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The $2M question: How to spend it

Rich Cholodofsky
| Tuesday, July 10, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Westmoreland officials expect to receive up to a $2 million check on Dec. 1, the county's portion of Marcellus shale impact fees.

Just how to spend that cash, though, is still a question, so commissioners want the public's opinion.

Commissioners on Monday at the courthouse conducted the first of five evening meetings, four of which will be in municipalities around the county, asking how the money should be spent.

“We should use it to reduce taxes, then everybody benefits,” said Sallie Bradley of Penn Township.

Under state law approved earlier this year, the county has 13 prescribed categories in which to use the money.

About $1.3 million of the impact fee cash will be used for projects such as tax reductions; road, bridge and infrastructure repairs; water system repairs; emergency response; environmental programs; reclamation of water supplies; safe and affordable housing initiatives; mapping projects; social services; and operation of the judicial system.

The augmentation of capital-improvement accounts; funds for career and technical training of workers in the oil and gas industry; and other local planning initiatives are also targets for spending, according county Planning Director Jason Rigone.

In addition to the county's discretionary funding, another $457,700 will be set aside for bridge and road projects and $274,600 earmarked for parks and recreation uses.

The money, generated from the now 191 wells drilled throughout the county, will be split among the state, county and local municipalities.

All of the county's municipalities will divvy up about $2 million, with Derry Township expected to earn the most, about $384,000 this year.

Impact fees revenue could increase or decrease in the coming years based on the number of new wells drilled and the price of natural gas.

Rigone said that if after five years the number of new wells jumps 25 percent, the county could see its discretionary funding from the impact fees increase to more than $3.2 million annually.

Spending ideas raised by eight speakers on Monday night ranged from paying for insurance to guard against environmental catastrophes caused by the drilling to studies to assess air and water quality.

Chuck Duritsa, a member of the board of the Westmoreland County Conservation District, proposed having his agency receive a portion of the money to oversee enhanced safety management of the drilling industry.

“We would like the county to contribute,” Duritsa said.

Jim Smith, vice president of the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland County, told commissioners that infrastructure should be targeted.

“This should be looked upon as found money. It should be used for things that will bring economic return, economic value,” Smith said.

Marian Szmyd asked the commissioners to look beyond the dollar figures.

“I'd like a study done to see who has been injured. Everybody's looking at the money and the income, and there is more to it than that,” Szmyd said.

The next public hearing will be conducted on Tuesday night in Washington Township.

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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