County’s use of impact fees

While Lycoming County chose to allocate more than half of its Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling impact fee money to various entities within the county, the rest – $3.7 million – is allocated toward projects within county government.

Funds expended to date total $458,652. Following is the breakdown, provided by Beth Johnston, county director of fiscal services:

Scanning and digitizing documents in the Register and Recorder’s office – $233,502.

Case management and full court software for the prothonotary’s office for increased efficiency – $99,404.

Prison overcrowding study – $81,300.

Portion of a vehicle for the coroner which focused on safety upgrades – $44,446.

Future county projects for which impact fee dollars have been allocated total $2,173,870 and include the following:

Department of Public Safety’s microwave project for increased efficiency to countywide emergency communications – $1.88 million.

Transportation studies – $150,000.

Upgrades to all court-related departments for improvements to security and processes – $138,870.

The rest of the funds are in other various projects, with more than $700,000 in a capital reserve fund for any necessary projects between now and July when the next impact fee check is anticipated.

County Commissioner Jeff Wheeland said the importance of scanning and digitizing the records in the Register and Recorder’s office is to prevent damage by handling or flooding, as the documents are on the first floor of the courthouse.

The wake-up call came with the flooding of September 2011. Had the levee breached in Williamsport, “we would’ve lost those records forever,” Wheeland said.

Impact fee monies gave the county the ability to digitize those records, he said.

The prison overcrowding study is critical as the situation has to be solved, said William Kelly, county planning department deputy director.

“We’ve completed a study that recommended a number of alternative ways to deal with that, structurally … We’ve got to solve it. That’s our responsibility,” Kelly said.

The Department of Public Safety microwave project involves significant upgrades or replacement of the system on which emergency response depends, he said.

A legacy defined

In early 2008, the Community Natural Gas Task Force formed to identify key issues to help shape public policy, and that summer, community and local government leaders went to Texas to learn from the Barnett Shale gas exploration.

There, the group learned one key aspect: “You can’t get started on your planning early enough,” Kelly said. They returned ready to examine how to address the immediate infrastructure needs to meet the demand of the natural gas industry’s influx of workers and traffic, he said.

“We had to examine who has control of the land, and how to allow for drilling to occur in a way that is consistent with the overall vision for the quality of life in the county,” Kelly said.

Components of that included an updated county zoning ordinance, digitized, scanned and updated land records, and working with Pennsylvania College of Technology to create well-field training programs, he said.

An updated zoning ordinance was important as the gas industry wanted a “predictable rulebook to work with,” said county planning commission Executive Director Kurt Hausammann.

Uses included oil and gas staging facilities; oil and gas compressors; processing and metering facilities; oil and gas reuse storage facilities; extraction; and oil and gas development.

Regulations allowed for gas drilling to occur everywhere under county zoning control except rural centers and neighborhood preservation districts; no drilling in floodway areas of streams, or on steep slopes; and setbacks were established for ridge tops. A zoning permit is required for all drilling pads and uses, Hausammann said.

The county worked with the gas industry in refining the ordinance, Hausammann said.

Since the ordinance’s adoption in February 2011, it’s been successful and there have been no challenges to it, he said.

In March 2011, the governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission was created, on which Wheeland and Vincent Matteo, president and CEO of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, served. They helped identify the county’s most pressing needs.

Kelly said he believes that body of work was extremely influential in shaping discussions for impact fee legislation. Most, if not all, of those needs the commission identified were incorporated into the 13 eligible categories for impact fee investments, Kelly said.

State Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, and state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, were instrumental in the legislation’s shaping and support.

Yaw sponsored a state Senate bill, and the environmental protections he included made it into the final bill and law, he said.

An important aspect is the impact monies are distributed directly to counties and municipalities affected by the gas industry, rather than through the state treasury, Yaw said. Everett agreed, saying the fee “comes back to rural communities where this activity is taking place.”

Everett’s bill shaped the legislation so it requires disclosure of fracking fluid chemicals, and water supply protection.

To further meet the burgeoning community needs from the gas industry, the county completed two studies of the impacts of the industry on housing and water and sewer in 2012.

The housing study identified about 4,000 people working with the gas industry, either directly or in support companies, Kelly said. There was a need for affordable housing, market-rate starter housing and senior housing, he said.

With the water and sewer study, the county identified a “host of water and sewer infrastructure needs,” Kelly said, as between 80 and 120 gas industry companies arrived in the county since 2011.

“Our analysis shows the (impact fee) legislation is deeply appreciated and very much needed,” he said.

The impacts of the industry on transportation and public institutions are two studies currently underway by the county Planning Department, and will be ready next year.

The importance of these four impact studies is they provide an objective basis by which the county can allocate impact dollars to communities, Kelly said.