Shale gas drilling could be boost to Allegheny County parks
At Deer Lakes Park, the toilets don't flush. The bathroom buildings are boarded up.
When it rained during Rhonda Russell grandson's birthday party, garbage bags stapled over holes in pavilion roofs leaked, making her, her grandson and his friend dodge water drops during dinner.
“It's just criminal how it's been let go,” said Russell, 61, of Frazer. “Out there, I would say it needs about a million (dollars) in fixing.”
Allegheny County Council soon will consider a proposal from energy companies Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley to drill for natural gas under the park. The deal would inject millions of dollars into a shrinking parks budget and, officials say, make a dent in the more than $100 million in repairs and maintenance needed throughout the county's nine-park system.
Russell, who organizes a car show each year, supports drilling and hopes it will bring much-needed repairs to Deer Lakes.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has said drilling would bring the county $4.7 million upfront, a $3 million donation to a park improvement fund, and about $60 million in royalties over 20 years. Range Resources projects the county could reap $70 million in royalties, said spokesman Matt Pitzarella. He and Fitzgerald characterized their estimates as conservative.
Fitzgerald told council that drilling would enable the county to improve parks without raising property taxes. The county last raised property taxes in December 2011, increasing the tax rate 1 mill, a roughly 21 percent bump.
The potential total value of the Deer Lakes drilling deal equates to about 1 mill of property tax, about $68 million, officials said.
Residents opposed to drilling under the park have said the financial upside is not worth risks to the environment. Council Vice President Nick Futules, who chairs the Parks Committee, said he will hold a meeting to discuss the risks and rewards of drilling.
“It's not a silver bullet,” Ronald Schipani, capital projects and program manager for the Allegheny County Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for park projects, said. “It's a small piece of getting back to where we should be.”
Total county funding for parks has dropped under Fitzgerald's administration. The county has allocated about $7 million less per year during Fitzgerald's first three years than during former county Executive Dan Onorato's last term. The Onorato administration, however, allocated $12.5 million toward dredging North Park Lake between 2009 and 2011.
During Onorato's second four years, the Parks Department averaged 12 percent of the county's annual capital budget. The yearly average dropped to 5 percent under Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald said the county cut back capital spending overall to avoid incurring debt. Road and bridge projects took up much of the capital budget. He said recent drops in capital spending for the parks would not become a pattern.
“You'll see some new things and some improvements to things we already have. And then there will be some deferred maintenance,” if council approves drilling, Fitzgerald said.
Revenue from natural gas leases transformed parks in other counties. Washington County signed a lease with Range Resources to drill within Cross Creek Park, bringing in $11 million since 2009, said Scott Fergus, the county administrator. The county installed 12 boat docks in the park and is working on a $1.6 million plan to put docks and a playground in an undeveloped section of the park, Fergus said.
Marshall County, W.Va., about 70 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, used money from a natural gas lease with Chesapeake Energy to help pay for a $650,000 zip line at Grand Vue Park, said Betsy Frohnapfel, county administrator. The lease netted Marshall County an upfront payment of $1.5 million. Drilling has not started.
Instead of immediately spending the money, Marshall County established a trust, Frohnapfel said, and spends the interest, $44,000 to $48,000 a year, on park improvements. It borrows against the trust to pay for major capital projects.
Fitzgerald is considering a similar approach, though he questioned the county's return, based on low interest rates.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or email@example.com.
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