Conservation Districts to Receive Act 13 Grants

Washington PA Observer Reporter
21 February 2013
By Michael Bradwell, Business Editor

Conservation districts in Washington and Greene counties are set to receive grants totaling nearly $154,000 from drilling fees paid by the oil and gas industry working in the state’s Marcellus Shale.

But one district manager noted Thursday the grants, while welcomed, don’t represent a windfall for his operations.

According to a news release from state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, the Washington County Conservation District will receive a total of $83,758, the third-highest amount in the state, while Greene County will receive $69,871.

Solobay noted the five Southwestern Pennsylvania counties in the 46th Senate District will receive a large portion – $272,311 – of grants that will be dispersed from the Unconventional Gas Well Fund, created under Act 13 to help all 66 county conservation districts continue their services, with a special emphasis on those that host Marcellus Shale gas wells.

“In this region, Greene and Washington counties will receive grants that are among the largest in the state,” Solobay said in a statement. “It’s another way that energy exploration is giving back to the community.”

Conservation districts statewide, which provide a variety of services including erosion and sedimentation control programs and assistance with agricultural programs, will equally share $1.5 million through block grants, while another $1.5 million is distributed through a formula that considers the number of gas wells in a region.

In addition to the grants to be disbursed to Washington and Greene counties, Westmoreland County will receive $50,341 from the fund, while Allegheny and Beaver counties will each receive just over $34,000.

Despite the larger amounts being dispersed locally, Gary Stokum, manager of the Washington County’s conservation district, said the grants are actually replacing funding that once came from the state budget.

He said under Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2013-14 budget, conservation districts won’t receive any funds. Line item funding to the 66 districts has been zeroed out in the proposed spending plan.

According to the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts website, in 2008, the districts’ state line items funding level was at $5.4 million dollars. After that year, districts experienced a decline of 23 percent in state funding allotments. In the last fiscal year, they received $4.2 million in state funds through departmental line items.

Stokum said the money is used for staffing the districts, which perform local services for both the state Department of Environmental Protection and state Department of Agriculture.

Lisa Snider, district manager of the Greene County Conservation District, said the county is obviously pleased with the allocation, but what her agency plans to do with the money is “up in the air.”

She said her board has not acted yet, pending the passage of the state budget.

“We will have to wait and see what we get from the state before we make any commitments for the Act 13 money.”

But Stokum said it doesn’t appear any money will be forthcoming from the state budget.

“This isn’t a windfall,” Stokum said of the Unconventional Gas Well Fund grants.

While it’s true that the new fund is expected to provide about $1.2 million more across the state’s 66 conservation districts than the previous fiscal year budget allotment, Stokum said, it remains to be seen whether the current level of grants will be maintained in future years.

The districts currently receive a combination of funds from county, state and federal sources.

While the current funding stream from the oil and gas industry in the state is good from the standpoint “that it takes the politics of the budget” out of the equation, Stokum said, the disadvantage is that it would be very difficult for the conservation districts to become state-funded again if they’re dropped from the budget.

Greene County Bureau Chief Jon Stevens contributed to this story.