I would like to respond to a recent guest editorial from my county commissioner colleague and friend, Jim Hertzler, regarding the future funding of the Cumberland County Agricultural Conservation Easement program, as well as respond to a recent article published in The Sentinel regarding the same topic.
For some of us, it’s hard to believe that three decades have passed since the late Gov. Robert P. Casey inked his signature on the state’s far…
Farmland preservation is supported by the majority of citizens in Cumberland County. I include myself within that majority. I have supported farmland preservation ever since I was a kid. I served nine years on the Cumberland County Agricultural Preservation Board and I was also a major part of the initiative to form the Silver Spring Land Preservation program.
Recently, the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, along with staff, met in a public finance meeting to review the annual funding request for the county farmland preservation program and to also discuss different options and goals for the program.
Some information that was mentioned at the recent meeting is that over the last four years Cumberland County has added 36 more farms to the program. These 36 farms equate to an additional 3,768 acres of preserved prime farmland. The last four years have been one of the most productive periods regarding the addition of more preserved farms and acres of preserved farmland. Our county has recently topped the 20,000 acre mark and we have moved from ninth to seventh in the state regarding the number of preserved acres. In fact, nearly 19% of that 20,000 acre total has been preserved during the last four years.
A commitment of 1 percent of the general fund would come to about $875,000 annually, given that the county’s general fund outlay was around $87.5 million this year.
During the history of this program, which started in 1989, the amount of county funds allocated on an annual basis has varied greatly. The main reason for this variance is because spending for the program is discretionary. I know that both of my colleagues on the Board of Commissioners, Jim Hertzler and Gary Eichelberger, support the agricultural conservation easement program. One of the goals that the Board of Commissioners wants to achieve is to find a more streamlined and consistent way to fund the program. We all agree on this point.
You have free articles remaining.
Commissioner Hertzler has suggested that we use 1 percent of total county budgeted revenue to be used as a method to allocate annual funding. The idea is simple and easy to understand, but not as fiscally responsible, in my opinion, compared to other options that were discussed at a recent county finance meeting.
A better option, in my opinion, is to first establish a reasonable goal of preserved acres over a period of time. It has taken nearly 30 years for the program to obtain 20,000 acres. I believe a reasonable goal now would be to preserve an additional 10,000 acres within the next 10 years. In addition, instead of using 1 percent of overall county revenue as the method, we should determine funding for the program by looking at the county’s total assessed property values and simply use a portion of our existing tax millage to determine the yearly allocation to the farmland preservation program to meet the goal. This method ties the amount of funding to our assessed property values that are used to determine our overall property taxes. There would be no tax increase; just a designation of a part of the existing millage that would be used for funding of farmland preservation.
As long as the county grows, the amount of assessed property values will increase; hence, so will the amount of county funding going toward the farmland preservation program. This method is fair and in my opinion more fiscally responsible compared to using a percentage of overall budgeted revenue. This option will also create a consistent amount of funding each year without major variances and can be more accurately budgeted for ahead of time. Both of my colleagues — Commissioner Hertzler and Commissioner Eichelberger — have agreed to consider this option.
Another issue that we discussed and that my colleagues all agreed on is seeking help from our municipalities that have sizable amounts of farmland to adopt their own voluntary land preservation program, similar to the one that Silver Spring Township adopted a few years ago. Silver Spring is the only township in our county that has such a program.
The Silver Spring Township program has enabled the county to use some of the township’s funding along with the county funding to obtain additional state matching funds for the program. What this all means is if we can get additional townships to produce additional funding through their own preservation program, more dollars are eligible for more state matching funds. This equates to more acres being preserved. It’s a win-win situation for sure.
In summary, I believe that Cumberland County Agricultural Conservation Easement program will continue to thrive and become even better in our effort to preserve some of the best farmland in our county.
Vince is Chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners.