Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague

Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague listens to concerns voiced by a county official during the Thursday, Oct. 1 visit to Piketon.

Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague paid a visit to Pike County Thursday afternoon, Sept. 1, meeting with local officials and Pike County Chamber of Commerce members at the Village of Piketon Council and Mayor’s Office.

His visit allowed those in attendance to hear about updates and additional state programs, as well as listen to some of the concerns those in attendance had for Pike County.

“As we’ve gone through this coronavirus, one of the problems we have had extensively in every county across the state is so many of our small businesses and sole proprietors are the ones that have interaction with people on a daily basis. In many cases, the coronavirus shutdowns and mandates have hurt them the most,” said Sprague.

“So just two weeks ago, we called on the General Assembly and the administration to pull together. Out of our $4.5 billion of CARES Act fund from Congress, we asked to carve out a $100 million piece to specifically reserve it and set it aside for those small businesses to try to help them.”

Sprague said in many cases, customers haven’t come back to small businesses in full strength yet. So he is hoping they can help to fill that gap as a lifeline to those small businesses.

“We actually have a direct line to the U.S. Treasury. We asked them, ‘How do we craft a program that would be CARES-Act-compliant with what Congress is telling us we can use the money for and make it available for small businesses?’ We have a great program. It would be up to $50,000 grants,” said Sprague. “The definition of small business goes up to 500 employees, but this would be targeted at those individuals and small businesses that did not get the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans. A lot of small businesses never got that money or any help.”

Shirley Bandy, the Executive Director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce, gave Sprague an example of how the coronavirus closure has affected a Waverly family-owned diner, which has a seating capacity of 40 to 50 people.

“If they can only open at 25 percent capacity, it is not practical to have food inventory and staff to be able to serve 12 people at a time,” said Bandy. “There is no way places like that can reopen, especially if it is done in the form of loans that have to be paid back. We hear the stories of local people who are struggling.”

Sprague said that is the type of program they would like to see enacted to address all of the gaps that small businesses currently have.

“We hope that our local chambers become the conduit. Our chambers do a great job throughout the state of Ohio connecting to our small businesses,” said Sprague. “We hope that they become our marketing arm. Because the reality is we need to spend this money by Dec. 31, or it goes back to the federal government, at least the way Congress has enacted the bill. There’s a real short timeline on this.”

Bandy said some of the small businesses are struggling because of the digital divide, and those are ones that need to be reached the most.

“We know that if we help a local small business, the money is going to be reinvested in this area and raise the entire economy,” said Sprague.

Sprague talked a little about updates to the Ohio Checkbook program. On a flyer distributed by Sprague’s office, it explains, “The Ohio Checkbook is the singular most trusted resource for Ohioans to obtain local and state financial information. Through a collaboration between the DeWine-Husted Administration and the Ohio Treasurer’s office, the new OhioCheckbook.gov enhances government transparency by providing Ohioans daily financial and transactional data.”

Specifically, OhioCheckbook.gov and Ohio’s Interactive Budget have been merged into one online portal. That gives taxpayers a single source for accessing robust spending data related to Ohio’s state and local governments.

Sprague applauded local governments and schools for being involved with the program and offered to have his staff help others get started with the system if they choose. He also talked a little bit about a brand new program called Results Ohio.

“We have significant problems that we would like to fix as a state, such as infant mortality or recovery. We’ve come up with a brand new program to help provide an interface with the private sector for the very first time and let the private sector solve public sector problems,” said Sprague.

“The idea is that a private sector philanthropic group puts up money to run a pilot program on a problem the public sector would like to solve. We will all agree on what indicates success up front. We will let you (the private sector) run the pilot for a year. At the end, we’ll have a third party measure the results. If it is successful, the state will buy back the pilot program. It is a way for us to allow private sector to use ingenuity, flexibility, speed and innovation to solve problems. The public only pays if it actually works and works well.”

He also talked about a new Family Forward program that would help adoptive parents cover the cost of adoption.

Then Sprague opened the floor to those in attendance, saying, “What do you want me to take back to Columbus? How can the state do a better job of helping Pike County?”

Pike County Treasurer Ed Davis told Sprague about starting a land bank more than a year ago. By definition, land banks are governmental entities or nonprofit corporations that are focused on the conversion of vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent properties into productive use.

“Our first ones we started are probably the most difficult ones in some abandoned Rich Oil stations and a bulk plant. The state won’t release the liens so we can get a grant from EPA to clean it up,” said Davis.

Sprague asked his staff to look into the problem and said they would at least get an answer.

A discussion followed on how the coronavirus shutdowns gave some businesses a boost, while others have been struggling and continue to struggle.

“Let’s open Ohio across the board. The businesses that stayed open and were deemed essential are rocking and rolling. The ones that have not opened are really hurting. Then it is affecting the job market as well. We need to get people back to work and get businesses open so they can bring in their employees. It would be a tide that would raise all of the ships,” said Paul Price, Pike County Court Judge and Chamber of Commerce Treasurer.

“It is never good when the government picks losers and winners in business. And that is what some of the coronavirus rules did. It affects the market in weird ways. Some businesses were deemed essential and some weren’t. Certain skill sets are in high demand because they were picked as the winners.”

At the conclusion of the event, Sprague was taken on a tour of The Square at Piketon, as progress continues toward opening the rehabilitated school for rental by various businesses. One tenant will be the Village Brew, a new coffee shop owned by Jennifer Chandler. Chandler and staff also had coffee and muffins available for Treasurer Sprague’s visit.

Email at jbillings@newswatchman.com; follow on Twitter @ Julie_Billings

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