Saturday, March 1, 2003

Lawmakers trying to preserve conservation corps

Program for troubled youths valuable in emergencies, officials say

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - As Gov. Bob Taft proposes eliminating funding for a conservation program for troubled youth, lawmakers once again are searching for ways to keep the Ohio Civilian Conservation Corps functioning.

Their efforts are welcomed by southern Ohio emergency officials who say their roads still would be blocked by debris if not for the corps members' efforts during Ohio's worst ice storm in decades last week.

"They were a godsend to me as mayor of Wellston because we didn't have all the resources we needed when disasters like this occurred," said John Carey, now a state senator from Jackson County. "I think everyone's supportive of the program. It's just how do we pay for it? That's what we're trying to figure out."

He and other lawmakers are meeting with local partners, such as two-year colleges and community action agencies, to ask if they could help pay for the program. They also are working with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to see if federal funds would be available.

Taft's budget, the tightest in decades, proposes eliminating funding for the program, the state's version of a Depression-era government work program that teaches skills to unemployed youth. The Legislature still must approve Taft's budget.

The Ohio program, founded in 1977, escaped closure in 2000 after lawmakers cobbled together about $12 million from other funding sources for the current two-year budget.

Terrie TerMeer, chief of Ohio's corps, said she has no choice but to start phasing out the program, and two camps are set to close as early as this weekend, with dozens losing their jobs.

"If there's no chance of funding, they'll stay until the lights go out. That's just the kind of people they are," she said.

About 90 corps members from seven of the state's CCC camps worked in four Ohio River counties for 10 straight days after the President's Day ice storm that left a crystal blanket on southern Ohio.

Until Wednesday, they spent 12 hours a day or more clearing roads of fallen trees and brush to give access to snow plows, salt trucks and utility vehicles.

"They were here working when they knew they were going to lose their jobs in a month" Kimberly Carver, director of the Scioto County Emergency Management Agency, said. "I do not know what communities will do following a disaster without the tireless work the 3Cs perform from dusk till dawn until there are no more people in need."

Gene Triplett, Meigs County's engineer, said roads likely still would be blocked without the corps' efforts.

"We just didn't have the manpower we needed to do it all ourselves," he said.

Jim Batey, manager of the Zaleski CCC Camp in McArthur, spent a week in Gallia and Meigs counties with several work crews to clear debris from roads so power companies could repair downed lines. He will lose his job if the program is eliminated.

"You put that out of your mind. You do your job until you can't do it anymore or they won't let you," he said.

"If we're not around, who are they going to call when such an overwhelming disaster happens again?"

Dick Kimmins, spokesman with the Ohio EMA, said local governments often ask for help when hard labor is needed, and the state dispatches corps teams, Ohio Department of Transportation workers and the Ohio National Guard.

However, he noted, since guard members have been committed to homeland security priorities, the state has depended more on the corps.

"If that resource is not available, we would have to rely on the others who do much the same thing," Kimmins said.

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