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Government and elected officials deal with service funding questions as Centre Region grows

  • By Sarah Rafacz of Spotlight PA State College
Centre Region municipal managers take “unprecedented” action against a proposal to significantly increase the funding their local governments contribute to the Council of Governments for shared services.

 Abby Drey / Centre Daily Times

Centre Region municipal managers take “unprecedented” action against a proposal to significantly increase the funding their local governments contribute to the Council of Governments for shared services.

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

Centre Region municipal managers issued a rare rebuke in reaction to a proposed plan to up the amount of funding their local governments contribute to a longstanding regional government organization.

The Centre Region Council of Governments is governed by the elected officials from six municipalities — College, Ferguson, Halfmoon, Harris, and Patton townships and State College borough — who work together to provide shared services to their residents.

Organizations funded by the COG include the Schlow Centre Region Library, Centre Region Parks and Recreation, and Alpha Fire Company, among others.

But the 2023 Centre Region Council of Governments operating budget released in mid-September proposed “significant” increases to municipalities’ contributions, the Centre Region’s five municipal managers wrote in a Sept. 26 memo.

The memo, sent “in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration,” to the COG Finance Committee detailed their concerns with the proposed budget and the overall budgeting process.

The municipalities’ total contributions haven’t increased more than 5% in the past five years, according to the memo. But the proposed budget called for a 16.86% total increase in funding provided by the municipalities.

Set formulas determine how much each municipality pays for specific services.

“These increases are proposed at a time when we are grappling with double digit inflation, escalating oil prices and supply chain issues that are driving up our costs and straining our own budgets. We are also still in the throes of recovering from a pandemic that saw a significant loss of revenue for all of us,” the managers wrote in the memo.

Under that proposed budget, College, Ferguson, Harris, and Patton townships, and State College borough, the managers noted, would have to raise taxes to cover their increased COG share, and that was before factoring in the needs of their own municipal budgets.

Richard Francke, COG Finance Committee chair and College Township Council chair, told Spotlight PA that the managers’ memo was “unprecedented.”

“That’s a consensus opinion of the Centre Region managers; that doesn’t happen a lot,” he said. “I personally appreciated that they came forward that way.”

Based on the managers’ concerns, the COG staff reworked the budget to call for a total increase in municipal support of 6.78%. They had been given a target of no more than 8% by the finance committee, which State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine told Spotlight PA would be a more manageable lift.

Going forward, the managers hope to see the COG move to a revenue-driven model, prioritize funding public safety needs — like preparing for a fire service with more paid employees as volunteerism declines statewide — and shift its budget process earlier in the year so that there’s more time between when the COG budget is finalized and when the municipalities pass their own budgets.

“We’re having some growing pains right now,” Amy Farkas, Harris Township manager, told Spotlight PA.

She wants to see the municipalities’ relationships with the 53-year-old COG strengthen, and for the organization to be around for another half-century.

Eric Norenberg, COG’s executive director, generally agrees with the managers’ assessment that the COG is experiencing some growing pains.

“However,” he wrote in an email to Spotlight PA, “the area of concern during this year’s budget process were the agency budgets that are primarily funded by our partner municipalities and where there are limited options for independent revenue generation.

“Proposed new programs, staffing and services for 2023 were recommended in response to growth in the Centre Region and requests from residents and services expected by residents and visitors.”

He added that his staff looks forward to working with the finance committee and the managers “to find a responsible way to fund expected and needed services.”

Because of Harris Township’s membership in the COG, Farkas said, they’re able to provide services to their residents that the small municipality otherwise wouldn’t have the budget or facilities for, adding that the COG “fills a very important void in our area.”

Laura Dininni, Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors chair and COG Finance Committee member, wrote in an email to Spotlight PA that while she’s grateful to the municipal managers for the “wake up call” they sent to elected officials, “great concern remains.”

She said she worries about the COG investing too much into the region’s parks and too little into the fire service.

“Answering important policy questions about regional service provision priorities such as these,” Dininni wrote, “and then establishing the structure to implement them with fairness and efficiency is what will truly enable us to apportion our budget to properly serve the growth of the region, with our eye on affordability, safety and core services as we move forward.”

A vote to adopt the new $30.3 million budget by the COG General Forum is slated for Nov. 28, according to Norenberg. At that point, the Centre Region municipal governments will have the figures needed for their own budget adoption processes in December.

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