Harlan Shober, Washington County commissioner who is president of the County Commissioners Association, noted Wednesday in Harrisburg that one of the counties’ priorities for 2017 includes maintaining the shale gas impact fee, known as Act 13.
In a press conference at the Capitol, Shober introduced Erick Coolidge, a Tioga County commissioner who serves as chair of CCAP’s Agriculture Committee and Natural Gas Task Force.
Coolidge said the impact fees generated by Act 13 of 2012 have allowed the counties with shale gas wells the flexibility to address their unique local impact.
“We know it’s important,” Shober said last week in advance of the press conference. “Everyone in the state, all 67 counties, have really come together on the Act 13 revenue piece because everybody gets money from it.
“The governor’s talking about one of the areas where they see new revenues is in the gas industry. I think he’s still going to push for more severance tax. Everyone’s looking for dollars.”
Both the independent Fiscal Office and the Governor’s Budget Office project a deficit of $600 million in 2016-17 and a deficit in 2017-18 topping $1.5 billion.
In addition, the impact fees have brought improvements in environment and infrastructure in all 67 counties. “Should any proposals to place a severance tax on the natural gas industry be considered in the future,” Coolidge said, “counties’ priority is to preserve the current impact fee and its distribution structure to local governments so counties continue to have the flexibility to address critical infrastructure, safety, training, and economic development needs.”
Last September, the state Supreme Court, in a case originating in Robinson Township, Washington County, struck down several provisions of the Pennsylvania oil and gas law, such as the use of eminent-domain condemnation for natural gas storage; excluding owners of private wells from those notified of hazardous spills; and drilling companies’ fast-track to Commonwealth Court when challenging local zoning ordinances. The court also ruled in favor of disclosing a list of chemicals that physicians can access in conjunction with oil or gas production.
Shober said the priorities were selected by CCAP members as the issues with the greatest significance and the greatest potential impact to counties during the coming year.
Other priorities include funding of what are known as “human services,” including protection of children and youth and the elderly, mental health and intellectual disability services, housing supports, drug and alcohol treatment related to opioids and juvenile justice.
Changes in the child protection system in 2015, an outgrowth of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case at Penn State, resulted in nearly 30 new laws causing a significant number of increases in referrals to children and youth agencies.
But no increase in state funding came with the new mandates. A months-long budget impasse lasted from 2015 to 2016, leaving counties and service providers to shoulder the burden during the interim.
County commissioners have asked for the ability to diversify the county tax base through a sales, earned income or personal income tax.
“So if the Commonwealth should attempt to balance the budget by lessening or abandoning its commitment to fund these programs, they need to understand they have not held the line on taxes – instead they have endorsed , if not required, increases in local property taxes. Every legislator, every taxpayer, every family in need should send the message that such a strategy is wrong,” said George Hartwick III, Dauphin County commissioner who chairs the CCAP Human Service Committee.