Six Lehigh County communities finally will be getting stalled grants for parks and trails projects from county commissioners.
On Wednesday night, commissioners voted 7-2 to use money coming to the county from state impact fees on Marcellus shale natural gas drilling to fund the projects
– even though the projects cost a total of $1.06 million and, so far, the county has only received $296,514 in Marcellus shale impact fees.
Commissioners explained funding for the projects will not be held up while the county waits to get more Marcellus shale money from the state.
Leaders of the six municipalities have been waiting since before Thanksgiving for the commissioners to determine the fate of the county-funded grants.
“I’m just glad we’re getting off the dime and glad the municipalities are getting their money,” said Commissioner Dan McCarthy.
As Commissioner Brad Osborne reminded his colleagues, the original bill to approve the grants was introduced on Nov. 20 by a commissioners’ committee, with a unanimous recommendation for approval, but tabled on Dec. 12 and deferred on Dec. 19 and Jan. 9.
“Our behavior as a board has been disrespectful -- if not disingenuous -- to our community leaders and our community partners,” charged Osborne. “We’ve lost credibility in the eyes of the people we were elected to represent.”
The issue was hotly debated because the $1.06 million to fund the six projects is in the county’s 2013 budget, but fiscally conservative commissioners did not want to spend it.
Now the plan is to temporarily tap that county Green Future Fund money as the municipalities need it, but then replace it as more state money comes in from Marcellus shale fees.
Marcellus shale money is not taxpayers’ money, said Commissioner Percy Dougherty: “It is money coming through the state that must be used for open space and recreation. This looks like a very good place to use that money.”
The county received the $296,514 from the state in 2012. It expects to receive more money from the impact fees this year, but does not know how much. Dougherty said the state anticipates Pennsylvania’s counties will get more much this year.
Approving the Green Future grant requests means:
*Allentown will get $324,693 for phase one of a Martin Luther King Trail.
*Bethlehem will get $36,000 to restore Sand Island Lock No. 41.
*Emmaus will get $70,000 for improvements at its Community Park.
*Lower Macungie Township will get $238,000 to make renovations at its Camp Olympic Park.
*Salisbury Township will get $160,419 for a Lindberg Park Connection Trail.
*Upper Saucon Township will get $231,888 for phase two of the Saucon Rail Trail.
After the meeting, Commissioner Michael Schware explained the county won’t release money for the projects until they are substantially complete, but the municipalities “need the commitment from us to go ahead.” All six communities must match the county’s contributions.
Commissioner David Jones made the successful motion that commissioners request County Executive William Hansell use Marcellus shale fees “that have been and will be received from the state through 2014” to fund the grants.
Jones’ motion also stated that the Green Future Fund has met the 10-year life span contemplated in an advisory referendum in 2001: “It is the board’s intent that no additional Green Future funding will be entertained.”
Jones said his motion, and releasing the funds to the municipalities, “demonstrates this board does have the capacity – if it’s willing -- to work collaboratively together to solve the problems of county government.” He called it a down payment in the board’s ability to work together in the future.
McCarthy and Osborne voted against Jones’ motion. Both called it a “feel-good” motion.
“It feels good to reach some agreement and it feels good to be able to vote together as a group,” said Commissioner Vic Mazziotti. “But there’s also substance behind it.”
McCarthy said he has a problem trying to tell future county executives how they should spend Marcellus shale money. (Hansell is only serving until the end of this year.) McCarthy said that state money could be used for farmland preservation.
“There may be other priorities in the future that other boards and other executives want to do with this money.” McCarthy also did not agree that the county has exhausted the Green Future program. “I don’t know that we’ve spent all that money.”
Osborne said Jones’ motion carries no legislative weight: “This not binding on the executive branch of the government. This legislation should be passed on its own merits, something we were responsible for over two months ago.”
Mazziotti acknowledged the motion is not binding on the county executive but said he’s had several conversations with Hansell in the last week and that Hansell “supports the concept” of using the Marcellus shale money for the projects.
Mazziotti said the commissioners now are meeting their obligations on the grants and “we have freed up funds that will be useful in helping us budget the 2014 budget. This reduces the deficiency we have been told is coming our way in future budgets.”
After the vote on Jones’ motions, all nine commissioners approved the original motion to release the Green Future grant money at the amounts being sought by the municipalities.
Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, thanked municipal officials at the meeting for their patience.
“It did take us some time to come to a resolution that will enable us to move forward and spend some money, but I think it was the appropriate way,” said Scheller. “This was the way government should work, even if it sometimes takes longer than any of us would like.”
A motion to repeal the county’s Affordable Housing Fund ordinance was on the agenda for first reading and discussion Wednesday night, but tabled by commissioners and sent back to committee for more study.
Explained Scheller: “We felt the need to gather more information, allow more public input and understand what the program does for the residents and how it is delivered to those residents before we can make a determination as to whether that program should be continued or not.”
She stressed commissioners will make no decision until after an “in-depth” public hearing is held. No date has been set for that hearing, but Scheller promised “plenty of notice will be given.”
She stressed the commissioners want to be thoughtful and very deliberate about making any changes to programs that may impact county residents.
Also during the meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a lease agreement for a bagel and deli restaurant to open in the first floor of the county-owned Hamilton Financial Center Building at 640 Hamilton St., Allentown. Commissioners expect that establishment to open by late spring.
The five-year lease is with Assem Zohir, president of JJMN Blessed Bagel, Inc.
Scheller said the owners have been in the area for 17 years and have two other establishments. She said they think Allentown is a good investment for them “and I hope they make it successful.”