Proposed budget cuts shouldn’t harm existing recreational sites

PUNXSUTAWNEY — A proposed cut in Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget appears to affect funding of recreational activities in the area. But on closer inspection, many of those funds were used for special projects and not for operations of the program or the project itself.

The Keystone Parks, Recreation and Conservation Fund was approved by Pennsylvania voters to help pay for parks, trails and open space in 1993, when it passed a referendum by a ratio of 65 percent to 35 percent, said state House Speaker Sam Smith (R-66) of Punxsy.

According to The Patriot News, “The fund, paid from a share of real estate transfer taxes, has helped more than 3,000 projects in the state.
“Baseball fields, trout streams, hiking trails, community pools, bicycle paths, nature centers, scenic views and much more have benefited from the fund. Now, Corbett is seeking to permanently get rid of it, sending the money to the general fund budget instead.”

Punxsutawney and Brookville borough officials said this was the first they heard of the cuts, and aren’t aware of any money from the Keystone Parks and Recreation Fund that is used to operate any recreational programs at this time.

Smith said he believes the pendulum has swung too far in paying money to perform feasibility studies, as opposed to actually constructing the projects.

“I understand that there’s some need; you have to have actual planning,” he said. “It’s not like you would start digging a hole without some kind of planning.

“I think the government programs tend to put too much money in studying and planning. That pendulum has swung too far,” Smith said, adding that there was a study performed several years ago regarding the development of Cloe Lake, which didn’t occur.

There was a $12,500 grant, and with the local match, it totaled $25,000, Smith said. The surrounding lake area was never developed, but the lake did have to be drawn down because of a crack in the dike and had to be rebuilt through Growing Greener funds.

Smith said the Keystone Fund is technically off-budget and funded by the realty transfer tax.

“Every time someone sells or buys property, they pay realty transfer tax,” he said. “A portion of that tax was used to provide $32 million per year, which went to that fund over the years. So, the Keystone fund doesn’t show up in the general fund directly.”

Smith said Corbett proposes eliminating the parks and recreation program and putting it into the general fund.

The net effect of that is a reduction in what DCNR (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) can do because it oversees the Keystone Fund, Smith said.

“The Keystone Fund complimented other DCNR parks and recreation funding,” he said.

“The governor’s proposal wasn’t very well received; there were a lot of concerns,” Smith said. But that’s part of the growing pains of getting spending back in line with actual revenues.

“At some point, the government is going to have to say, ‘It has developed these parks and recreation facilities, and it doesn’t want to abandon them and back off so much that they would become unusable,’” he said. “In times like this, spending money on new facilities will be somewhat limited, and much less of a priority than some of the critical government functions.”

He said the Keystone Fund would’ve had approximately $32 million for the new budget year.

“I don’t think the Keystone funds were used for the day-to-day operations,” Smith said. “I think the bulk of it was toward enhancing and building new facilities in the parks and recreation fields. I don’t think the elimination of these funds will cause budget problems in maintaining or operating a park.”

DCNR spoksperson Christine Novak said the agency, which administers the Keystone Fund, must do its part.     

“We believe, similar to all state agencies, we’re being called upon to help out in a difficult situation,” she said.  
Novak said cuts will be somewhat offset by impact fees from the natural gas drilling.

The agency was receiving about $30 million a year from the Keystone Fund.

The agency will also have some other grants available, including about $6 million from the Environmental Stewardship Fund, and $1 million to $2 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Smith said the legislature will wait to see Corbett’s final proposal regarding the Keystone Fund.