Ohio EPA asks for Stakeholder Input for Drinking Water Utility Asset Management Requirements

August 11th, 2017

By: Jon Honeck, PhD, Senior Policy Fellow

Providing the infrastructure for safe drinking water is one of the basic functions of local government in Ohio.  Ohio has over 4,000 public water systems, ranging from large systems in major cities that serve thousands of customers, to village systems, schools, and mobile home parks that serve less than a hundred customers.  The Ohio EPA provides environmental regulatory oversight for the industry (both public and privately-owned), ensuring that utilities meet state and federal standards for providing clean, potable water.  Maintaining and upgrading the infrastructure needed to meet these standards requires a major long-term investment on the part each local community.  Average water utility charges have been increasing faster than the rate of inflation, a trend that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. 

Ohio Senate Bill 2, which was enacted in June, 2017, strengthened the planning and management standards for public water systems by requiring all systems to have an “asset management plan” in place by October 1, 2018.  The US EPA defines asset management in the following way:

Asset management is the practice of managing infrastructure capital assets to minimize the total cost of owning and operating these assets while delivering the desired service levels. Many utilities use asset management to pursue and achieve sustainable infrastructure. A high-performing asset management program includes detailed asset inventories, operation and maintenance tasks, and long-range financial planning.

There are many major benefits to asset management, including the ability to perform predictive maintenance before an asset fails, and creating a database to provide elected officials and the general public a detailed explanation of why capital investments are needed.  The US EPA and national organizations in the water industry have been promoting asset management for over a decade, although the effort remained voluntary.  Federal law does require applicants to the loan funds to submit a “capability assurance” plan, however, in which the system demonstrates that it has the technical, managerial and financial capability to ensure long term compliance with all public drinking water regulations.  Capability assurance can provide a solid foundation for an asset management program. The next steps are to add detailed asset inventories and connections to service levels. 

In response to SB 2, drinking water utilities will have to file an asset management plan with the Ohio EPA, even if they are not applying for a revolving loan or undertaking new construction.  This will supersede the capability assurance requirement.  Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) recommended moving Ohio’s water utilities (both drinking water and wastewater) toward asset management in its 2017 report, Strengthening Ohio’s Water Infrastructure.  Whether water utilities, especially in small villages, are able to meet the short time frame of the requirement remains to be seen. 

Nationally, surveys have indicated that larger utilities have been the early adopters of asset management strategies.  Smaller utilities, especially those that have a part-time operator, may not have a smooth transition.  Michigan adopted an asset management requirement for its wastewater and stormwater utilities in 2013, but also started a new grant program to help defray the cost.  Interestingly, in the 2016 Capital Budget (S.B. 310), the General Assembly ended a requirement for applicants to the Ohio Public Works Commission to inventory their assets and develop a five-year capital budget.  The OPWC simply did not have the staff resources to review and verify all of the submissions.

The Ohio EPA is now seeking stakeholder input before beginning the formal rulemaking process. Written comments are being accepted through August 14, 2017 at DDAGW_RULECOMMENTS@epa.ohio.gov.  GOPC will continue to monitor the process as it moves from rulemaking to implementation. 

 

Ohio EPA Provides Update on VW Mitigation Trust Fund

August 11th, 2017

By Jason Warner, GOPC Manager of Government Affairs

In December of 2016, the Ohio EPA began accepting comments on the use of the anticipated $75 million the state of Ohio expects to receive as part of the settlement in the Volkswagen Clean Air Act civil settlement. While a Trustee was appointed by the court earlier this year, there are still ongoing negotiations with the court and parties to the settlement. This has caused the Trust Effective Date to be pushed back to sometime later this month or in September. Once the Trust has become effective, states can begin the process of becoming certified beneficiaries. This is one of the reasons why the state legislature backed away from previous efforts to appropriate $30 million from the settlement towards public transit earlier this year – the funds will not become available until after the state has been certified.

Ohio EPA has recently announced that they are in the process of drafting a mitigation plan which is expected to be completed and available for public comment sometime later this fall. The agency reports that during the December public comment period, the most requested use for funds from the settlement was for school bus replacement, transit bus replacement, and electric vehicle charging stations. These are just two of the ten allowable uses for the funds which are outlined as a part of the VW Mitigation Trust Settlement. The plan being formulated by the Ohio EPA would include all ten of the allowable uses of funds.

Greater Ohio continues to support the use of funds from the settlement being used to support transit – specifically the purchase of newer, more fuel efficient transit vehicles. As was noted in December when Greater Ohio reached out to Ohio EPA with recommendations regarding the use of settlement funds, public transportation in Ohio has been severely underfunded for years. The state currently allocates approximately $0.63 per Ohioan to transit, while Ohio’s peers, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, invest over $24.00 per capita. As a result of deferred support, over one-third of Ohio’s 3,200 transit vehicles are still on the road despite being beyond their useful life and in need of replacement. The state mitigation plan for the VW Environmental Mitigation Trust Fund represents an enormous opportunity to replace diesel-powered city buses, repower buses with alternative fuel engines, and other alternatives that are both environmentally friendly and will make transit for cost effective.

Transportation Financing Districts Provide a More Powerful Value Capture Tool: Are Local Governments Ready to Use It?

August 7th, 2017

By Jon Honeck, PhD, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow

The state budget bill (Ohio House Bill 49), which was enacted in June, creates a more powerful value capture tool to help pay for transportation infrastructure.  Value capture refers to increases in property valuation on land near a major transportation improvement, such as a transit stop.  The new value capture procedure allows county boards of commissioners that participate in a regional transportation improvement project (RTIP) to create a “transportation financing district” to pay for streets, highways, and rail projects.  Within the district, increases in property tax revenue owing to increases in assessed valuation are converted into service payments to pay for project costs.  In essence, this is the same mechanism used in a tax increment financing (TIF) arrangement, which is a familiar form of project support for Ohio local governments.  

The new law contains guidelines for designating which parcels can be included in the district.  The district cannot include parcels that are already subject to a TIF or downtown development district, and it cannot include any areas that are used exclusively for residential purposes.  On the other hand, the district may include territory in more than one county, and may include parcels that are not contiguous with the rest of the district as long as they will also benefit economically from the project as determined by the county sponsoring the district. 

Glue Cleveland Tour 229

The new law comes with significant procedural hurdles that might make it difficult to use in some circumstances.  Existing TIF law generally allows the local government to designate a TIF for up to 10 years and 75 percent of the increased valuation.  In order to exceed these limits, the local government must obtain approval from the local school board that receives property taxes from the district.  It is common for local governments to negotiate compensation agreements with school districts in these situations.

The new transportation financing law goes farther, however, by requiring the county to obtain the approval of every political subdivision and taxing authority affected by the transportation improvement district for any level of exemption (R.C. 5709.48(E)).  The level of exemption can be 100 percent, capturing the entire value of the increased valuation.  Although the new law permits the county to negotiate compensation agreements with political subdivisions, this hurdle could potentially require bargaining with many different governmental bodies. 

After the approval is obtained from the affected political subdivisions, the county must notify and obtain approval from every real property owner whose property is included in the district.  Property owners who opt out will not be included in the district.  While this would not prevent the county from creating a district, it could mean that strategically important properties would not contribute service payments to the project, even though they might benefit from it.   As a final step, the district must be approved by the Ohio Development Services Agency. 

Given the procedural hurdles, the new law might prove easier to use in more sparsely populated, “greenfield” developments with fewer property owners and political subdivisions.  This might mitigate its potential value for public transit in urban areas.  Transit systems across the country are increasingly turning to “value capture” strategies to provide funding for transit improvement and expansion, especially for light rail and streetcars.  The benefits of being near a transit stop are well-documented, and are part of the overall rationale for making transit-oriented development the cornerstone of urban redevelopment strategies.  (For further information on transit and value capture, see Reconnecting America and the U.S. Department of Transportation.)  GOPC will be encouraging ODSA to make sure that this new tool is adaptable for high density development in Ohio’s cities and is not used extensively to fuel new greenfield development.

 

GOPC On the Road: Warren & Youngstown

August 3rd, 2017

Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) was on the road in Mahoning Valley last week! Great progress is being made in Warren and Youngstown, two Ohio cities located in the northeast part of the state. Check out some of our best pictures below.

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Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part VII: “Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World”

July 27th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

In her book Small, Gritty, and Green, Catherine Tumber makes an argument for the value of small older-industrial cities in a low-carbon future. Tumber aligns smaller cities’ sizes, industrial pasts, and proximity to agriculture with broader societal needs she prescribes for a less fossil-fuel dependent future. She argues that for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to climate change, the United States needs to move away from a fossil-fuel based economy. Additionally, she suggests that land use patterns in the United States are not currently sustainable. Tumber argues that both sprawl and concentrating population in a handful of dense, global cities are negative and that small cities present the possibility for more sustainable, equitable, and human-scale communities.

Tumber traces much of her argument back to early urban planners and intellectuals, particularly Lewis Mumford. Mumford argued against the inherent value of the metropolis, and suggested that a truly equitable United States required both economic and spatial democracy – or a network of cities of different sizes set among protected natural and agricultural land. This kind of arrangement would help keep land values within the cities reasonable and would also provide for a more equitable distribution of cultural relevance among places. Smaller cities were particularly important because of their abilities to maintain a more cohesive community while still affording some of the “drama” of the urban experience. Mumford’s distrust of New York’s cultural hegemony and financial powers echoes Tumber’s own concerns, voiced throughout the book, about bigness and coastal perceptions of small city culture. Her concern about growing inequality among people and places is tied to increasing consolidation of economic power in the hands of a few large corporations. These economic winners have also created spatial winners – places where the creative class gathers and the knowledge economy flourishes.

Tumber argues that it is exactly some of the features that have caused these cities to decline that could make them catalysts and proving grounds for new, green urbanism. In particular, she focuses on transportation systems, local food systems, energy production, and manufacturing as key opportunities for small cities to exploit in the green economy. In many ways, each of these issues either historically or currently represents a deficit for small cities. For example, even more so than in larger cities, these cities’ transportation networks are largely reliant on automobile use. But population decline and new interest in alternative forms of transportation means that some cities are looking to dismantle some of the very highways that contributed to suburban flight and neighborhood disinvestment. Highway removals give small cities the opportunity to remake their urban form and reconnect neglected portions of the city. Similarly, the decline of large-scale manufacturing in the United States decimated many of these cities’ local economies, which did not pivot quickly enough to diversify. But even there, Tumber sees opportunity. Although not all of these opportunities are explicitly green, new technology will require the kind of specialized manufacturing at which many of these cities excel. Some cities like Muncie, Indiana, have intentionally sought to broaden their local expertise to include green industries like wind turbine production. In all of these cases, Tumber argues that small cities’ size gives them the advantage of agility, even though their local political systems might be more volatile because of that. But even in distressed cities like Youngstown and Flint, Tumber finds reasons for optimism in their innovations regarding vacant property reuse, local food systems planning, and visions for a greener future.

This article is the final installment of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

National Transportation Group Recommends Strategies for Retrofitting and Rebuilding Roads to Incorporate Green Infrastructure

July 21st, 2017

By Alex Highley, GOPC Project Coordinator

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has released an Urban Street Stormwater Guide, offering city officials recommendations for adopting “green,” as opposed to “grey,” infrastructure solutions to improve streets’ ability to handle rainwater runoff. The recommendations on stormwater infrastructure complement many of NACTO’s transportation priorities, such as investing in complete streets that are accessible to all users. NACTO notes the cost-effectiveness of green infrastructure, and explains the ecological, social, and regulatory benefits of its usage. In the guide, NACTO shares some of the best practices being used around the country, where engineers and public officials have taken steps to incorporate green infrastructure into systems that are already in place.  The memo shows how far green infrastructure has come in the last 20 years: from an afterthought, to mainstream best practice. 

According to NACTO, 60 percent of urban areas are made up of some kind of impervious surface, such as concrete, meaning that water and other liquids cannot seep into the surface. Green infrastructure offers an alternative, whereby there is more surface area for water to go in the event of a storm. Green infrastructure comes in many different forms, including structures such as rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs, and is a rare asset to cities because unlike most resources, green infrastructure actually appreciates over time because as plants grow larger they become stronger and more effective.

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Green Infrastructure in Cleveland, Ohio

In alignment with NACTO, Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) supports policies to modernize Ohio’s sewer and water infrastructure. In 2016, GOPC published a memo assessing the benefits that green infrastructure provides to communities in terms of cost and effectiveness, and analyzes some regional case studies. Many Ohio cities use green infrastructure to divert stormwater from antiquated combined sewer systems that overflow in large storms, dumping wastewater into rivers.  For example, it is far cheaper to create more parks and bioswales than it is to excavate a deep tunnel that can store millions of gallons of runoff.  Earlier in 2017, GOPC released Strengthening Ohio’s Water Infrastructure: Financing and Policy, which explores innovative strategies for modernizing the system in Ohio. Visit GOPC’s Sewer and Water Infrastructure page for all of the latest state and national news and resources on this critical policy area.

In the Urban Street Stormwater Guide, NACTO advocates for local governments to include green stormwater infrastructure into their formal policies and plans, which could include Green Streets Policies, specific stormwater codes and regulations, and developer incentives to expand green design practices. The guide also includes technical suggestions for retrofitting green infrastructure into streets, along with successful methods to execute comprehensive street reconstruction. Throughout the process of introducing a green infrastructure project, NACTO firmly recommends that city officials understand and evaluate variables such as the health of the watershed, existing infrastructure, flood zones, regulatory requirements, and current land use and zoning codes.

See NACTO’s report here and visit GOPC’s Sewer and Water Infrastructure page for all of the latest state and national news and resources on this critical policy area.

 

Connecting People to Jobs: The Economics of Job Hubs and Employment Access

July 19th, 2017

Glue Cleveland Tour 229

 By Jason Warner, GOPC Manager of Government Affairs

Recent studies have shown that over the past two decades or more, more land is being used today, expanding the places where jobs are located, but this is occurring without a net increase in population or jobs. This new type of urban sprawl, known as “no-growth sprawl,” has the effect of separating workers from the jobs they need to support themselves and their families. Cleveland is one of those cities where this has been an especially troubling trend. Now, a number of groups are working on solutions to the problem of erasing the disconnect between people and jobs. 

Fund for Our Economic Future (“The Fund”), working in partnership with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) and Team NEO, has been examining the concentration of jobs hubs in Northeast Ohio and the benefits and challenges they present to the region. Job hubs are specific places of concentrated economic activity in a city or region, with specific focus on where “traded sector” companies are located in the region. Traded sector companies are organizations that can sell their goods and services outside of the local economy.  The Fund examined job concentration centers in the five counties that make up the NOACA area, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, and Medina Counties, and identified 23 job hubs. These include obvious locations such as Downtown Cleveland, but others as well, including places are far away from the city as Oberlin to the west and Middlefield to the east.

The disbursement of these jobs hubs is at the center of the research the Fund is currently reviewing. Half of the traded sector employment was found to be in a jobs hub in the region.  These jobs are very much in demand and are needed for the local, state and national economy. Additionally, these are jobs that traditionally provide higher income and greater career opportunity than typical service employment jobs. As these hubs move further and further from population centers, transporting people to the jobs is becoming an increasing problem. A survey conducted  by Team NEO found that, when asked to rate what was the biggest challenge to making new employees successful, the most popular answer among employers was employees showing up to work on time and being ready to work when they got there.

This is not to suggest that job hubs are bad things – as the Fund points out, when job hub are integrated into a regional growth strategy, they can improve economic competitiveness and increase opportunities for residents who are currently disconnected from jobs[i]. The biggest obstacle that job hubs present is ensuring that workers have access to these locations. The current pattern of growth that Northeast Ohio and other regions of the state have experienced is increased costs of both time and money for residents. Research by the Brookings Institute shows that the number of jobs within a typical commuting distance fell by 26 percent between 2000 and 2012, which is among the worse measurable rates in the nation[ii]. Furthermore, the research shows many Ohioans spend a disproportionate amount of their income on transportation as opposed to housing[iii].

Most concerning of all is that the Fund’s research shows that 25 percent of Cleveland residents do not have access either to a vehicle they own or, in increasing numbers, to public transportation[iv]. Hence, the challenge the Fund and others face is finding a solution to connect people who lack transportation to job locations, where employers find that their biggest struggle is finding workers who can get to work on time and be ready to work.

Transit agencies statewide are struggling to meet the ever-increasing demands for public transit. Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) is working with groups like Fund for Our Economic Future to ensure that sufficient funding is available for public transportation and that service is designed to ensure that workers can be connected with jobs. For more resources on GOPC’s work in this area, please see our Transportation Modernization webpage.

 

[i]  Fund for Our Economic Future: Why Job Hubs are Important

[ii]Fund for Our Economic Future: Job Access

[iii] Ibid.

[iv]Governing Magazine: Car Ownership Numbers

 

On the Road: Lorain and Elyria

July 18th, 2017

This summer, Greater Ohio Policy Center continues to travel across Ohio visiting legacy cities. We have heard the struggles these cities face, but also the opportunities that lie ahead in these smaller legacy cities.

Most recently, GOPC travelled to Lorain and Elyria. Both cities are located in Lorain County in the northeast part of the state, and Elyria is the county seat. We have taken some pictures from the downtown areas of both cities for you to enjoy.

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Lorain, Ohio

Lorain, Ohio

Lorain, Ohio

Lorain, Ohio

Lorain, Ohio

Elyria, Ohio

Elyria, Ohio

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Elyria, Ohio

Elyria, Ohio

Elyria, Ohio

 

 

 

 

Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part VI: Voices of Decline

July 13th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

In Voices of Decline, Robert A. Beauregard traces the national discourse about urban decline over the majority of the 20th Century. This is done primarily by reviewing historical sources like magazines, journal articles, and opinion pieces that discuss the current state of urban affairs. He traces how commentators and intellectuals discussed urban issues over time and how that served to create a collective set of narratives about declining cities. This discourse is not always based in objective reality, but Beauregard demonstrates how the discourse impacts public perception and potentially, the realities that cities themselves face.

Beauregard argues that the discourse over urban decline is rooted in American ambivalence about urban life which can trace its roots to the founding of the country. The tensions between the city and the countryside eventually morphed into the more contemporary tensions between central cities and their surrounding suburbs. Many of these tensions are related to space and migration – as either the city or the countryside/suburbs attract residents, they must leave the other place behind. Political power requires population, so shifts away from one location to another means a loss of political power as well. Due in part to this political reality, the discourse around cities is rarely neutral as to their value or their moral position.

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Even in the 1920s before urban decline took hold, commentators focused on how congestion and slums made cities unappealing. At this point, some of the ambivalence about cities was due to their role in pulling youth away from rural areas. Still, for the most part, cities were still considered to be the centers of action and any dark clouds were still faint on the horizon. The discourse about cities really began to shift during and after World War II as the urban population losses created by wartime and the Great Depression were not reversed. Suburbanization that began during the 1920s was clearly an enduring trend, and commentators began to recognize the the growth of outlying areas came at the expense of the central cities. Still, many commentators believed that no clear change in the prospects of cities had occurred and that there were technical solutions to the problems at hand, such as annexation. Others began to call for a rethinking of what exactly constituted the city itself, claiming that the broader metropolitan region might be the essential urban unit.

The growing number of African-American migrants from the South moving to northern cities in search of jobs and an escape from Jim Crow presaged a rapid, racially-charged change in the discourse about urban decline. The prospects for recovery were no longer seen as being as bright, and some commenters began to argue that cities were no longer worth saving. Others, however, began to see the moral dimensions of allowing cities that were rapidly growing poorer to decay and sought to show the growing inequalities between the central city and the suburbs. Federal urban renewal programs provided some momentary enthusiasm about reversing decline, but an increasing focus on race and the clear failures of that program quickly deadened any predictions of an urban turnaround. At this point, the rhetoric around urban decline was not about physical deterioration, but shifted to a social and moral deterioration that was deeply rooted in racism. With the election of Richard Nixon, the federal government no longer took direct responsibility for dealing with urban problems and a new focus on replaced traditional anti-poverty programs aimed at rebuilding industrial cities that were continuing to lose jobs and population.

But then, beginning in the late 1970s but coming fully into view in the 1980s, things began to briefly turn around as some higher income people began moving back into the cities. As the service-based economy consolidated their headquarters into central cities, higher educated workers followed them and began to gentrify neighborhoods that had previously been abandoned by the white middle class. Although this trend continued only in fits and starts, it did signal a major change in the perceived function of central cities – they were no longer centers of production, but of consumption. Beauregard’s analysis ends in the early 2000s, but it is easy to see how this trend has extended on into today.

Beauregard concludes by pulling at a deeper meaning in the discourse about urban decline. He argues that urban decline is a central part of American identity and political economy because a He claims that and cities are the essential loci of this interaction. Beauregard argues that the focus of the discourse on the cities themselves shields the broader issues of capitalism from public view. As cities become symbols for broader social forces that cause anxiety, the decline of cities is viewed with ambivalence and even acceptance.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

GOPC On The Road: Springfield

July 5th, 2017

This summer, Greater Ohio Policy Center continues to travel across Ohio visiting legacy cities. We have heard the struggles these cities face, but also the opportunities that lie ahead in these smaller legacy cities.

Most recently, we traveled to Springfield, Ohio, the county seat for Clark County. Springfield is 45 miles west of Columbus and 25 miles east of Dayton. Springfield is home to Wittenberg University, a liberal arts college which was founded in 1845. Below is a collection of pictures we took on our trip as well as a historic image of Springfield circa 1900.

 

 

Springfield, OH

Springfield, OH

 

Downtown Springfield, circa 1900

Downtown Springfield, circa 1900

 

Springfield, OH

Springfield, OH

 

Springfield, OH

Springfield, OH

 

Springfield, OH

Springfield, OH