BELLEFONTE - As expected - and without much fanfare - the Centre County commissioners Tuesday unanimously decided to "opt in" to the Marcellus Shale natural gas impact fee.
The decision came two weeks after they held a public hearing on the matter, with several residents asking them to send a message to the state that they are against natural gas drilling and "opt out" of Act 13.
However, the commissioners said Tuesday they really have no choice in the matter, and opting out would only mean the county and its affected municipalities would miss out on hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the legislation would stand statewide.
"I've voiced my concern over Act 13, over the whole piece of legislation, but after I talked with the affected municipalities, they sent me a signal that they want the money to help fix their roads and bridges," Commissioner Michael Pipe said.
The municipalities that will share in the Act 13 money with the county will be those with either an active gas drilling rig, or one that is within five miles of an active drilling site: Boggs, Burnside, Rush, Snow Shoe and Curtin townships. Further, all municipalities will feel the economic impact, based on amount of roads. For example, Commissioner Steve Dershem said State College Borough will likely receive upwards of $30,000.
"That's a considerable amount," he said. "They have a significant number of roads."
The commissioners said the state Public Utility Commission will make the ultimate decision on how much the county and municipalities will receive based on the number of wells and how many of the state's 67 counties opt in.
The county and its Planning Department have counted 52 wells active wells countywide, which would mean around $500,000.
"Whether we adopt this or not, the fee will still be imposed," Commissioner Chris Exarchos said. "The statute is in effect. The only thing we would be doing would be ... losing that amount of revenue."
Commission Chairman Steve Dershem did not comment on the vote Tuesday, though he echoed his fellow commissioners' sentiments several times previously.
In a related note, the commissioners - on a 2-1 vote - decided to renew a contract with Delta Development Group, upping the montly fee to $5,000 per month to develop a "gasification pilot project and develop a project scope for a compressed natural gas fueling station and client fleet conversion."
Delta will seek federal and state funds - including money from Act 13 - to help convert vehicles to natural gas, along with at least two natural gas filling stations, said Delta official Teresa Sparacino.
One of the federal grants, the Clean Air Fund, has a deadline of this Thursday, April 5. That money could help convert all county vehicles to run on natural gas and develop at least two natural gas filling stations.
Further, she said, her group will submit an application to the state's Alternative Fuel Initiative Grant in June to either supplement the federal grant or use it outright if the federal government denies the county's submission.
Pipe voted against the measure, saying he had confidence in the county's planning department to apply for the appropriate federal and state grants, and further questioned if the grants will actually be available.
"There's a proposeal to eliminate the (Clean Air Fund) grant in (Gov. Tom) Corbett's budget," he said.
"Every stream we will follow," Sparacino said if the state grant dries up.
Further, she said, the Delta Group gives its clients several advantages over other counties applying for funds because its employees have personal contracts with Congressmen, and have a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
"Our goal is to be successful in getting money for Centre County as well as our other clients," Sparacino said. "We won't all go after the same pot of money."
However, Pipe said he may be naive, but he belives all grant funding should go to the areas that need it the most, not the ones that have the best lobbyists in Washington.
"Lobbyists should not be a part of the picture," he said.
Exarchos said the projects, if approved, could be a financial boon to the county.
"We have an abundance of natural gas in the county and in Pennsylvania, but, all of our gas is being shipped out everywhere else," he said, noting natural gas is about half of the cost of regular gas, and about 50 or 60 percent less than heating oil.
"That would be a huge economic boon," Exarchos continued. "If we were successful, the rewards could be significant for the people themselves and, in the long term, for fleet conversion... and it's a much cleaner burning fuel than gas or coal."
Further, he said, Delta specializes in grant writing and will likely get the county more money than the Planning Department.
"The planners are good at what they do, but this is (Delta's) specialty," Exarchos said.
"To intertwine through the buraucracy of government is a complicated thing," he said. That's what they bring."
Sparacino said Delta has brought between $4 and $5 million for the county in the last two years, and a total of about $700 for its clients nationwide.
However, Pipe still voted against the measure, saying it's still not clear how much money will be available for these projects, comparing it to hiring a cleaning service before a house is built.