The Post - Athens

From November 2012 to November 2013, I worked as a beat report for Ohio University's student newspaper The Post. I mainly focused on Athens City Council and covered stories on local energy, transit, housing, and construction projects. 

After earthquake, city council sides with county on halting use of injection wells

Cassie Kelly | December 3, 2013

Athens City Council, like some local anti-fracking advocates, thinks the disposal of fracking waste could have led to the recent 3.5-magnitude earthquake that hit Athens County last month.

Council, in a resolution adopted Monday night, threw its support behind the Athens County Commissioners, who object to a recent proposal for a new injection well to be installed near Torch, Ohio.

Among other things, council argues that “until conclusive evidence indicates that the recent Athens (County) earthquake was not caused by underground injection waste,” the state should “halt the permitting of underground injection wells.”

The resolution also states that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources found alarming levels of toxins surrounding Ohio injection wells and the full extent of public health threats is unknown.

“We are aware that our power extends to city limits,” council President Jim Sands said. “However, we are supporting the actions of our County Commissioners and we hope their actions get approved.”

The threat of spills is worrisome for many residents, including Councilwoman Michele Papai, D-3rd Ward, who said large carrier trucks coming in and out of the county frighten many people.

“I hope that we, or any community, never has a spill because it’s difficult to clean up,” Papai said.

Also at council, members made a first step in finding a more permanent location for the Athens Farmers Market. They passed an ordinance for a grant that will help them fund their search for a site. The next step is to get funding for the site itself and to hash out financial concerns.

“We have to talk with the Farmers Market Board to make sure they are in the loop and willing to back us,” Mayor Paul Wiehl said.

An ordinance to amend the language in Athens City Code for persons with disabilities was also passed Monday. The ordinance will change the wording on city signage from “handicapped” to “person(s) with disabilities.”

“We are bringing the code into the 21st century and stripping away at the technical terms that are stigmatizing,” Councilman Steve Patterson, D-at large, said.

Read the original story in The Post, here.

Athens may have to compromise energy bill prices if they pursue renewable resources

By Cassie Kelly | November 21, 2013

Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl and Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel want to pursue renewable resources, but it could cause the city more hassle than it’s worth.

Unlike Athens County, Hocking County did not pass a countywide bill for electric aggregation, but Falls and Marion townships have pursued it.

Pursuing renewable resources has been a concern for Athens residents since the electric aggregation bill was passed on Nov. 5, Wiehl said.

“We’d like to see it as green as possible,” Wiehl said at the public information session on Oct. 15.

Bill Bradish, account manager for Palmer Energy, a Toledo-based consulting company, said that for aggregation, the larger the amount of people that participate, the cheaper the rates are.

“We consult with over half a million meters of land, houses and small businesses,” Bradish said. “The concept of this is big group, better price.”

Bradish said that Palmer Energy will help Athens find its best deal with renewable resources, adding that some communities have been able to save money while still being green.

Larry Falkin, director for the Office of Environmental Quality in Cincinnati, said that purchasing energy locally from Ohio or from a specific source like wind or solar would cost more.

“One-hundred percent green will only cost two percent more than the best offer,” Falkin said.

Hocking County is one of 35 counties in Ohio that has partnered with Palmer Energy to drop monthly rates from about eight cents per kilowatt-hour to five cents per kilowatt-hour statewide for residents deciding to stay in the program, Bradish said.

Whether Athens residents pick price over the environment or not, they can expect to see their rates drop as early as six months from now, Bradish said.

“I would encourage any community to consider electric aggregation because there are benefits and reduced pricing out there that they can achieve,” Bradish said.

Read the original story in The Post ,here

Athens says yes to electric aggregation

By Cassie Kelly |November 6, 2013 

Voters in the city of Athens, and in the county as a whole, largely voted for government electric aggregation Tuesday night, and residents can expect to see changes in their electric bills as early as six months from now.

Issue 3, the city’s ballot initiative, passed 84 percent to 16 percent in a decisive vote to allow the city to purchase electricity with citizens at a price officials have said will be much cheaper.

Issue 2, a duplicate measure on the ballot throughout the county, passed marginally with 52 percent voting for and 48 percent against the measure.

Because both issues passed, the two entities can work together on an electric aggregation program.

Before any aggregation program could begin, there must be a few public hearings, after which city officials and county commissioners will draft an agreement contract based upon the community’s concerns.

If approved by city council, as would be expected being that most council members have in the past voiced support, the county and city officials will start to find a broker or company that can offer them a good deal.

“We are looking for a reliable energy source at fair market value,” said Councilman Steve Patterson, D-at Large.

A renewable energy source is a major goal, said Jeff Risner, D-2nd Ward.

County Commissioner Chris Chmiel said he’s ideally expecting to see electric costs drop from eight cents per kilowatt-hour to five cents.

“We are trying to change the world one kilowatt at a time,” Chmiel said.

Although it was generally agreed upon that aggregation would be good for citizen’s checkbooks, there were some reservations among city and county officials Tuesday night about the environment.

“If the deal is cheap but they are polluting the planet, what good is that for the future?” Risner said. “I think most people would be willing to pay a bit more for a sustainable climate.”

The program would only be applicable to some residents living in the city of Athens. Elsewhere in the county, residents would have to pass their own ballot initiative to work inside the system to be created in Athens.

Because this is an opt-out program, residents will have to choose to not to be a part of it once they are added in. At the informational session Oct. 21, Bill Bradish, account manager of Palmer Energy Company, said no matter the length of the contract, residents have the option to opt out every three years.

Read the original story in The Post, here

City earns grant to renovate house on Richland Ave for low-income families

By Cassie Kelly | October 9, 2013

The city of Athens received a $75,000 Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to renovate 458 Richland Ave., a city-owned house, for low-to-moderate-income families.

The city will provide $5,610 in cost share to make the house accessible for people with disabilities.

The Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority will be renting out the house and Executive Director Keith Andrews said the rent would not be more than 30 percent of the new homeowners’ income.

The Authority operates 71 units of public housing in Athens, but only two of the houses are certified by the Americans with Disabilities Act checklist.

Andrews said they plan to make their houses accessible for their clients’ needs with no cost to them.

Public housing benefits cities like Athens because it reduces poverty levels by making the rent affordable, according to Andrews.

“We manage our properties very well for the city of Athens,” said Andrews.           

Steve Patterson, D-At Large, said he has been pushing for the Richland Avenue house to be certified by the American Disabilities Act and he hopes to give the house a “universal design” with wheelchair accessibility.

“I want to make sure that we are an all-inclusive city and that we are accommodating,” said Patterson.

Patterson added that according to the act’s certification guidelines, everything from the width of the doors to the height of the windows must be adjusted.

“You could have a 4-year-old not be able to open a door because it’s too heavy. But, you could also have an 80-year-old grandmother or spouse who, because of a disease or disability, may have difficulty opening that door,” Patterson said. “It gives equal access to everybody.”

Patterson said he hopes to have a family living in the house within a year.

Since 2002, Athens Fire Department Station 2 was using the house for storage to secure land for a possible expansion, Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl said. But the plan ultimately fell through.

“My administration has been committed to providing diversity of housing when possible,” Wiehl said.

Read the original story in The Post, here

Power to the people: Athens puts electric aggregation on November ballot

By Cassie Kelly | September 5, 2013

Athens City Council made the decision to put electric aggregation on the November ballot and, if passed, could mean huge changes for how Athens residents get their energy.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio describes aggregation as a process of a government entity, state or local, to join with their citizens to buy natural gas and/or electricity for the city. This gives the city control to sell the resource at a lower cost to residents.

County commissioners put a similar aggregation initiative on the ballot, which some council members say — though it might seem redundant — would give the city more purchasing power when buying electricity.

If both pass, it would allow the city and county to work in tandem, making the transition easier for the community, according to Mayor Paul Wiehl.

But city and county officials can’t determine how much cheaper it would be until the legislation passes, said Ron Lucas, the city’s deputy service safety director.

Although the administration is still in the planning phase with this program, Lucas said he firmly believes the aggregation will save money for commercial businesses and residents.

Resident will be able to resign from the program if they don’t want to be a part of it.

Michele Papai, D-3rd Ward, reassured the public and said, “even if this moves forward on the county level, there will be all sorts of opportunities for public input.

“For a community like Athens, it is something we might really want to do.”

Another benefit to passing the legislation is green energy credit, meaning more grants, and being more conscientious of the environment.

“We can ensure that a greater percentage of our energy purchase is coming from renewable sources and, even potentially, some local renewable sources,” said interim councilwoman Jennifer Cochran, D-at large.

An ordinance for Gas Aggregation was discussed, but lacked the two-third vote needed to be put on the May Primary ballot for the city.

The reason there is such a newfound focus on electric aggregation is that the industry is being deregulated in Ohio, resulting in opportunity for cheaper rates.

Chris Fahl, D-4th Ward, said that means consumers will be overwhelmed with offers from electric companies.  She was arguing that if Athens can pass electric aggregation, buying power from the city will not only be a cheaper option, but an easier one.

“(Athens citizens) can say ‘no, thank you’ and not have to deal with all the marketers,” said Fahl.

Council members discussed all the enthusiasm they are receiving from residents thus far. Fahl said she has already received phone calls from people wanting her business. And, brokers are offering to “go shopping” for them when it comes to buying the power. Even Ohio University President Roderick McDavis is interested in the discussion.

 “If we can strike now while the iron is hot with the county, lets get it done,” said Cochran.

Read the original story in The Post, here.

Questionnaire given to relatives of Athens-based nursing home residents displays favorable results

By Cassie Kelly | January 25, 2013 

Athens’ nursing homes received excellent ratings from their residents’ families, according to the Ohio Department of Aging’s Satisfaction Survey.

The Kimes Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and The Laurels of Athens nursing home surpassed the statewide average of 85.6 percent on the survey, making them some of the better nursing homes in the state.

This is the first year both nursing homes were ranked on the survey. More than 27,000 family members and 948 homes in Ohio participated.

The Kimes Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, located on Kimes Lane in Athens, scored 93.8 on the survey, which was based on the quality of the staff, level of care the residents receive, the activities offered and the home’s environment.

The survey was intended to provide information for those looking for quality care for their family members. They also provided an opportunity for homes to receive a “quality point” for a reimbursement program Medicaid used to reward the quality of nursing homes.

Kimes’ score earned the home spot on the Top 25 Ohio Nursing Homes for Family Satisfaction.

“We call all our people family, whether they are a resident or staff member or visitor,” said Laura Buckley, an administrator at Kimes.

Kimes had high participation for the survey.

“We are pretty excited about it and proud of our staff, because it has a lot to do with our staff’s performance and our staff’s care and interest in their jobs,” Buckley said.

The Laurels of Athens, located on Columbus Road, scored well on the survey, too. The facility opened in December 2011, and only half of it was up and running when the survey was conducted. The facility scored 87.4 on the survey.

“We were taking care of brand-new guests with a brand-new staff in a brand-new building, so there was a lot of opportunity for things not to go well,” said Shaun Gentner, the administrator at The Laurels. “But it’s good to see that things went well onour end, and people are saying that it did go well.”

The Laurels offers a progressive activities program for residents, Gentner said.

Bill Bias, current Athens County treasurer and longtime nursing home consultant, said that both nursing homes do an excellent job, especially regarding all the caregivers who work for the homes.

“It is a very good job that they do, and it’s generally underappreciated and underpaid in our society,” Bias said. “I think this reflects very well on the caregivers, and I consider them angels.”

Read the original story in The Post, here. here.