Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dover's Port Authority session was a real snoozer

Well, if the strategy was to bore us to death Tuesday night, the city of Dover certainly succeeded.

And I need to apologize for writing earlier in this space that Dover's town hall meeting at Memorial Hall on the worth of the Tuscarawas County Port Authority would be interesting.

It wasn't.

The meeting, attended by some 130 people who probably were questioning why they didn't schedule a root canal instead, turned into a drone-on for bureaucrats with elected officials looking on and staying out of the fray. Wait a minute. There was no fray.

Input from the public wasn't sought until after those first two hours of bureaucrat-speak (which included verbatim reading of long testimonials from Port Authority clients, a history lesson, a lengthy computer-assisted presentation from a state building inspector on how to interact with his agency even though local contractors don't have to because we have the East Central Ohio Building Authority, some more history lessons and on and on and on. Don't want to bore you with the details. The Times-Reporter's story on it is here).

What we did learn from the short give-and-take from the public was that the Port Authority has a public relations problem on a couple of fronts. A Strasburg business owner reported that someone ratted him out to the ECOBA while workers were in the process of installing a new front door. The project ended up costing several hundreds of dollars more and taking two weeks rather than two days.

Also, we learned that the Tuscarawas County Port Authority, which occupies space in the old Reeves mill that it owns, hasn't on occasion sought Dover building permits for work it has undertaken. Dover building inspector Jeff Beitzel reported that the Port Authority is now in compliance with Dover laws.

We did not learn what Dover Law Director Doug O'Meara gleaned from his extensive public record request of the Port Authority, which he mentioned only briefly at the beginning of Tuesday night's meeting.

Let's get back to those public relations issues.

The Port Authority and ECOBA employees have to generate enough revenue to support their jobs and a lot of the revenue comes from the fees they charge. According to the latest audit on file with the state auditor's office, annual salaries for Port Authority employees totaled $462,000 in 2008, up from $364,000 in 2006 (numbers rounded).

Fee revenue over the same period decreased from $426,000 to $333,000 probably as a result of the recession. So, my guess is there's some pressure to increase fee activity, which means ECOBA doesn't want anyone falling through the cracks, i.e. that small business in Strasburg.

When contractors relied on the state for inspections, no one would have caught the small business in Strasburg installing a new door. So, the enforcement of building codes and the imposition of fees is a relatively new experience for small business in Tuscarawas County. And small business doesn't like it one bit.

Back in 2004, fees should have been adjusted to give Mr. Small Businessman a break. But they weren't. They were set to match the state's fee schedule, creating the public relations mess the ECOBA now finds itself in.

Criticism of the Port Authority's development activities is harder to define, although J.P. Morgan Chase did a pretty good job of noting what it thought of the entity's future viability by requiring the commissioners to guarantee a restructured loan. See my previous blog post for my take on that.

Meanwhile, the city of Dover has no intention of ending its relationship with the Tuscarawas County Port Authority or ECOBA. The deafening silence of the city's elected officials Tuesday night made that very clear. And maybe that's a good thing.

It's all about safety in public buildings, you know. Now about the lack of sprinklers in the ceiling of Memorial Hall's dingy basement...

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