2 to 3 inches without flooding. He wants the river cleaned and dredged as part of the watershed’s flood mitigation efforts.
Riegle said the river is currently being cleared of downed trees and logjams. He said dredging the river would be expensive, would do very little to relieve flooding, and is prohibited by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
He said eight of Findlay’s 10 worst floods were caused by 5 inches or less of rain.
Recent models developed by the Army Corps show that dredging 4 feet of material from the entire riverbed would only reduce the height of a 100-year flood by 1 inch.
“So what (Oman) is saying is clearly wrong. He needs to show the data that backs up what he is saying,” Riegle said.
Oman dismisses the need for an engineer’s opinion. He says it is common sense. He uses the analogy of a clogged bathroom drain.
“If you have a clogged tub drain, you unclog the drain. You don’t drill a new drain,” Oman said.
“We’ve spent nearly $100,000 per mile studying the Blanchard River and not a dime of that money has been spent to improve the river. Can you imagine what we could do with $100,000 per mile?” he said.
If elected, Oman promises to sit down with the Ohio EPA and the Army Corps in January, when he would take office.
“I want them to explain, with the press sitting right there, why a few mussels and the Indiana bat are more important than the people of the Blanchard River watershed,” he said, referring to reasons why the EPA won’t permit river dredging.
Oman would also like a full accounting of the $6 million that has already been spent on the flood study.
The corps and the commissioners have split the bill. The final phase of the study, an environmental review, will cost another $3 million, again with the bill being split.
Earlier this year, the corps did release 62 pages of budget figures to The Courier in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. It took the corps several months to respond to the newspaper’s initial request. The budget uses several codes, making it impossible to analyze without further information. The newspaper has not yet requested further information on the budget.
The corps recently moved the completion date of its planning back a year to 18 months, making the final flood-control plan for the river, the “chief’s report,” due by late 2016. The report would then be submitted to Congress in an attempt to gain up to 65 percent federal funding for construction.
Riegle acknowledges that working with the corps is not easy.
“It’s extremely frustrating. I’m just as frustrated as everyone else, but this community needs to know, once and for all, what the options are in dealing with the river and (that will be in) the flood plan,” Riegle said. “We’ve asked the corps to put everything back on the table, even levees in town and widening the river.”
Riegle said the request has delayed the public announcement of a tentative plan for flood control, which had been expected in the fall of 2013.
Making any changes to the waterway requires permits from the corps, which requires a plan, Riegle said. Without the corps’ approval, no modifications can be made to the waterway, he said.
While the flood plan will be further along by the time either candidate enters office next year, the construction work would lie ahead.
Cost estimates for potential flood-control projects have ranged from $111 million to $200 million, and the corps has repeatedly warned Hancock County officials that there is no guarantee of federal construction money.
Even with federal construction funding of 65 percent, Oman said the local share, possibly 35 percent of $200 million, is still a steep price tag.
About $2.5 million a year is set aside for flood mitigation by the commissioners from a half-percent, 10-year sales tax increase approved by Hancock County voters in 2009. Half of the tax revenue is used for flood control, the other half is used for county operations. Findlay also contributed $1.8 million toward the flood fund.
A decision on whether to renew the sales tax would have to be made by 2018 or 2019.
Oman said he would favor renewing a quarter-percent sales tax for county operations, if needed. He said the other quarter-percent, now going to flood-control efforts, should be decided by voters. He said the corps needs to be held accountable for the money spent on the study.
“The Courier has asked where the money is being spent, citizens have asked for accountability of the money the corps is spending, and to this day they have thumbed their nose at everybody when the question is asked. Nine million dollars is a lot of money being spent on studies, with no answers to that question,” Oman said.
He said 40 percent of Hancock County is not even in the Blanchard River watershed.
“I would like to build the case for the quarter-percent flood sales tax to be used for Hancock County’s portion of cleaning the rivers that are in our watershed,” Oman said.
Riegle said it is too early to say whether the half-percent sales tax should be renewed.
“You would hope that we don’t need it. We hope economic development has picked up and we don’t need the tax,” Riegle said.
But he said there are too many variables to answer the question now.
“We’ll have to decide what flood projects are being moved forward. Remember, we want to keep watershed residents from having to pay assessments (for flood-control projects), so having outside folks help pay the bill is a good idea,” Riegle said of the sales tax.
He said the commissioners will also have to evaluate the county’s budget needs, which could change in the next five years.
Riegle called Oman’s candidacy “questionable.”
“When you look at the two candidates, you have to question who is looking at what is best for the entire county,” Riegle said. “His agenda is up for debate.”
Oman has farmland that could be affected by flood-control construction in the Arlington area and to the west of Findlay.
Oman makes no apologizes for being worried about his farm.
“Am I concerned about my farm? You bet I am. It is important that we get this right, for my son and his son, and on down.
“The focus of the race needed to be about the river,” Oman said. “This is an important issue for the farm community. It’s an awfully important issue for the City of Findlay. Win, lose or draw, at least we have been talking about the river.”