County program ‘reaches out’ to help local kids

Commissioners talk agriculture, natural gas

By SARAH PAEZ

spaez@lockhaven.com

LOCK HAVEN — Reach Out Mentoring Program (ROMP) spoke to Clinton County commissioners Monday to spread the word about their upcoming open house and talk about how to measure the program’s success.

ROMP is replacing the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of Clinton County after the national organization imposed program guidelines that the county could not meet.

“So far I would say everything is going well,” said Kaylee Mulhollan, ROMP co-coordinator and mentor.

She and her co-coordinator Clarissa Shirk are working on a new training program for new ROMP volunteers and retaining current volunteers.

“It’s just finding mentors to take children out in the community” that poses a challenge, Mulhollan said.

ROMP hosts two group events per month, when 10 to 12 participants attend. There are around 40 to 45 children that participate in the program and about 75 percent are unmatched, meaning they do not have a personal mentor.

This past weekend, Shirk and Mulhollan took a group of children to Tussey Mountain for snow tubing. Mulhollan said the children loved it.

“Many of them had never been there before,” she said.

Commissioner Pete Smeltz asked the coordinators how they measure the success of the program. He pointed to the often dysfunctional and disrupted lives the children lead and wondered how having a mentor in their lives helps.

Mulhollan said that national BBBS mandated the local program to issue surveys to program participants every six months, a practice ROMP will continue. She said the survey assesses everything from participants’ academic performance to social skills and parental relationships.

Commissioner Jeff Snyder, who returned to work briefly after major spinal surgery, stressed the importance of documenting the program’s progress.

“These statistics are going to be important,” he said. “Is this the type of program we can keep funding in the future?”

Snyder, who often takes a hard line on shrinking government spending, said he wanted commissioners to consider the benefits of ROMP compared to a “$249,000 increase in Children and Youth operating costs” due to Childline reporting guidelines in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. These reporting guidelines, which significantly increase paperwork and overhead costs, are mandated by law, meaning county governments may have to look at cutting programs that have only marginal success to save money.

Shirk said she and Mulhollan continue to look for mentors; they have a Facebook page and have hung fliers around town.

Snyder said he would like statistics on how many people attend the open house, to get an idea of how much interest there is in the program.

Commissioner Paul Conklin said he hoped the open house yielded interest.

“It really is a program that really relies on getting the word out,” he said.

FARMERS AND NATURAL GAS

The county agricultural land preservation board plans to purchase the conservation easements on another local farm for the Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Program, reported Mary Anne Bower, district manager of the Clinton County Conservation District.

Buying the easements ensures the land will always be used for farming.

Greg and Stacey Connor, of Mackeyville, own the farm in Lamar Township.

The board, with help from the county and state, will buy the farm’s conservation easements for a little over $1,000 per acre. The state pays 75 percent, about $200,000, of the total cost and the county pays 25 percent.

“If the state chooses to stop funding this program, it wouldn’t happen,” Smeltz said.

“State funding for this agriculture program keeps Clinton afloat,” Snyder agreed.

Since the county had funds left over from previous purchases, the commissioners must contribute $30,000, bringing the total county contribution to $63,000.

The commissioners will use $4,628 in rollback taxes from the Clean and Green Program to augment their contribution. According to Act 156, all of the interest collected by the county on Clean and Green rollback tax penalties must be used for aspects of farmland preservation, like easement purchases, monitoring and enforcement, or conservation planning.

Since 1998, the county agriculture preservation program has helped purchase easements on 2,632 acres on 27 parcels of land. These areas are now preserved for agricultural production.

“I think the county is doing a great thing by preserving those farms as farms,” Bower said.

Snyder raised concerns about the farmland designation impeding the implementation of gas wells or lines.

This led commissioners to speculate over the legality of farming over a gas pipeline. Smeltz said they could refer to previous court cases on gas lines and agricultural production.

Smeltz said it would be worth investigating, mentioning that Clinton County often has to wrestle with the intersection of industrial land and farmland, as in the case of the Lamar Township Industrial Park.

“But they balance (those interests) in York and Lancaster and Berks County,” he said.

The commissioners plan to sign and send the farmland preservation certification to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture later this week.

With respect to natural gas and agriculture, Smeltz said he would be meeting with representatives from the state and federal Departments of Agriculture in Harrisburg on Tuesday with the SEDA-COG Natural Gas Corporation to talk about access to natural gas for agricultural farmers.

Smeltz said he hoped Clinton County would eventually be able to get some natural gas agriculture opportunities as a result of this meeting.

“We’re meeting to get funding,” he said.

Conklin said this action is part of a regional push to provide more opportunities to the agricultural community. Bringing natural gas usage to agriculture, he said, can take things a step further by incorporating business opportunities into agricultural production.

However, as of 11 a.m. Monday, Smeltz’s meeting was canceled due to the federal government shutdown that began late Friday night. That shutdown was on its way to being lifted Monday afternoon when the Senate overwhelmingly voted to end it. The House must approve the measure before it can pass.

RENOVO ENERGY

Conklin, who has been a big proponent of the Renovo Energy Center LLC project, said he was discouraged to learn there were negative rumors swelling about the company’s delayed construction and opening.

He said he hoped to hear positive comments from the company, whose construction start date has now been moved from this spring to this October.

Smeltz said he was told the project was moving forward, with the project developer Bechtel Energy Corporation negotiating with the power grid to wire the plant.

“They’re that close, so if they can get over this impasse, it’s a green-light go,” Conklin said. “What can we do instead of sitting on the sidelines?”

“I think it’s a corporate decision,” Smeltz replied.

He cautioned against trying to solve the problem with political interference, saying it probably would not be effective and might be frowned upon.

OTHER MATTERS

Also Monday, Lock Haven resident Richard Morris suggested the commissioners talk to the county chief assessor, Keith Yearick, about a mathematical re-evaluation of the county in order to get a more up-to-date property assessment. As it has been 10 years since the last county-wide assessment, Morris said the county is about 15 percent undervalued, which leaves around $5 million worth of taxes uncollected.

Now there is software that makes the process more feasible, Morris said.

Smeltz said he was not sure they would be able to pay for reassessment because the county is refinancing a 2010 bond, but agreed to start meeting with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania’s taxation assessment committee, county solicitor Larry Coploff, and Yearick for more opinions.

Commissioners will not meet this Thursday at 10 a.m. for a voting session because Conklin will be in Hershey attending a meeting of the Pennsylvania Counties Risk Pool board, on which he serves. He emphasized that his participation on the board comes at no cost to county taxpayers.

COMMENTS