2009-11-26 / Features

Clearing The Record Regarding Conservation District “Surplus”

OP-ED
By Seleen Shives FULTON COUNTY DISTRICT MANAGER

As the manager of the Fulton County Conservation District and a local citizen concerned about how my own tax dollars are spent in this county, I feel that it is my responsibility to clarify some of the recent statements that have been made in the paper regarding the Conservation District’s operating budget.

First, a little information about conservation districts in general. There are 66 conservation districts throughout the commonwealth, one in every county, with the exception of Philadelphia. Out of the 66 total, 34 conservation districts are considered to be “county” offices, 29 are considered to be “independent” offices and the remaining three are a combination of both. That said, even though 29 conservation districts are considered to be independent entities, they all, with the exception of Allegheny County, receive funding from their county governments. These allocations range from $19,000 in Elk County to $853,000 in Westmoreland County. In addition, many conservation districts, both county and independent, receive in-kind or nonfinancial items from the county, including office space, utilities, liability insurance coverage, etc.

Since 2006, the Fulton County Conservation District has received $75,000 per year from the county commissioners. Each year, the Conservation District requests the minimum funds required to cover the salary and salary-related benefits (i.e., health insurance, the employer portion of payroll taxes, liability insurance, etc.) of the administrative assistant and a portion of the salary and salary-related benefits of the district manager. This year was no exception.

Fulton County is one of six, 8th-class counties across the state. With the exception of Fulton County, all other 8thclass counties are located in the heavily forested northcentral or northwestern parts of the state. County allocations for 8th-class county conservation districts range from $10,000 in Forest County, which has two employees, to $173,000 in Sullivan County, which has five employees and the county pays for their office space, utilities and provides them with a county vehicle. I personally do not feel that comparing the Fulton County Conservation District to conservation districts in other 8th-class counties is a true “apples-to-apples” comparison. The environmental issues that we deal with in our respective counties are very different, and thus, the services that we provide our citizens are very different. This is very true for all conservation districts across the state, whether you are a 2nd-class county or an 8th-class county. Fulton County citizens can be very proud of the technical expertise and range of services that the Fulton County Conservation District provides. Of six employees, three have master’s degrees and two others have 30 plus years of experience in their respective fields. We serve the people of Fulton County, even though we are not a “county” office, and none of that changed when we became independent in 2006. The decision to become independent was not one that was made lightly and the reasons for doing so were complex, but in the end, the board of directors felt that it would be better for both the county government and the Conservation District if we were independent.

Conservation districts operate on public funds and with public funds comes great responsibility. Eight percent of the Fulton County Conservation District’s funds come from the state, with the additional 20 percent coming from the county. In 2010, the Conservation District will receive approximately $385,600 from the state to administer a variety of delegated or contracted environmental/conservation programs. Each program, 10 in all, varies in how the allocated funds may be expended. Of the $385,600 that the Conservation District receives from the state, only $164,000 is available for salary and salaryrelated benefits. The Conservation District’s salary and salary-related expenses for six employees total approximately $244,000. The difference, approximately $80,000, is what was requested from the county commissioners.

Additionally, I wish to provide clarification regarding the “unrestricted surplus” and, more specifically, the $62,133 in net surplus mentioned in The Fulton County News two weeks ago. According to our 2008 audit report, the Conservation District’s revenues were $483,331. Total expenditures were $421,198 for the same period, resulting in a surplus of $62,133. What the citizens of this county deserve to know is that the majority of these surplus funds are funds designated for specific projects and are therefore restricted and cannot be used for salary and salary-related benefits. It is not uncommon for the Conservation District to receive project funds during the year and not expend them in the same year. Many of these project funds are carried over several years. These funds are used to put various conservation practices (i.e., cover crops, stream restoration, barnyard improvements, dirt and gravel road improvements, etc.) on the ground and cannot be used for salary and salary-related expenses. Finally, the statement that “unexpended revenue is deferred and ultimately does not change net surplus” also requires further clarification. After speaking with our auditor, only two of the Conservation District’s grants in 2008 were included as deferred revenues – a National Fish & Wildlife Federation Grant and a Federal 319 Grant. The Conservation District’s remaining grants (i.e., Growing Greener, Western PA Watershed, etc.) and program project funds (i.e., Chesapeake Bay and Dirt & Gravel Road) were not included as deferred revenues and therefore, would have and did have an impact on the net surplus that resulted in 2008.

The Conservation District does have an unrestricted “reserve” account, which to date, has approximately $20,000 in it. The funds transferred into this reserve account are typically NPDES Permit or Erosion and Sediment Control Plan review fees that are not fully expended during the calendar year. At the end of 2008, the Conservation District transferred approximately $3,700 into its reserve account. The Conservation District has been building this reserve account since 2006 and is not something that has been kept secret. Every month, the balance in all of our bank accounts, including the reserve account, is listed in our treasurer’s report. A representative from the commissioner’s office serves as one of our board members. Thus, our commissioner representative, along with the eight other individuals that serve on our board, reviews and approves the treasurer’s report and payment of bills each month. State law requires that a commissioner representative serve on each conservation district board.

Finally, the citizens of Fulton County need to be aware of the value that the Conservation District brings to our community. In addition to the $385,600 in funds we will receive from the state to administer programs in 2010, the Fulton County Conservation District will receive and expend more than $550,000 in grant funds secured by various staff members. That’s a half-million dollars that district staff have written highly competitive grants for and were awarded, for a variety of projects in Fulton County. So for every local taxpayer dollar that goes to the Conservation District, the local citizens of this county will receive a $7 return on their investment.

The Fulton County Conservation District is committed to preserving the quality of life in Fulton County – clean water, open space, sustainable agriculture, smart growth. We are dedicated to helping our residents conserve, protect and restore the natural resources of Fulton County, and we do so with a strong sense of fiscal responsibility.

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