Conservation districts disappointed with state's funding adjustments
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.
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- 2 charged with copper theft from Greensburg house
- Police seek public help with East Huntingdon store thefts
- Seton Hill student tells how Pa. Gov. Wolf’s tax plan will hurt her
- Hempfield bicyclist who brought rock, knives into court office charged
- Jeannette police say 5 people caught trespassing on grounds
- Jeannette’s Monsour Medical Center demolition costs might go down
- 2 Democrats battle for Hempfield nomination for supervisor
- Electrical malfunction blamed for April 17 fire that destroyed home in Mt. Pleasant Township
- Greensburg YMCA begins long-awaited porch renovation job
- New charges against Hempfield bicyclist possible
- 4 Democrats seek 3 nods for Latrobe council