Conservation districts may be cut from budget
SUNBURY - A lot of attention is being paid this week to sequestration in Washington, D.C.
A change in state funding, however, is what has those at the Northumberland County Conservation District (NCCD) concerned.
The proposed budget Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled Feb. 5 would eliminate this fiscal year's $2.8 million allocation to state conservation districts. While some of that money would be replaced with funding from the Marcellus Shale impact fee, it may not be enough, said Judy Becker, district manager for NCCD.
"The loss of that funding would be pretty devastating to our office," she said. "People need to realize that when people in farming or construction have questions, we are their first contact. It is so important to have that presence in the county."
Last year, state funding accounted for $60,000 of NCCD's $350,000 operating budget. Most of the state money went toward the "patchwork quilt" of funding and fee revenue Becker must put together to pay the district's full-time employees.
"We will have to find a way to supplement the portion of those five employees' salaries that is not covered if the
budget line item is eliminated," she said.
Becker said funding for conservation districts has dropped from $5.5 million in 2008-09 to the current $2.8 million.
The state's contribution to NCCD, in fact, is less than what the county gives, which was $90,000 last year. The district receives money from three additional state funds focused specifically on watershed protection, nutrient management and Chesapeake Bay activities. At this point, those funds would stay flat for 2013-2014, she said.
The district also raises money through an annual membership drive and tree sale, and generates revenue through permitting fees for construction activities.
"Cutting the funding for Pennsylvania's conservation districts while the demands for their services are increasing hurts agriculture, infrastructure and the environment," Robert Maiden, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, said earlier this month in reaction to the governor's proposal.
Impact on farmers
If state funding is cut, Becker said one group that would be affected are the 970 farmers who make NCCD their first contact when new regulations come along. They get on-site help from two agriculture technicians who can help avoid issues down the road with the state Department of Environmental Resources (DEP).
"If the funding goes away, it takes away those visits, and county farmers would rather see us than DEP at their doorsteps," she said.
Work by the district's erosion and sedimentation technicians, who review permits related to earth moving and construction in lieu of DEP, might also be impacted.
"If DEP has to review the plans, there will be huge amounts of wait times," Becker said, noting DEP has faced cuts as well. "This has the potential to delay construction at a local level tremendously."
DEP figures show $5 million was given to conservation districts from Marcellus Shale impact fee dollars in 2012-13, and $7.5 million is slated for 2013-14.
NCCD received $18,939 from that fund in December, and will receive $38,000 in July. Starting in July 2014, the district would receive a projected $56,818 for the next 15 years. While that amount would mostly offset the $60,000 loss in the state line item, costs continue to increase, and NCCD can't assume its county funding will continue at the same level, Becker said.
"If our line item is eliminated in the state budget, all of that money will have to go toward employee salaries," rather than the district's ultimate goal of completing projects that mitigating pollution to waterways, Becker said. She said cost-share funding for county residents to do projects near their local streams hasn't been viable for a long time because funding is no longer available.
The district got some good news last week with the awarding of a $356,000 Growing Greener grant to help two farms with projects that will help reduce pollutants and sediment into Schwaben Creek and Hallowing Run. That funding can be used only on those projects.
Meanwhile, Becker said NCCD has reached out to state Reps. Lynda Culver (R-108) and Kurt Masser (R-107) and Sen. John Gordner (R-27) on the budget issue. Also, the state association has been lobbying lawmakers; the most recent update is that funding cuts for conservation districts was a topic of discussion in budget hearings in both the House and Senate.
"Hopefully that dialogue will continue," Becker said.