A genteel hostage-taking – Updated

The Centre Region Council of Governments General Forum meets tonight, 7:30 p.m. at 113 South Pine St., Boalsburg Fire Hall

Open Letter to General Forum Members and Engaged Public Regarding the Regional Parks Capital Section in the 2017 Proposed COG Financial Capital Budget, and Its Implications for the 2017 COG Political Capital Budget.

By Katherine Watt, Editor & Publisher, Bailiwick News

Civil society is our power, our joy, and our possibility, and it has written a lot of the history in the last few years, as well as the last half century. If you doubt our power, see how it terrifies those at the top, and remember that they fight it best by convincing us it doesn’t exist.” – Rebecca Solnit

INTRODUCTION

The Regional Parks Capital section of the Proposed COG Financial Budget includes several line items appropriating public funds to advance the Whitehall Road Regional Park project. If endorsed in full by the COG General Forum tonight (Nov. 28), the draft budget will move to the constituent municipalities for ratification before Dec. 31.

It is my position that, if built, the Whitehall Road Regional Park will impose an unjustified financial burden, and an unjustified environmental burden on the Centre Region community.

I further believe that, because of the political techniques used to bring the Whitehall Road Regional Park project to this point – when municipal elected officials must decide whether or not to appropriate public funds – it imposes an unjustified legitimacy burden on the Centre Region Council of Governments.

I recommend that the General Forum strike the Regional Parks Capital budget items from the budget before endorsing an amended version to send to the municipal boards for ratification. Failing that, I recommend the General Forum pull the Regional Parks Capital budget items out of the budget for separate review and, if warranted, separate ratification next year, after more information becomes available.

In any case, I’ll continue to inform the public about how and why local governing bodies have been coopted by non-accountable individuals, so that engaged citizens can begin to consider whether and how to dismantle COG and return the delegated authority back to the municipalities.

One crucial pattern I’ll be watching in 2017 is deflection – in time and in power attribution. Both are repeating patterns of action and response.

An example of deflection in time is the State College procedure for capital project identification and funding. In July, State College staff presented a proposed “Capital Improvements Plan” to the Borough Council for review and adoption. When Council members indicate discomfort with proposed expenditures, they are often told that adopting a capital improvement plan does not encumber public funds. The funds will only be allocated at budget adoption time in December.

However, when the budget comes up for review a few months later, State College staff include several capital projects in it. When Council members indicate discomfort with appropriating funds for the projects, they’re often told that because the projects appeared in the previously adopted Capital Improvement Plan, appropriating funding through the budget process is more or less a formality.

Clearly, projects must be identified, prioritized and funded to be completed. But the pattern is basically a Red Queen/Alice in Wonderland protocol: “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.”

Elected officials are too often being told: “Decisions were made in the past, decisions will be made in the future, but right now, there is no decision to be made.”

Deflection in power locus arises when one governing board is informed – and believes – that the power to make a decision rests with a subcommittee, or with a different agency, or with a different governing board. When used successfully by off-stage manipulators, most elected representatives, when it comes time to cast a public vote, believe that they must simply endorse a decision made elsewhere, earlier. As a result, no one is plausibly, publicly responsible for final decisions, good or bad.

You’re in the middle of a scenario using both deflection techniques right now, with the Regional Parks Capital section of the 2017 COG budget, and I encourage you to consider the stark difference between being asked to vote for something because you’ve heard a compelling case that it’s a good idea, and being asked to vote for something because you’ve been told that you have no choice: your vote is a meaningless formality.

This model even has predictive value. If you allow the Regional Parks Capital section of the proposed budget to move forward tonight, you can test the hypothesis next year. In a few months, some entity will need to formally request that Fulton Bank extend the parks capital loan past the current drawdown date of June 1, 2017. If Fulton Bank is interested in doing that at all, the bank will want a renewal of municipal guarantees, encumbering future municipal boards, on behalf of future municipal taxpayers, to pay back the principal and interest. When the Parks Authority comes before the General Forum to request those municipal guarantees, I predict they will point to your vote tonight as a reason why you must extend the guarantees.

BACKGROUND

One operating principal of the Centre Region COG as a voluntary coordinating organization, and any other public legislative body – is that agencies present planned activities, and coherent arguments about why those activities are in the public interest such that the municipalities should appropriate taxpayer funding for those programs and projects.

It’s then up to the legislative body, in this case representatives on COG committees, to make value judgments about whether the case presented by the agency is sound and in the public interest.

I’ve been closely following the Whitehall Road Regional Park development process since August, including research into the formative decisions that created the regional parks program back in 2001.

From the get-go, many of you have, rightly, I think, asked in public for more information, and questioned how you can be expected to make an informed value judgment without comprehensive, up-to-date information about regional parks proposals.

I also understand that you’re concerned about long meetings. Everybody hates long meetings.

But with a large, diverse coordinating committee like COG, whose many stakeholders have competing demands on financial and political resources – for legitimacy’s sake, either the committees take the time to drill down into the nuts and bolts, to give sound recommendations to the General Forum, or the General Forum has to take the time to deliberate itself.

On Nov. 22, when I asked the COG Executive Committee what would happen if one or more municipality adopted a version of the 2017 budget that differed from the presented budget (i.e., made amendments during their ratification process, triggering some sort of reconciliation process) I was told by Chair Eric Bernier and others that COG procedures are set up to air and resolve conflicts at the committee level, which are formed by representatives from each municipality, before the final General Forum and municipal ratification votes in November and December.

That system was deliberately short-circuited this year, on the Whitehall Road Regional Park issue.

Things started out okay. In early July, the Parks Authority received a feasibility study taking into account the new circumstances regarding environmental, permitting, and financial challenges resulting from the suspension of the adjacent Toll Brothers housing project. The study was passed along to COG committees, and on July 25, the General Forum voted to refer the issues to municipal boards for discussion.

A crucial monkey wrench was thrown into the gears on Aug. 15, when Conflicted Solicitor Terry Williams circulated a memo suggesting that the Parks Authority is an independent municipal authority, and strongly implying that its independence exempted it from having to justify the project on the merits, rendering any further municipal, committee or General Forum deliberation moot.

State College Borough Council Chair Tom Daubert accepted Williams’ analysis without question, shutting down debate at the Aug. 15 State College Borough Council meeting, cancelling the August COG Parks Capital meeting, and then heavily curtailing discussion at the Sept. 9 COG Parks Capital Meeting.

By October, the COG Finance Committee was reviewing agency requests for 2017 – including Parks & Recreation requests. Again, accepting the Williams memo without critical thought, nobody mentioned Regional Parks Capital during the budget hearings, let alone insisted on a clear presentation and justification from Parks & Rec staff and Parks Authority board members.

At the Oct. 13 Parks Capital meeting, COG Parks & Recreation Director Pam Salokangas gave a brief update, summarizing recent and upcoming meetings staff had held or would soon hold with other WRRP stakeholder agencies (PennDOT, Ferguson Township Planning Department, Penn State legal teams).

At that meeting, Patton Township supervisor Jeff Luck indicated that no more money would be forthcoming from Patton Township beyond the original loan guaranty adopted for the first phase of construction. Luck mentioned the Patton Township board’s recent, unpleasant, discovery that a 2006 Articles of Agreement provision requiring unanimous General Forum consent for construction contracts might be legally unenforceable, and conveyed his board’s sense of “resignation” that a first phase of construction would probably move ahead despite municipal objections. Additional discussion highlighted the fact that Parks Capital representatives trying to be fiscally and environmentally responsible were hamstrung by a lack of information about what park amenities would be affordable with the remaining money in the loan balance, given the many unanticipated cost pressures.

On Oct. 18, the COG Executive Committee bumped the Whitehall Road Regional Park issue from an Oct. 24 General Forum discussion agenda item down to an Executive Director informational item. Then Daubert cancelled the November Parks Capital meeting.

On Nov. 17, COG Finance Director Joe Viglione gave the third quarter financial report to the Finance Committee. His presentation included several graphs showing that loan draws associated with parks capital are a “revenue” source for COG, albeit one with strings; the principal and interest must be paid back to the bank. The revenue was anticipated to come in during 2016 when COG staff thought the park would move forward. But because the park stalled, there was a corresponding decline in “expenses” for COG: capital expenditures for park design and construction.

I continued delving into the relationships between the Parks & Recreation budget and the COG budget, given Williams’ claim that the Parks Authority is legally independent of COG. On Nov. 20, COG Executive Director Jim Steff confirmed by email that the Parks Authority differs from the independent State College Borough Water Authority and University Area Joint (Sewage) Authority, because – unlike the SCBWA and UAJA, whose boards adopt their own budgets based on their own revenue streams from fees and fee-backed borrowing – Parks & Recreation funding is folded into the COG budget and subject to the appropriations power of the participating municipalities.

(Bernier asked some related questions of Viglione at the Executive Committee meeting Nov. 22, probing for information about the budget appropriation and receipt technicalities. Viglione gave several unclear responses, basically saying that the Regional Parks Capital line items are in the 2017 draft budget to give General Forum members a “holistic” understanding of the situation. If it’s in the budget for informational purposes only, then it shouldn’t be in the budget; it should be in an informational memo.  If it’s in the budget because GF has to endorse it, then it should be subject to detailed financial scrutiny as a discretionary appropriation.)

There’s a good reason for the parks and recreation budget being a subsection of the overall COG budget, which Patton Township supervisor George Downsbrough summed up in a Nov. 24 email:

“UAJA and the SCBWA have income based on water rates, sewer rates and tapping fees. Therefore UAJA and SCBWA can borrow funds and secure those borrowings based on future revenue. Since the parks and rec fees go to COG, the CRPRA has no income to borrow against. The COG has borrowed the funds for the parks and those loans are secured by the taxing authority of the COG municipalities.”

Long story short, although the COG system is set up to air and resolve conflicts between municipalities at the committee level, or at the General Forum level, in this case, neither mechanism has worked.

As a result of the many deflections, the Parks Authority board has not yet had to publicly justify why today’s and tomorrow’s taxpayers should borrow bank money to purchase a 2010 park plan, located at a site chosen in 2006, based on a general needs assessment endorsed by General Forum and member municipalities in 2001, using loan guarantees originally adopted by General Forum and member municipalities in 2011, under the 2017 economic and environmental circumstances in our communities.

No one affiliated with COG as a legislative, policy-setting body, has reviewed or debated the merits of the WRRP project under current financial, logistical and environmental circumstances, in any public forum

Yet here you are, reviewing a draft budget that includes a large public appropriation for the project.

It may be efficient. It may even be the way things have been done over the last couple of decades of relatively free-flowing money. But it lacks transparency and accountability, and it robs COG of legitimacy.

Unjustified Environmental Burden & SCBWA Board Silence

Occasionally, SCBWA board members – specifically Gary Petersen – have publicly suggested that water protection activists need to provide scientific data to support that position.

Unfortunately for Petersen, the SCBWA itself is the best source of that data. Over the past decades, numerous SCBWA reports have concluded that the Slab Cabin watershed is extremely vulnerable to water contamination from land development. The vulnerability of the Zone 2 recharge area for the Harter and Thomas water wells is known and understood by everyone paying attention.

For example, the 2007 SCBWA Source Water Protection Report noted, at p. 42:

“[T]he dye tracing study revealed the relatively rapid and interconnected nature of surface and subsurface flow in Slab Cabin Run and the ultimate recharge to Wellfields 1 and 3 [Harter and Thomas]. The vulnerability of Wellfields 1 and 3 to surface contaminants exists as demonstrated by the presence of dye in these wellfields five days after injected into the watershed, traveling at a rate of up to nearly one mile per day.”

Despite multiple citizen presentations of the SCBWA’s own findings – at venues all over the region, including back to the SCBWA board – several members of the COG Parks Capital Committee on Oct. 13 continued to express confusion about the SCBWA position, and interest in clarification on the safety – or lack thereof – of development activity in the Zone 2 recharge area of the Harter-Thomas wells. The confusion largely stems from evasive public statements by SCBWA Director John Lichman, who waffles for his own political self-preservation, and the public silence of the SCBWA board, which maintains silence for political self-preservation.

Nonetheless, I carried the question from the Parks Capital committee to the SCBWA board on Oct. 20, asking that the Source Water Protection Committee review the issue and come back with a resolution for the full SCBWA board to vote on Nov. 17, to clarify the board’s position on the risk, or explain why the board won’t take a public position.

I provided draft language:

“The State College Borough Water Authority Board, on the recommendation of the SCBWA Source Water Protection Committee and SCBWA consulting hydrogeologists, formally endorses a resolution stating that land development activity in the Zone 2 recharge area of the Harter-Thomas wells poses a “significant risk” to those wells. We therefore recommend that public policy-makers in Ferguson Township and in the other Centre Region Council of Governments constituent municipalities, protect those public wells by enacting and enforcing legislation to prevent development and protect public water supplies.”

On Nov. 17, Jason Grottini briefly reported that the source water committee (Grottini, Petersen, William Burgos, Rachel Brennan and Emory Enscom) met Nov. 7, discussed a number of issues including the proposed Zone 2 risk resolution, and declined to recommend that the full board discuss or vote on the issue. Grottini did not offer any information about why the source water committee dropped the matter.

In my view, the continued silence of the SCBWA board says far more about the water board’s low appetite for political risk – a refusal to take the political stands necessary to implement policy recommendations dictated by their own scientific findings – than about the water system’s non-vulnerability to negative impacts from land development.

CONCLUSION

There’s a reason why the Whitehall Road Regional Park hasn’t been debated on the merits. On the merits, it’s a bad project: wrong location, design, time, and cost.

And there’s a reason why park advocates have worked so hard behind the scenes to focus attention on the outdated, unenforceable agreements that – when looked at from just the right angle – make it appear to elected officials as if they have no say.

It’s thought-stopping, and it’s effective.

It’s the exact same strategy used on the State College Borough Council during the 2013 pipeline fight, but they broke through the illusion and voted against the pipeline permit, even though they were told they had no “right” to do that. The Borough Council’s stand made Penn State move the pipeline out of the Highlands neighborhood.

The Parks Authority and their enablers have been pushing the message of disempowerment, to the exclusion of justifying their project on the merits, because it’s unjustifiable, and General Forum members do have the power to stop it. If it weren’t necessary to get the General Forum to formally endorse the appropriation in the budget, then there wouldn’t be such a concerted effort to shut down the flow of information by insisting that it’s all a done deal.

You’ve also been encouraged to believe that the Parks Authority will sue COG if you vote to stop the regional parks program without building the Whitehall Road park, even though the parks program is a COG program and the vast majority of its funding comes from annual municipal appropriations, which can be suspended with a year’s notice.

The Parks Authority board members may indeed feel so entitled to impose the additional debt burden on stressed regional taxpayers that they will vote to sue COG for the opportunity to go to court and ask a judge to order the Whitehall Road park appropriation.

I don’t think they’re that short-sighted. I think they’d be disappointed, and I think they’d get over it and move on.

On the other hand, if the Parks Authority board is prepared to attack COG with litigation over the Whitehall Road project – and the General Forum members are prepared to tolerate that political violence – that’s also useful information for the public to have going forward.

UPDATED (Later that evening…)

More than one way to honor a loan obligation

I had to bounce out of the General Forum meeting after the COG budget discussion and votes, and before the Whitehall Road Regional Park update, because I have calendar prints due Saturday and they take three days to dry, so I have to print a bunch tonight and more tomorrow.

However, a short initial report:

Laura Dininni, Ferguson Township supervisor, made a motion to remove the Whitehall Road Regional Park appropriations from the draft 2017 COG budget, and Janet Engeman, State College councilwoman, seconded the motion.

The discussion on their amendment didn’t cover a lot of ground, but it did give several people an opportunity to state that they have never seen the Parks Authority do anything that wasn’t fully supported by General Forum, and that if General Forum members wanted to see the Parks Authority change course and conveyed those wishes to Parks Authority board members, the changed course would probably happen.

Some supervisors commented on their sense that they must “honor” the obligation to pay back the $7,578,800 loan that was first obtained back in 2011, and extended several times in the intervening six years, of which roughly $4,711,197 remained unspent as of June 3, 2016.

6.3.16 Regional Parks Fulton Bank Loan Drawdown Report

The implication was that it would somehow be dishonorable for COG municipalities to pay back the loan early, by returning the unspent $4.7 million to Fulton Bank before the current drawdown date of June 1, 2017, leaving the municipalities to finish up the remaining installment payments for completed work at Oak Hall Regional Park and Hess Field, by roughly December 2019.

I don’t see how that would be dishonorable. That would be paying off the loan.

In any case, the amendment failed to pass, and the main motion (to endorse the 2017 proposed COG budget and forward it to the municipalities for ratification at their December meetings) passed.

So.

Unless something very surprising happens in the next few weeks, I’ll put Whitehall Road Regional Park reporting on the back burner for awhile.

However, the matter of the renewal of the municipal loan guarantees remains, and will pop up again next spring. I don’t know what the legal process entails, or whether the General Forum vote, and/or the municipal votes, on the renewal has to be unanimous or simply a majority.

As time permits, I’ll dig into those issues over the next few months. In the meantime, back to the State College municipal budget reporting, and the water resource management reporting, both of which have been kicking my ass.

Thanks for reading, and thank you to Laura Dininni and Janet Engeman for their courage.

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