Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Farm money splits board
County leaders debate the issue BY DAN NEPHIN, Staff Writer
For the second year in a row, Lancaster County commissioners Chairman Scott Martin voted against using bond money to fund farmland-preservation efforts.
However, the measure to spend $2.75 million this year passed with votes from commissioners Dennis Stuckey and Craig Lehman.
Martin noted the county's debt of $269 million and the fact that the county Agricultural Preserve Board has about $5.3 million in unspent funds.
"My thing is, spend that. We have the ability to spend that without adding on more debt right now," he said Wednesday.
Reducing the county's debt is important, he said.
"What I hear from my constituents all the time are concerns about government debt at every level," he said.
He said that he would continue to search for other ways to fund farmland preservation.
"It's not an indictment of farmland preservation -- it's about finding a different way to do things …" he said.
To that end, he proposed putting $462,000 that the county is getting in Marcellus Shale drilling impact fees toward a $500,000 match grant for the private, nonprofit Lancaster Farmland Trust. The Trust would have to match that amount to get the county's money.
The county's balance would be funded with bond money.
"This is a great opportunity not only for an ongoing funding source that does not use debt but also would not tap into the general fund at this time," Martin said. "And what I'm really hoping for is that we can find a solution for the Ag Preserve Board moving forward."
Martin and Stuckey voted for the measure and Lehman abstained, saying he wasn't certain the money could be used for farmland preservation.
"What I wouldn't want the county to get in trouble of doing is, to spend the money and then have the (Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which regulates gas drilling) come back and say, 'Oh, no, you can't use those funds for that because there's no statutory authority for it,' " he said. "And then we'd have to figure out a way to pay for those funds by another means."
Stuckey said "there are times you just have to take action and try to be a leader, and if that comes back and bites us a little bit, so be it."
Jennifer Kocher, a PUC spokeswoman, said the agency has been asked whether specific programs around the state are eligible for funding, but "we are not interpreting anything beyond what is written in the law."
A section of Act 13, which authorizes drilling impact fees, states, "Funds may be used to acquire lands for recreational or conservation purposes and land damaged or prone to drainage by storms or flooding."
In all Wednesday, the commissioners authorized spending $3.25 million for farmland preservation this year.
That's down from the $4.13 million allocated last year and $5 million allocated in 2011.
Besides the $500,000 challenge grant money and $2.75 million in bond issues, the $3.25 million includes interest money and money from local governments.
About $3.02 million will be used to leverage state money for farmland preservation.
Last year, the commissioners allocated $700,000 to Lancaster Farmland Trust.
Matt Knepper, director of the county's Agricultural Preserve Board, said the Trust is "better able to serve Plain-sect farmers and areas of the county where there's a higher Plain-sect population, so we're able to preserve farms all around the county and not miss any areas."