Centre County leaders weigh in on state budget

Though the proposed 2014-15 state budget still awaits the governor’s approval, Centre County governments and organizations are not waiting to find out how the funding will affect their respective programs.

From boroughs to schools to libraries, the systems that rely on state funding are examining their options. Some know they will feel the crunch immediately. Others expect to feel a small blow, if any at all.

“Once it’s signed, we’ll have an idea of what’s proposed,” said county Administrator Tim Boyde.

The $29.1 billion budget was passed at the zero hour Monday with a 108-95 House vote and a 26-24 Senate vote. Gov. Tom Corbett refused to sign the bill pending a pension overhaul that would reduce state and school employees’ pensions.

In Centre County, health and human services, such as mental health services, drug and alcohol programs and adult services, are not expected to change thanks to a block grant that funds such services, Boyde said.

The $6 million grant allows for allocated funding of these services with the option to transfer funding from project to project.

“If we need to increase funding to mental health,” he said, “we can move money from a smaller program to mental health without needing approval by the state.”

Up to 50 percent of the grant can be allocated to a single program.

Boyde explained that the grant has been a great benefit to the county, especially compared with counties that don’t have a similar form of funding.

“If you don’t have a block grant, and your program runs out of funding, you’re out of luck,” he said.

Board members anticipate a budget briefing by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania on Thursday.

State College itself should see very little impact, assistant borough Manager Roger Dunlap said.

“We get very little revenue from the state,” he said. “We don’t rely on the state as heavily as, say, the school districts or health and human services.”

Although routine operations such as police or public works will run as usual, Dunlap did say smaller state equipment grants from agencies such as the departments of Conservation and Natural Resources or Environmental Protection may take a hit.

At the Centre County Correctional Facility, which houses state prisoners, Warden Richard Smith said he did not expect to feel an impact from the proposed budget.

“As far as we’re concerned, we have a contract with the state and they haven’t canceled it, so we’re expecting payment,” Smith said.

Legislators speak out

To say the office of Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, was frustrated at the proposed budget only scratches the surface.

“It’s baffling,” Chief of Staff Tor Michaels said. “It’s a sad day in Pennsylvania when it comes to this administration.”

Speaking on behalf of Conklin, Michaels explained that the budget is a “prescription for disaster” that will no doubt cause even more headaches by next year.

The budget is almost $1 billion out of balance in terms of funding, according to Michaels. A $350 million sale of the state liquor store system is still pending, and $125 million is dependent on the Obama administration signing off on Corbett’s version of expanded Medicare.

At the same time, Michaels cited the debated 5 percent severance tax on the natural gas industry as a source for millions in revenue to the state.

“When the natural gas people come to town,” he said, “they come ready to pay a severance. It’s built into the price, but we don’t collect it.”

Michaels said if state government “had real bipartisan cooperation, we could get something done for the people of Pennsylvania.”

“But our governor is driven by his corporate friends and an ideology that’s out of touch with the people he represents,” Michaels said.

But state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said in a statement, “The House adopted a balanced, responsible state budget that controls spending while investing in the future of the commonwealth.”

Benninghoff touted the budget’s support for education, saying it would “increase support for students and schools across Pennsylvania by adding to the record investment the commonwealth made during the past few years.”

Libraries hope for level funding

Although local libraries are pleased that their state funding may be level if the proposed budget is signed, they are having trouble keeping up with inflation.

In October, the Centre County Library closed its Millheim branch. 

“We couldn’t make the numbers add up and were pulling money out of our reserves,” Centre County Library Director Lisa Erickson said. “We had to make the decision to lose that branch to help the budget going forward.”

Erickson said she does not expect any similar closings this year.

“In a year or two, that could change,” Erickson said. “We’re bare bones now with staffing, and we have open positions that we can’t fill because there’s not enough money.”

She said the libraries probably would not take on any new projects because there’s no extra money. “We’re running tight and thin,” she said.

Schlow Centre Region Library Director Cathi Alloway said she would be “somewhat content” with level public library funding. 

Schlow received more than $415,000 from the state in 2014, which, Alloway said, made up 20 percent of the library’s revenue.

But, Alloway said, level funding cannot keep up with inflation, hindering the library’s ability to stay open for a state-mandated 65 hours each week. A reduction in operating hours is being considered.

“To drop our hours we have to apply for a waiver through Commonwealth Libraries, which is a division of the State Department of Education,” Alloway said. “We would like to get down to 59 to 60 hours a week.”

In May, the library furloughed staff and closed for a week to help make its budget and to ensure it could provide services for the rest of the year.

Alloway said a cut in hours could result in some educational programs being dropped. The library may also make personnel changes and cut its book budget, which would result in fewer e-books and e-materials.

No initial impact for businesses

Leslie Kistner, Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County spokeswoman, said CBICC is relieved that the Senate-adopted budget did not freeze certain tax credit programs. 

The freeze, however, was included in the House budget proposal, which would have suspended tax credit programs such as the Keystone Innovation Zone, Research and Development and Resource Enhancement and Protection. The House proposed suspending 13 tax credit programs for two years.

“When the state is proposing that we freeze these programs, it is an incentive for businesses to go elsewhere out of state,” Kistner said. “We have those zones in Centre (County), and our companies that participate in those programs have benefited from those programs to be successful in our community.”