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Westmoreland officials fear loss of impact fees

| Friday, March 27, 2015, 10:30 p.m.

Westmoreland County commissioners aren't sure what to expect from Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal to enact a severance tax on Marcellus shale gas well drillers.

What they do know is that they don't want the revenues the county and local municipalities have received from impact fees since 2012 to dry up.

“The biggest concern I have in Westmoreland County is the way Act 13 is set up, everyone would benefit. Money goes back to the municipalities and the county,” Commissioner Tyler Courtney said. “If it goes to a severance tax, the money goes to Harrisburg and the general fund.”

Last week, Courtney sent a letter to the governor asking for clarification on the administration's proposal to impose a 5 percent severance tax on the gas that drillers extract.

The governor contends the tax could raise as much as $765 million in its first year, and much of the money would benefit public education.

As part of the proposal, as much as $225 million would be set aside in a separate fund to replace the impact fees that are now collected.

Impact fees this year are expected to generate about $220 million in the state, according to reports. That money is returned to counties and municipalities where gas wells are located.

Westmoreland County received more than $2 million from the impact fees in 2013 and nearly $2.3 million in 2014. Officials expect to receive $1.125 million this year because of fewer wells being drilled in the state and county.

The county's 67 municipalities received $1.2 million in impact fees in 2013 and $1.3 million last year.

Courtney, a Republican, said the Democratic governor's proposal could endanger those dollars.

“If I had my druthers, I'd rather stick to the impact fees,” he said. “Westmoreland County has not seen the development other counties have due to Marcellus shale, but we will. And I have concerns about Harrisburg making decisions how those distributions will work.”

Westmoreland officials have used the impact fees to help operate the 911 emergency dispatching services, to boost conservation district efforts and to pay for human service programs. Some money has been allocated to improve bridges and for land conservation programs.

Commissioner Charles Anderson, a Republican, said he opposes Gov. Wolf's severance tax plan because it will hurt business.

“Any time you put a tax on an industry, you slow it down,” Anderson said. “I'm opposed to any kind of tax. If he is going to replace Act 13 with any other scheme, I'm not in favor of it.”

Commissioner Ted Kopas, a Democrat, said while details of the governor's plan haven't been finalized, the county doesn't stand to lose any funding it receives from impact fees.

“I want to make sure Westmoreland County and the municipalities continue to receive the same funding we've gotten accustomed to,” he said. “It is my understanding that the special tax is in addition to and would be above and beyond what the impact fees provided.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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