Many seeking casino revenues
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Dozens of local government and representatives of non-profit organizations turned out last week to hear how an estimated $12 to $13 million in slots revenue from The Meadows Racetrack and Casino would be distributed this year.
Applicants have until Nov. 14 to submit requests to receive a portion of the local share revenue, two-thirds of which will be used for economic development projects, including water and sewage improvements.
The remaining one-third of the funds are set aside for municipal or community projects.
The local share represents a percentage of gross revenue at The Meadows. The state Race Horse Development and Gaming Act provides for casino host municipalities and counties by setting aside a small percentage of casino revenue to be used for local projects.
The Washington County Redevelopment Authority sponsored three public meetings last week with the state Department of Community and Economic Development, to field questions and explain changes for this year.
Especially important to municipalities was the distribution of sewage and water grants.
After conducting several public hearings earlier this year, the local state legislative delegation had proposed setting aside one-third of the local share to fund only water and sewage projects because of concerns expressed last year when municipalities complained that such projects had been overlooked for larger economic development ventures.
The process by which projects were selected drew harsh criticism last year because more than $80 million worth of local projects were left on the cutting room floor, while four county business parks stood to gain the lion's share of revenue, with nearly $4 million in improvements.
Local government representatives complained that the nine-member committee charged with making decisions about the funding was populated largely with county economic development executives, and some municipalities challenged their decision in court.
The litigation has since been dropped, said William McGowen, executive director of the Redevelopment Authority.
One of the legislators, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who also serves on the local share committee, said he was disappointed that county commissioners vetoed several key recommendations from the legislative delegation, including the one-third sewage and water provision.
"I am not happy at all about the way this went on," he said of the changes, most of which don't reflect recommendations from the legislators.
He said commissioners also rejected a recommendation from the group that called for another third of the revenue to be distributed among municipalities.
Half of that money would have been distributed evenly among each municipality, with the exception of North Strabane, for a total of about $30,000 per municipality. The other half would be distributed on a per-capita basis, totaling about $10.28 per person.
The money could have been used for any qualifying capital project, and would have answered charges that the process unfairly served larger municipalities with more resources.
"It was universally applauded as the one thing everyone could agree on," Mr. White said.
North Strabane, the host municipality for The Meadows, receives its own revenue share.
There was about $8 million in local share revenue available last year after The Meadows opened in June 2007.
Of the 85 projects worth $88 million that were proposed last year, 26 were selected to receive funding. Some of the legislators' recommendations that were adopted by commissioners included adding one representative from a township and one from a borough to the local share committee and removing the county Redevelopment Authority, which administers the funding, from the local share selection process.
Commissioner Maggi proposed that instead of the controversial local projects, the revenue could be equally distributed among county residents in the form of county tax relief.
However, DCED and county representatives said last week that 35 percent of gross revenue already is earmarked for tax relief.
"Remember, this is not tax revenue," said Mr. McGowan.
Instead of each municipality receiving a share of the fund, they will submit competing projects.
Mr. White said that unfairly pits municipalities against one another and doesn't foster cooperation, one of the stated goals of the local share program.
Mr. McGowan and other officials told applicants to try to submit projects that would benefit as many citizens as possible, and to avoid projects that normally would be locally funded, like sidewalk or road improvements.
That irritated Ellsworth councilman Mark Segedi, who said it's difficult for smaller municipalities to compete with their larger and richer counterparts.
"We're being left out of this because we don't have projects that are big enough," he said.
Also this year, municipalities are being asked to prioritize projects, which worried some local non-profit agencies, who expressed concern that their projects sometimes have problems getting support from local government.
All projects must be sponsored by a municipality, and non-profit representatives said their projects were being orphaned because municipalities were afraid to jeopardize their own proposals by applying for too many projects.
Mr. McGowan said the committee would look favorably on projects that combined resources between municipalities, along with those that were environmentally friendly.
Steve Wiencek, assistant executive director of the Redevelopment Authority, said he expected the second year of revenue distribution to go smoother than the first.
Applications have been streamlined and simplified, and local government representatives have a better idea about what kinds of projects to submit, he said.
Representatives can get information and apply online this year, he said, at www.racw.net.
"People understand it better as it evolves," he said.
First Published September 28, 2008 12:00 am