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Friday, June 3, 2016

Guest Editorial: The gutting of rural Pennsylvania

By Paul W. Heimel

How would you feel if somebody moved into your house, sectioned-off half of your rooms and refused to pay rent?

Then he welcomed his friends, took over another room or two, and started selling off your furniture.

Admittedly, that analogy is a stretch. But it captures the essence of what is happening in much of rural Pennsylvania.

State agencies continue to acquire real estate for their forest, park and game land system. Nearly 4 MILLION acres are now owned by the state -- and there are more purchases in the works.

All of this state-owned land is, by law, tax-exempt. The bulk of it lies in the state’s most rural counties, where the tax base is already severely restricted by low population and economic recession.

Let’s examine Potter County, in the heart of the “Pennsylvania Wilds,” as an example. Our population stands at about 17,000 and our median income is one of the lowest in the state. A county with more than 680,000 acres might be expected to produce a sizeable amount of revenue from the real estate tax. But not when you deduct the 290,000 acres of state forest, game and park lands.

Another 270,000 acres are taxed at a fraction of their value due to the “Clean and Green” law, which preserves farmland and forests by giving their owners a tax break.

In the final analysis, taxes on less than 18 percent of the county’s real estate are the main funding source to support our schools, counties and local governments. That’s an overwhelming burden for those who subsidize the other 82 percent.

School districts, counties and local governments in rural areas must provide the same services – many of them mandated by the state – as their counterparts in cities and suburbs. Something has to give.

There is an easy and relatively inexpensive way for the state to correct this imbalance and rescue many rural governments that are marching toward insolvency.

Long ago, to its credit, the legislature recognized the inequity and approved an annual payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILT) to each affected school district, county and municipality. But as budgets have multiplied over the ensuing decades, PILT payments have not kept up. For the past decade, they’ve been stuck at a paltry $1.20 per acre for each taxing body. 

An increase in the PILT is sorely needed, and it would hardly be a state budget-buster. Doubling the payment to a modest $2.40 per acre would cost the state $14 million.

And where would that money come from? Here’s one idea. State land has become a major revenue-generator -- not from selling furniture, but by marketing natural resources.

Each year, the state pockets millions of dollars by cutting timber and leasing land for gas and oil drilling. Since the property is tax-exempt, doesn’t it make sense to share a fraction of those profits with the hosts?

Lawmakers are heading into the stretch run in their 2016-17 state budget negotiations. Now is the time to address the inequity.

That’s the message being sent to Harrisburg by the County Commissioners Assn. of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State Assn. of Township Supervisors, Pennsylvania School Boards Assn., Pennsylvania Assn. for Rural and Small Schools, Pennsylvania State Grange, Pennsylvania Landowners Assn. and the Pennsylvania Forest Products Assn.

One might think that a coalition this broadly based would make the higher PILT a slam-dunk. But we’re hearing otherwise from Harrisburg insiders. Please consider contacting your State Senator, State Representative, and Governor Wolf in support of our cause. 

Simply put, this is the right thing to do. The future of rural Pennsylvania may depend on it.

(Paul W. Heimel is in his ninth year as vice-chairman of the Potter County Board of Commissioners. He is chairman of the Pa. State Land Tax Fairness Coalition, an organization of county and local government officials formed to support higher compensation in-lieu-of-taxes for state-owned land. To learn more about the coalition, go to pastatelandtaxfairness.com.)

25 comments :

Anonymous said...

Were do you think the extra money is going to come from? Learn to spend less.

Anonymous said...



Without Clean & Green, I'd have to sell my house and land.

Anonymous said...

If it is the right thing to do you can be sure they will turn their backs on it. OK so let us all contact these people and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

this cat is a republican .Their motto is live within your means and stop asking the PA taxpayer to support your reckless spending.Also where is the impact fees that you got to help with the county budget.Put on a sales tax local and stop asking the Pa taxpayer to bail you out

Anonymous said...

Perhaps 5:24 did not read the entire article. Several of the things our school districts have to budget for are mandated by the state. They have to spend money on these things. It's the law. And 6:39, no one is talking about abolishing the Clean & Green Act. Mr. Heimel suggested that some of the millions of dollars the state makes by selling timber and leasing to gas companies on the land in our county, be given to our county to help pay for the things we are required by law to pay for! Learn to spend less...our school districts are already practicing austerity. And by your comment you suggest that the state be allowed to, in effect, rape and pillage in our county and keep all the loot themselves. No, this is not at all fair and this practice must come to an end.

Anonymous said...

Where is the royalty money from the Marcellus gas going on all of this land? How many MILLIONS of $$ has the PGC and others received? They are asking for a hunting license increase also, correct? BTW, the PGC forced a pipeline onto farmland even though it was following an existing power line ROW. Could you or I force that move? The PGC land will always be used for hunting, nothing else. What does it matter what's underneath? That farmland can never have a barn or any type of outbuilding on it in that area. Where is the justice in this? So does anyone know where the royalty money is going? They have not been very forthcoming on this when asked, other than being "used for expenses".

Anonymous said...

Get used to it, next it'll be the FEDS taking over, like they've done out West.

Maybe Paul Heimel will be the next LaVoy Finicum.

Anonymous said...

So you are saying you don't like Clean and Green? People can't afford their land tax so they subdivide, parcel it all off in 1/4 acre lots to build cookie cutter houses? What will become of the PA Wilds? Which BTW, is a mean spirited idea. FORCING people to make THEIR OWN HOME look like someone else thinks it should look. See recent discussions on PA Route 6 Scenic Byway.

Anonymous said...

Thank You Paul

Anonymous said...

Paul, You hit the nail directly on the head.

Solomon's words for the wise said...

Back when this PILT legislation was originally enacted, it was a help to the taxing bodies, even though it was a pittance of what individual landowners were assessed.
In the years that have passed, inflation has caused everything to triple in cost. A tripling of this PILT would only restore the value that was gained in the original agreement.
Landowners in counties like Potter need a fair shake from the Commonwealth on this matter.

Anonymous said...

Corbett gave away millions to his cronies .Seems you people have short memories as Corbett cut education.The younger generation are tired of supporting this type of me-me-me attitude that the boomers think everyone should bow to them.Move to somewhere else Or maybe ask Texas for the money they waste on the Military Industrial Complex.How about all the FEMA tax dollars that are wasted in the South You all want the young to bail you out from the mess you made the last 30 years of me-me-me

Anonymous said...

HERE'S a novel idea. Let's implement a state real estate tax. You know, like the towns, county and townships do.

Anonymous said...

At least the land isn't being developed into commercial places and ruining/taking out wildlife!

Anonymous said...

It seems every single one of the communities that are within state owned land suffer financially. It's certainly not because of spending, it's because of the lack of tax revenue. If all the property in Cameron county was privately owned we would certainly be in a better financial situation as they would all be paying their fair share of taxes. I pay $1,500 in taxes on my 12 acres, the state pays $1,200 on 1,000 acres. And yes my land is totally open to the public fishing, hiking hunting etc. The state land here does NOTHING to benifit the residence of these rural communities.

Anonymous said...

6:01 your attitude will change as you age. We all have gone through this. I probably said those same things when I was your age.

Anonymous said...

10:45 I'm 64 and got out because of people like you that think everyone else should support them .You probably get more from the gov then you ever paid.How many of your friends and relatives game the system.If you want more money buy the land and pay your way

Anonymous said...

10:32 AM Very good suggestion. The state should pay a tax. Instead of PILT at a set rate for acre maybe they should be taxed on their revenues off the land. Of course, that would not be a good solution for the county because the payment would fluctuate and more difficult to budget. If you ask the agencies involved to double the PILT payments there may be a point where the money is not there for that. Then what will happen? Do they sell the land off? Let us be careful where we go, we do not want to lose our "wilds".

Anonymous said...

There are some interesting comments on here but the one person really misunderstands one part of this. Nobody is calling for doing away with the Clean and Green program. A lot of us pay higher taxes because you people who are in Clean and Green get special treatment and pay less. But nobody is proposing that Clean and Green be taken away. The problem with the state sharing timber and gas/oil money is that they already sucked that up in the Harrisburg black hole and plugged past budget deficits with it instead of being more fiscally responsible and either cutting costs or raising taxes. This campaign they have launched for a higher PILT is a good thing we should all get behind. Thank you to those who are carrying this ball. This is a very effective essay on the topic.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me the real problem is reliance on property taxes to fund everything.
Property taxes place a heavy burden on retirees and farmers. Lots of people end up parceling their land to pay the taxes on it.

Maybe it's time to look at a different way to pay for services. That, coupled with reducing some state mandates could help.

And there are more ways to reduce the costs for some of the county programs. Stop agreeing to all the training request that come before the commissioners, institute distance learning for staff development, consolidate IT positions into one county-wide slot, and maybe ask employees to contribute a share towards their health insurance costs.

I know training is mandated and it doesn't fall on employees; they do as they're told. But I'm getting tired of all the whining over PILT without seeing anything done in other areas.

It's a game of robbing from Peter to pay Paul, and taxpayers have had enough already.

Anonymous said...

Ridiculous that each one of these very tiny school districts have their own superintendent, really many other big cities have just one and many more students. Even principle and vice principal could take on more than these tiny districts.

Anonymous said...

10:45 Sorry I own my home bought and paid for after years of working and I pay out of my own pocket for insurance. Don't know what my relatives do but that isn't me and it is none of my business. I have to answer for myself. I've labored since I graduated and I mean jobs that were physical not desk. Last but not least You left a beautiful part of the country. Have a nice day. Your loss not mine.

Anonymous said...

How about some local jobs. That would create revenue for all. Including home values. Look at the plant in Port closing. Looking at Level 3 pulling most of it's work, and Time Warner. How about focusing of Jobs, less on looks. No one wants to come live in dingy PA. Where you either retire or live on welfare. Just look at how many homes are for sale in Potter, which is well over a hundred homes. There is a problem with Jobs, not taxing other land. Also, if schools dropped the music, art and sports program, spent less time having field day, which happens every two weeks, there would be enough money to support all the educational learning programs.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This rampant fracking was supposed to be the answer. People were gullible & welcomed in these environment destroying crooks. People in rural England are now fighting like hell to keep fracking out of their forests & towns. Guess which US state, they're using as an example of why, fracking should not be welcomed in by the locals? That's right. PA Our infrastructure's rated at D+. Our gas and electric bills are sky high & rates, ever climbing. They have plans for 100's of 1,000's of pipelines. In my 60 some years, I've seen devastating results from this fracking. A few, get rich while the masses of people, wildlife & environment suffer greatly. Fracking produces a temporary product but causes permanent damage. Renewable energy would benefit ALL people, wildlife & environment . Fracking does not pay. LOOK at the mess our state's in. No jobs, Alcoholism/drug addiction rampant, schools are terrible, roads & bridges are a mess.... Comparing todays America to America in 1969 just makes me want to cry. What a mess, we've allowed them to make of our state & country...ALL of our "commonwealth' monies end up in the pockets of the few.

Anonymous said...

will be a waste land when all the takers tax the young trying to better themselves right out of PA Hopefully all the ones that support putting the state further in debt their kids and grandkids can foot the bill Good Luck Millenials