State, conservation districts tussle over funding

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Tim Stuhldreher
Tim Stuhldreher

Last year, the state's 66 conservation districts received $4.2 million, drawn from the state's General Fund.

This year, they are to receive $5 million, but not from the General Fund. That line item is "zeroed out" in Gov. Tom Corbett's $28.4 billion budget proposal. Instead, the money will be drawn from the impact fee authorized by the state's shale gas law, Act 13.

So, a different source, but more money — and in 2014-15, the funding will increase to $7.5 million. That doesn't sound like a bad deal.

So why is Robert Maiden, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts Inc., not happy?

There are two reasons, I learned from conversations with Maiden last week and Monday. But first, some background.

Conservation districts provide advice and technical assistance for local environmental efforts. In Central Pennsylvania, they provide critical assistance to farmers being called upon to limit agricultural runoff as part of the multistate Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, Maiden said.

The state is obliged to limit various pollutants affecting the bay to a "total maximum daily load," or TMDL for short. The Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing the bay's "pollution diet" and can issue fines for noncompliance.

If the conservation districts pull back on their efforts, Pennsylvania agriculture could end up taking a serious economic hit, he said.

"We are the backbone of meeting the Chesapeake Bay TMDL," Maiden said.

The work is not part of the agencies' core mission, Maiden said, but it's a natural extension of what they do.

Conservation districts receive both state and county funding. In 2008, the state portion totaled $5.4 million. So last year's $4.2 million represents a drop of about 22 percent.

Since 2008, conservation districts have cut 53 staff positions, out of a little more than 500 statewide, Maiden said.

Meanwhile, the workload has grown significantly larger and more difficult, he said. Staffers are dealing with complex new environmental rules, as well as new issues, such as shale gas.

Doing more with less goes only so far; at some point, you need the tools to do more, he suggested.

Maiden's second concern is equity. Impact fee money is supposed to go toward counties experiencing impacts from shale gas drilling. However, until now, conservation districts in the Chesapeake Bay area have received a greater share of funding.

Marcellus Shale counties and Chesapeake Bay counties both can make good cases for needing the money. It's hard to envision an allocation that will make everyone happy, Maiden said.

Of the $5 million, half will be divided equally among the 66 districts. The State Conservation Commission is in charge of choosing how to allocate the other half.

Last year, some counties cut back funding to their conservation districts when the impact fee money — the first such infusion — came in, Maiden said.

The bottom line: The impact fee "isn't the big plus for funding that the state is saying it is," Maiden said.

The Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts had wanted impact fee money to supplement General Fund appropriations, not be a substitute, he said.

State officials, however, said the impact fee is a better funding source.

"By any measure, Act 13 is providing the conservation districts with more money … guaranteed funding that does not rely on General Fund appropriations," Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Kevin Sunday said in an email.

Likewise, Patrick Henderson, Corbett's energy executive, said in an email: "Conservation districts are ensured of certainty in funding — at a level that will exceed their prior General Fund appropriations."

The assured funding reflects Corbett's appreciation of conservation districts' vital work, Henderson said. Moreover, counties can use their own impact fee revenues to supplement conservation districts' funding on a case-by-case basis.

"That said, I understand that he (Maiden) is seeking additional money," Henderson said. "There is no downside in him asking."

Tim Stuhldreher covers banking, finance, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at tims@centralpennbusiness.com. You can also follow him on Twitter, @timstuhldreher.

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