Supporters of Farmland Preservation. Please take a moment to read this.
Because of the predictability of a stable designated revenue stream, Pennsylvania has distinguished itself as a national leader in farmland preservation, having preserved more farms and more farmland than any other state in the country. As a member of the Lehigh Co. Farmland Preservation Board we receive updates of the ongoing process to resolve PA’s budget shortfall as it relates to the program.
The latest we’re hearing is that a revenue package being discussed in the House would not only raid the Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Fund (a dedicated stream of cigarette tax revenue) but could also retroactively take funding away from Counties that’s already been allocated in this and prior years. This is the only state funding source for preservation.
In addition to targeting the dedicated revenue source, we have been warned the legislature is also targeting the fund balances. Prior to the August State Farmland Board meeting, there was a balance of approximately $58 Million of State funds. That includes funding from 2015, 2016 and 2017. Understanding why there is a fund balance is important. The State Board is permitted, by law, to spend those funds over three years. Since preserving a farm can take more than one years time the law was written to give Counties three years to spend state funds. While this makes it look like the money is a “surplus” or “just sitting there.” it’s not. That money in Lehigh Co. is allocated to farms ready to be preserved. The process just takes time. Again, once a farm is selected and an offer is made to a landowner it’s only the beginning of a long process that must be completed before the “check goes in the mail” so to speak. A typical transaction often includes an appraisal, title work, survey, agreement by lien holders, approval by the county and State, as well as time for the farmer, their family and advisors to fully consider this permanent decision. Frequently, it takes more than a year to complete the preservation of a single farm.
Remember, not only is all this money already allocated to farms Lehigh Co. we also have an extensive wait list. So in short, robbing this funding will mean less farms preserved over the next few years. This is extra concerning right now because of the current multi-year commitment from Lehigh Co. to fund our local municipal match program. All the work to secure local funding and planning done by local municipalities could be up-ended. Lower Mac has already and likely will continue to take advantage of the municipal match program. But that opportunity would be limited if the coffers are raided. This would directly hurt a lot of collective and collaborative efforts between Lehigh County and municipalities like Lower Mac, Upper Mac, Lower Milford and Upper Milford.
I wanted to get this information out ASAP. Moving forward, next week I will spearhead a letter writing campaign to state leaders asking them NOT to RAID preservation funding. This crisis has been largely self created through decades of mismanagement of the state budget. The state house returns to session on September 11. (yes they are taking a break in the middle of a budget crisis). During that time, they need to hear this is unacceptable.
Sadly, raiding dedicated funding sources is unfortunately not a new scheme. As many of you know the state legislature has been doing this for years with the gas tax. (which of course was just increased) by dipping into it for now many purposes beyond from it’s original intent.
Stay tuned for more information on this and how you can help.
Lower Mac Commissioner.
Lehigh County Farmland Preservation Board.