2 West Chester trustees: Bike path money should come by tax levy so residents can decide if they want it

Whether or not West Chester Twp. residents see a Smith Road bike path connector in the future will depend on whether the township is successful in its pursuit of federal grant money.

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Township trustees have voted 2 to 1 to send in a grant application to the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments. Trustee Ann Becker, who has opposed applying for the funds because "the federal government is broke," was the dissenting vote.

After Tuesday’s vote, Becker told the Journal-News the township should not be spending money on anything but core services.

“I feel the township has to maintain the assets that we already have,” she said. “We have roads, we have culverts, we have a police department, a fire department. We need to focus on those essential services in our township before we start working on recreational activities.”

There is a maximum $750,000 in grant money — the township’s match would be about $150,000 — available through OKI. The Smith Road connector is estimated by the county engineer to cost about $400,000 to $500,000, according to Trustee Mark Welch.

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While Welch said the township can afford the local match, he has started lobbying local businesses to see if they can help mitigate that cost.

And if the township is denied the grant?

“Would I be willing to do the connector if it was five times more expensive? It would take thoughtful consideration,” Welch said.

Trustee Lee Wong, a longtime advocate of making the township more walkable, said he would spend the money regardless.

“Absolutely, absolutely, that’s what people want,” he said. “We want that little connector. It is such an important link to the other side of (Ohio) 747. It’s been sitting there for over four years.”

The township applied for a federal grant for the same project in 2013. But after being awarded the money, the township turned it down. During one of the recent meetings someone asked the trustees if they could apply for the grant and then decide if they want to do the project. After that query Township Administrator Larry Burks told the Journal-News generally speaking turning down a grant award does not bode well for future applications.

“Turning back the award on a federal grant is typically taboo,” he said. “When you apply again in the future, not only for trails grants, but roads grants or anything like that, at the federal level that pool of money, typically the same groups evaluate those grants and we don’t want to get known for making someone do a lot of work and then turning down the award.”

The OKI grant first surfaced a month ago when trustees were asked to apply to support the first phase of many in the $17.8 million — $13.6 million is the township’s estimated share — Miami 2 Miami trail connector project. Welch at that time proposed a different route than was outlined in the proposed plan to connect the river trails, from the Trinity Pub on Ohio 747 to Mason’s network of trails that link up the Little Miami River path system.

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The Smith Road connector was part of Welch’s idea so the two projects have become co-mingled in some aspects. Residents have come out several times to debate both sides of the larger project.

Welch and Becker both said the Miami 2 Miami endeavor needs much more study, refreshed price estimates and a vote by the people.

“I think if the folks in West Chester Twp. do want to have a new amenity, it should be a levy that everyone pays for and everyone decides on,” Becker said.

Welch said from the beginning a decision of this magnitude is too big for the three trustees alone.

“Certainly something as big as $13.6 million, with the potential (to go higher) because the private property is not in there, that’s too weighty of a decision for three trustees,” he said. “That should go (to the voters)… A one-mill levy would raise about $1.95 million a year and would cost the average homeowner about $70 a year, that’s based upon a $200,000 house.”

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