How much rock salt will $12.55 buy?
It's a question that will be answered in Ben Avon Heights, where officials received a check for that amount courtesy of the impact fee levied last year against energy firms drilling for natural gas in the state. There isn't any drilling in Ben Avon Heights, and the amount was proportionally small.
In rig-heavy Washington County, it's a different story: The check there was for a hefty $4.2 million.
More than $204 million is being shared by more than 1,400 towns and counties across Pennsylvania as part of the first cycle of impact fee revenue, calculated by assessing a $50,000 fee on the state's 4,022 horizontal shale wells.
Wells drilled vertically were charged less, and the state's algorithm also takes gas prices and proximity to wells into account.
Outside of the Pittsburgh region, rural counties have hit the lottery. But the money is distributed across the state, so even places with little well activity -- such as Allegheny County, which received about $1.1 million -- get a portion of the revenue. All counties in Pennsylvania receive part of the impact fee money regardless of whether they have rigs, while other parts of the fund go to towns where gas drilling is occurring or taking place nearby.
Each community getting the money -- whether it's a windfall at the county level or pocket change for individual boroughs -- must file usage reports with the state Public Utility Commission detailing how the money is spent. But don't look for officials jetting off to the Bahamas: The money must be used in one of 13 categories.
There already has been a marked preference for emergency preparedness programs and road and infrastructure maintenance. Some places are opting for the piggy bank, putting the money in a capital reserve fund for future use.
Eventually, all 1,417 usage reports will be posted online at www.puc.pa.gov. Each municipality also must post its usage report to its own website, said Jennifer Kocher, press secretary for the PUC.
"About 74 percent of the local governments have turned them in," she said.
Local governments in Allegheny County have so far allocated money to only six of the 13 possible spending categories. The projects receiving no impact fee money in the county include surface water preservation, tax reductions and training for oil and gas workers.
In Frazer, home of the county's first Marcellus well, some $54,000 is going toward a road repair expected to cost between $200,000 and $300,000.
"Taxpayers are usually most satisfied when money's used for snow repairs and road repair," said Lori Ziencik, secretary/treasurer of the township.
Among the Allegheny County reports filed online, road and public infrastructure received the second-highest amount of money with nearly $64,000 going toward the repairs.
It was even the case in Ben Avon Heights, whose $12.55 check is the county's smallest. Officials quickly realized they might as well put it anywhere, so $12.55 was added to the borough's road repair fund, budgeted for 2013 at $181,291 to patch potholes, buy salt or put in streetlights.
"It won't go far," said Denise Raves, secretary/treasurer of the borough.
Make no mistake, some local governments are seeing budget amounts leap from the funds. Bradford County in the state's northeast region saw the biggest check with $8.4 million, while Washington County was the highest in the southwest region with more than $4.2 million.
In Washington, the county government is spending $1.3 million on roads, $815,000 on information technology and $730,000 on social services -- not to mention $200,000 for emergency preparedness and the $1.18 million saved for a rainy day.
Since gas drilling is most prevalent in rural parts of the state, some of the largest checks are going to communities that have had depleted coffers for a long time.
"When we heard we were getting this money, it was like, is this all we can have?" said Amy Revak, the chief clerk of Fayette County, which received a check for $1.33 million.
The county already spends nearly $700,000 per year to rent space in neighboring prisons since its jails reached capacity, and commissioners are often elected on the promise of no new taxes.
A majority of the impact fee money -- about $844,000 -- is going toward upgrading the county's 911 system. The move from analog to digital is expected to cost around $7 million over several years.
The next cycle of 2013 impact fees will be distributed July 1 and is expected to be about $198 million statewide, though a breakdown by town and municipality hasn't been released yet.
That hasn't stopped townships within Fayette County from requesting earmarks from the future dough. Organizations such as the volunteer fire department and chamber of commerce already have secured small percentages of the next amount.
Given Fayette County's Marcellus development, those earmarks will still likely edge out the amount seen in communities like Edgewood, which received a check this year for $73.98.
"Where would you put 73 dollars and change -- or whatever it is -- and make a significant difference?" said Warren Cecconi, borough manager.
In this case, it went to the fourth option of the usage report, which includes "environmental programs, including trails, parks and recreation."
So Edgewood rounded up, paying $100 toward a playground being built in the area at the cost of about $110,000.
"Even those rubber seats on swings are probably $70-some by now," Mr. Cecconi said.
Erich Schwartzel: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455. First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM