Lack of state funds leave Butler County projects out in cold
Of 66 Butler County projects that lawmakers since 2004 deemed eligible for funding from a state redevelopment program, only seven got state money.
Butler County's wish list includes roads, stadiums and libraries. Seventeen projects have been on the list for so long, they stand to be dropped from it this year.
Those projects include a proposed ice rink outside of the city of Butler, a technology-based business park in Slippery Rock Township and an outpatient medical center in Adams.
Pullman Park did get nearly $2 million for renovations and the private Cranberry Commons retail development got $3 million, but others, including a performing arts center at Slippery Rock University, have received nothing.
The explanations range from politics to lack of state money.
Each year, lawmakers typically approve a wish list of projects, but it's up to the governor to decide which ones actually get funding through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.
Critics say that state legislators aren't pushing hard enough for funds doled out each year, while others said there's just not enough money to go around.
Last year, the state House and Senate reduced the $4.05 billion maximum the state could borrow for the program by $600 million.
“Philadelphia gets the biggest share, then Pittsburgh gets the next biggest share, and all the others in the state vie for what's left,” said Art Cordwell, director of the city of Butler's Redevelopment Authority. “We're at the end of the line, and we're hoping that we'll get whatever crumbs fall off the table.”
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who represents southern Butler County, said he's not a fan of the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program because it “functions pretty much as a political slush fund for the governor, no matter what party is in. The administration uses it to have their way with certain legislators.”
Program changes within the past couple years have taken the politics out of the process, according to Jay Pagni, spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett. He said the evaluation process for funding is “more metric-based,” including taking into consideration how ready the project is, how many jobs it would create and what economic impact it would have on an area, and the geographic location.
For 2013, the program awarded $133 million for 58 projects in 24 counties, creating or retaining more than 45,000 jobs, Pagni said. In 2012, $125 million in funding went to 54 projects in 28 counties.“Have you dotted the I's or crossed the T's?” Pagni said of the considerations that go into the evaluation process. “Have you moved beyond the conceptual phase? Is this a potential reality?”
Cranberry supervisors Chairman Bruce Mazzoni said Metcalfe “doesn't have the clout in Harrisburg” to push projects through for funding and said the program shouldn't be compared to a slush fund.
“It's not just a state legislator waving a flag and yelling, ‘Over here, over here!'” Mazzoni said. “The grants are done in a process, submitting the information in a logical way, in order to highlight what needs to be done in a particular area. It's not just the governor making a decision.”
In response, Metcalfe portrayed Mazzoni as a “tax-and-spend liberal.”
“My goal is to make sure we fight to reduce spending and keep the tax burden low, to keep taxpayers' money in their pockets,” Metcalfe said.
Rule changes mean that projects not active since June 2004 will be removed from the list when the 10-year deadline hits, Pagni said.
Butler County didn't do a good job back then prioritizing projects, according to David Johnston, head of the county's planning commission.
“For years, anybody and everybody would throw those on there without any coordination,” said Johnston. “And until recently, there was no shelf life.”
Johnston said that county commissioners several years ago started meeting with local groups and legislators to coordinate which projects should be considered for funding.
The city of Butler has received $2 million in matching grants for its Centre City project, which includes construction of a hotel, parking garage and drugstore. Cordwell said the redevelopment authority will continue to try to get an additional $4 million the project was authorized to receive initially.
Zelienople was rejected last year for a $3.9 million grant for its street-scape program. In February, the borough tried again, upping the requested amount to $4.9 million, because it added redevelopment of the shuttered Kaufman House restaurant.
“It's critical,” borough Manager Donald Pepe said of the funding. “Believe it, it's the linchpin to be able to do this project.”
Cranberry in 2013 received initial authorization for millions in funding, including $2.5 million for a library expansion and $2.5 million for a water line expansion on Executive Drive and a pump station on Commonwealth Drive. The township only received $600,000 to develop athletic fields at Graham Park.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.