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Unity officials say no to matching grant for park projects

| Sunday, June 10, 2012, 12:58 p.m.

Unity Township supervisors and the Latrobe-Unity Parks and Recreation Commission are at odds again.

Commission Executive Director Jeanne Ashley sent an e-mail to supervisors on Feb. 1 requesting input on an application for a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Ashley would like to apply for a $35,000 matching grant for a toddler play area and a walking path for Central Park in Marguerite or a $30,000 matching grant for excavation, trees, a small boat storage shed and some repairs for Unity Park.

She has proposed that the township match the grant by doing in-kind work.

On Feb. 18, the supervisors sent Ashley a letter to quash that hope.

"Although we have been and are supportive of the projects that Latrobe-Unity Parks and Recreation undertake, we do not intend to participate with in-kind services that you feel is needed for the two projects mentioned in your e-mail," the letter said.

The letter suggested that the commission use a portion of the $151,341 contribution it received from the township last summer.

The township, the City of Latrobe and the Greater Latrobe School District each give the commission an annual contribution based on a per capita rate of $7.16, according to chairwoman Susan Mains of the recreation commission.

"In the last six years, Unity Township has not only given the lion's share of funding for parks and recreation, but has given in-kind services in excess of $200,000, " the supervisors said in the letter to Ashley.

Chairman Mike O'Barto said the township can't afford to give any extra than the annual contribution after another round of budget cuts this past year.

"We just can't make a commitment to in-kind services," O'Barto said. "We've had to tighten our budget. I don't know if the recreation commission has done the same. They seem to be spending money like it's just business as usual for them.

"We're just like most municipalities out there. ... We're trying to do as much as we can with as little as possible," O'Barto said.

Ashley said the regional recreation commission is blessed to have the resources to do in-kind work and feels by working together, the entities can come up with a solution that suits everyone.

"Our partnership has allowed us to do so much out in the township that the township needed and we still need to do more," Ashley said. "But I think that until the three entities embrace our regional program, then we'll continue to go in three different directions instead."

O'Barto said he and his fellow supervisors would like to help as they have in the past, but now is "a time to prioritize."

"We have lost a lot of money recently, for example, on salt," O'Barto said. "We spent close to $500,000 on salt last year, and this year, we are probably going to end up spending around $350,000. With that will eventually come road repairs.

"We can't just think about recreation; we have to think about what is going on in our township," O'Barto said.

Ashley, however, is confident a solution can be reached.

"It'll get worked out," she said. "If we don't get the in-kind support to do a grant, I'll just write a grant for another park location, but it would have to be a much smaller grant and that kind of kicks us off course a little bit."

In June, the two entities feuded over the aforementioned annual contribution when the supervisors voided a $75,000 check intended to be the first of two equal payments to the commission.

O'Barto and supervisors Jake Blank and John Milant cited a "top-heavy" commission employee payroll and pay-to-participate fees for park programs as the reason for the action.

Children of district residents were required to pay a $50 fee to participate in "play camps" at Legion Keener Park in Latrobe and Unity-Lakeside Park. Children of non-district residents were required to pay a $60 fee to participate.

"It just seems like much of what the township is paying is going toward salaries," O'Barto said in June. "It seems the commission has become big business."

Supervisors eventually tendered the $75,000 contribution after a holdout that lasted more than two weeks.

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