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Conservation districts disappointed with state's funding adjustments

| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 10:17 a.m.
Greg Phillips, district manager and CEO of the Westmoreland Conservation District, looks over a farm in Crabtree, Hempfield Township, on March 8, 2013. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

Greg Phillips had hoped that the Westmoreland County Conservation District would eventually be able to use Marcellus shale impact fees to start a pilot program for gas drillers to work with landscape architects and erosion control specialists to restore farmland and forested areas.

Instead, he might have to cut programs.

Under Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget, the impact fee money that is flowing to Pennsylvania's 66 conservation districts will replace state funding.

The budget would eliminate $4.2 million in state aid to the districts because of the money generated by gas well drilling fees. The fees, which companies pay for each well they drill, eventually will provide $7.5 million to conservation districts, which issue permits for erosion control projects, restore watersheds and help farmers and homeowners meet environmental regulations.

“If we can get the funding restored, we can start to look at some of the Marcellus issues,” said Phillips, the Westmoreland district's manager. “But if it goes the other way, it's going to hurt us.”

Robert Maiden, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, said districts expected funding from the gas drilling fees to supplement state funds.

“The whole point of the impact fee bill was there were new impacts the industry was bringing to Pennsylvania, and the fee would pay for those impacts,” Maiden said. “It goes against the whole concept. The governor's office said this is a new impact, therefore they need to pay a fee — not pay for the effects of all the other industries that were here before them.”

Patrick Henderson, Corbett's energy executive, said that when impact-fee legislation was drafted, lawmakers and the administration decided that conservation districts would receive more money from the fees than even the state Department of Environmental Protection because the fees likely would replace budget line items.

“While there was not a binding agreement that the impact fee money would replace the state's general fund allocation, it was certainly inferred that was probable,” Henderson said.

For this fiscal year, the 66 districts will share $2.5 million in impact fees. The amount will increase to $5 million in 2013-14 and $7.5 million in 2014-15 with a cost-of-living increase annually after that.

Henderson said that that's more than the conservation districts currently receive.

“Further, by having guaranteed funding from the natural gas impact fee, conservation districts — unlike almost all other programs in state government — are assured of funding each year and not dependent on an unpredictable budget process,” he said.

Drew Crompton, chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, who helped to shape the impact fee, said legislators made no pledge to remove money from the budget.

“We recognized the budget was the budget, and this is how we wanted as a General Assembly to disburse the impact fee,” Crompton said. “We recognized all sorts of people would make all sorts of decisions down the road in light of the impact fee.”

He said Scarnati favors putting at least some funding back in the budget for conservation districts.

Maiden and others said that because the state slashed conservation funding by 23 percent in 2008, additional money from impact fees would only start to restore districts to previous levels.

“The districts are going to have to prioritize, and things that we don't get funding for that we've historically done may have to go to the bottom of the pile,” he said.

Funding trade-off

Washington County Conservation District manager Gary Stokum said the cuts will compound chronic underfunding.

“Since they're dividing it up over all the conservation districts and not just the ones that are impacted, it really reduces how much those counties that do have a lot of drilling ... (will receive),” Stokum said. “Even though we're seeing a lot of work, a lot of impacts, we're not seeing a lot of extra money to offset that impact we're seeing.”

He said he worries about the future.

“This is your funding forever, and over time, that could really paint us into a corner,” he said.

Phillips said the first few years of the impact fee — without a state budget cut — would help the Westmoreland district to return to past funding levels and boost depleted reserves. He said he hopes to then start the program to fully restore drilling sites in two high-quality water areas and two agricultural areas.

“We would try to make this the way in which the sites are restored rather than just seed and mulch it,” Phillips said.

Armstrong County Conservation District Manager Dave Rupert said his office took a $21,000 cut from the county after the impact fee law took effect.

“If we don't get (state budget money) restored, then obviously that Marcellus shale impact fee money will be one of our only sources of revenue from the commonwealth, and we'll have to sit down and revise budgets accordingly,” Rupert said. “If the budget stayed the same as it was for the previous fiscal year, the impact fee money just put us back to where we were eight years ago.”

Fayette Conversation District Manager Doug Petro said the county gave his office $60,000 from impact fees to hire an employee to answer questions from the public about gas well drilling and other environmental issues. The office eliminated that position after the 2008 budget cut.

“It seems they give with one hand and take away with another,” said Greene County district manager Lisa Snider. “I don't think it's the end of conservation districts, but it's going to be tough.”

Jennifer Reeger is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or jreeger@tribweb.com.

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