Thursday, September 21, 2017

Op-Ed: House Republican Budget Would Stop $500,000 In Projects In Westmoreland County

By Ronald Rohall, Chair, Westmoreland Conservation District

Some $500,000 worth of important community projects — already underway throughout Westmoreland County — could come to an immediate halt if the Pennsylvania Senate adopts the state budget proposed by the House.
The impact will be felt almost immediately in Delmont, Murrysville, Penn Township and other local communities where projects to improve water quality and reduce the risk of flooding would have to be shut down because their funding source — the Growing Greener program — is raided and their project overseers (often conservation district employees) are defunded.
Over the past 18 years, the combination of Growing Greener funds and conservation district employees has made more than 50 major positive projects a reality in Westmoreland County.
They've cleaned up pollution from abandoned coal mines, installed conservation on area farms, built stormwater measures to reduce the risk of flooding and stabilized stream banks for the construction of walking/biking trails.
Local conservation district staff undertake responsibility for the projects “on faith,” and Growing Greener reimburses agreed-upon costs when the projects are complete.
If our Legislature now breaks that good-faith arrangement and diverts Growing Greener's allocated (but not yet reimbursed) funds, the projects underway can't go forward. And, of course, if it severely cuts future funding for Growing Greener, much-needed work in our communities won't get done.
Here are some of the current Growing Greener projects that would be affected if the Senate adopts the House budget:
-- Rain gardens and stormwater basin improvements in Murrysville and Penn Township. This work is critical because managing stormwater helps reduce the risk of flooding and improves the quality of water we drink.
-- Erosion-control and nutrient-management on farms near Beaver Run Reservoir. This work not only helps area farms stay economically viable, it also improves water quality for everyone downstream. More than 50,000 homes and businesses get their water from the Beaver Run Reservoir.
In addition to stripping funding for Growing Greener projects, the current state budget proposal also would take funding away from conservation districts.
Here in Westmoreland County, as many as one-fourth of the conservation district's staff could be affected with reduced hours or layoffs under the proposed state budget, including the district's director and assistant director/technical program director, agricultural technician and watershed specialist.
Fewer conservation district staff means cutbacks to the organization's daily work to help ensure clean streams, healthy forests and productive farms.
That also means a slowdown in the region's economic development, as the organization initiates fewer conservation projects and needs longer lead times to process building and earth-moving permits for area developers.
Clearly the House-proposed cuts — to the Conservation District Fund and the Growing Greener/Environmental Stewardship Fund — are hurtful and cannot be allowed to stand. We ask that our legislators find another way to develop a state budget that works for Pennsylvanians, not against them.
Ronald Rohall is Chair of the board of directors of the Westmoreland Conservation District.
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