Bailiwick News - May 15, 2020

State College Borough Council and COG Executive Committee agendas: regional park loan extension; grant application for an Action Sports Park; Centre Region Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

Upcoming Public Government Zoom Meetings

Action Sports Park at High Point Park

Briefly, this project has been pitched for several years, for a variety of locations including the proposed Whitehall Road Regional Park and Orchard Park, with significant neighborhood pushback. See, for example, July 18, 2016 and July 10, 2017 State College Borough Council minutes.

Despite citizen objections raised on budget, public safety, property values and other grounds, the Borough Council quietly moved project planning into a committee during 2018 and 2019.

The committee's output appears as a consent item on the May 18 agenda. As a consent item, unless a Council member asks for the item to be removed for additional discussion, it will be approved without discussion along with other routine matters such as bill-paying.

The specific agenda item asks Borough Council members to vote to:

"Approve a resolution authorizing the Borough Manager to act as the Borough's agent in the Execution of an Agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to apply for a Park Rehabilitation and Development Grant which will assist in development of an Action Sports Park within High Point Park." 

The background section indicates:

"The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources requires a resolution accepting the "Terms and Conditions of the Grant" if awarded and authorizing the Council President to sign on the signature page... Although there is no financial impact on the budget regarding the resolution, the preliminary engineering estimate for development of the Action Sports Park is $500,000, $200,000 of which would be the Borough's responsibility." (Emphasis added).

The briefing concludes: "Staff is recommending that Council approve a resolution..."

May 14 Public Comment to Borough Council and staff from Katherine Watt, regarding the proposed $200,000 future public allocation for construction of an Action Sports Park at High Point Park.

Please remove the authorization for the DCNR Action Sports Park grant from the consent agenda for Monday's meeting and then vote it down.

State College Borough taxpayers are facing very serious decisions in the next few years about what public services are truly essential, and what public services are luxuries we can't afford.

An action skate park, with a $200,000 contribution from the Borough, is very clearly a luxury and we cannot afford it.

Centre Region Climate Action and Adaptation Plan

Briefly, the Centre Region Council of Governments tasked COG staff with production of a report laying out goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. COG staff produced that report and provided it to Centre Region elected officials recently, which caused it to appear in the agenda packet for the State College Borough Council's May 18 meeting as a “Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Reduction Targets Report.”

In recent months, COG representatives have also been moving toward establishing a Climate Action and Sustainability Committee which would - if endorsed/adopted by the General Forum - be tasked with providing

"oversight of strategic and coordinated actions among the COG municipalities to set the stage for a successful implementation of the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP). The committee will align and organize climate actions to utilize resources efficiently and to identify gaps and opportunities for alignment across various organizations."

The committee would have the power to "make recommendations" and "coordinate studies," using an as-yet-unspecified budget from as an-yet-unidentified funding source.

May 14, 2020 Public Comment to Borough Council and staff from Katherine Watt, regarding the proposed Climate Action and Adaptation Plan and Climate Action and Sustainability Committee:

I request that the State College Borough Council decline to endorse, adopt and/or participate in the proposed Centre Region Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, because it is a meaningless exercise in futility.

First, I believe that greenhouse gas emissions will drop in the coming decades as a direct result of economic contraction and a reduction in standards of living; changing travel and work-from-home behaviors; declining business activity, especially tourism-driven, football and university-related business in the Centre Region; consumption; and other factors driven primarily by broad socioeconomic forces and rising involuntary poverty, not on discretionary, tax-funded municipal, state and federal political decisions.

Second, as stated by me previously, public budgets are going to tighten significantly in the coming years with the collapse of tax revenues from distressed homeowners and business owners, so there will not be funding readily available to implement greenhouse gas political policies.

Third, the hypocrisy/credibility gap between local political leaders demanding emissions cuts from small businesses, commuters and homeowners, while simultaneously endorsing massive emissions increases by Penn State, is insurmountable. 

Municipal government and citizen efforts to reduce aggregate carbon emissions are dwarfed by Penn State's efforts to increase aggregate carbon emissions. 

To highlight a very recent example, Borough Council was asked a few months ago to investigate and oppose Penn State's planned expansion of the West Campus Steam Plant to add a Combustion Turbine/Heat Recovery Steam Generation system. 

According to the data prepared by Mark Huncik and myself [Jan. 14, 2020 Bailiwick News attached], and presented to Borough Council in January, the WCSP at pre-CT/HRSG levels was permitted to emit 181,048 MT CO2e per year, representing 22% of all the annual GHG emissions attributed to the Centre Region -- 824,209 MT C02e -- in the CRPA study attached to the May 18, 2020 agenda.

The added CT-HRSG system will permit Penn State to emit an additional 83,415 MT CO2e each year, representing a 10% increase to the Centre Region emissions.

The State College Borough Council did nothing to publicly condemn and/or investigate the greenhouse gas emissions or public health impacts of the Penn State expansion plan, or to block it, and the DEP approved the Penn State plan shortly thereafter.

[Note: I’ve heard an unconfirmed rumor that State College Borough Council sent a letter to DEP on the issue, but have not yet seen a copy or a DEP response to the Borough’s comments, if any. If I get that information, I’ll report on it.]

Despite that silence and inaction, State College Borough Council is now considering joining COG to ask municipalities and their taxpaying citizens to commit to cut regional emissions by 45% in 10 years (by 2030) for a cut of 370,894 MT C02e per year PLUS, presumably, also cutting another 83,415 MT C02e per year to offset Penn State's West Campus Steam Plant expansion, over which State College and Centre Region citizens have zero policy-making influence.

In my view, that's gross hypocrisy, and therefore the State College Borough Council should decline to participate in it by directing the State College representative to vote "No" at COG when the resolution comes up for a vote.

Whitehall Road Regional Park Loan Extension

Briefly, the Whitehall Road Regional Park has - for two decades - been one component of a debt-funded package of park developments spearheaded by the Centre Region Parks and Recreation Authority, a quasi-independent multi-municipal board with project management authority but no taxing authority.

The programs and facilities managed by the Centre Region Parks and Recreation department are paid for by taxpayers in the participating municipalities, and state taxpayers through state park and recreation programs such as those operated by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Over the past decade, the Whitehall Road Regional Park plan has hit numerous environmental, political and legal speedbumps, and CRPRA's poor record as a project manager has been accumulating with, for example, failure to monitor and maintain the foundations of the boardwalks at Millbrook Marsh, and improper design and construction of stormwater management systems at the Oak Hall Regional Park, which have led to closures and/or costly repair expenses.

Over that same interval, the loan for Phase 1 of the Whitehall Road park project has been extended several times through legally questionable COG General Forum committee and “unit vote” procedures.

COG General Forum now has another opportunity to cancel the project and prepay the balance of the loan.

Should the State College Borough Council and/or other participating municipal governments seize this opportunity, they will protect 100 acres of publicly-owned agricultural land for food production and watershed conservation uses far into the future, while saving regional COG taxpayers about $6.2 million in principle and interest payments over the next 10 years, including saving State College taxpayers $1.5 million, without cutting a single existing public service.

COG General Forum has the legal authority, under the terms of the Fulton Bank loan in which municipal taxpayer revenue is the guarantee, to "direct" the Centre Region Parks and Recreation Authority to prepay the loan balance and clear the debt.

See Section 3.04 of the 2011 loan contract, still in full force after several loan term extensions: 

“The Authority shall have the right at any time, at the direction of the COG, to prepay without premium or penalty of any kind, all or any portion of the outstanding principal balance of the Authority bond.” 

May 14, 2020 - Informational Note to Eric Norenberg, new Executive Director of COG, from Katherine Watt, copied to State College Borough Council and staff.

In case you're looking for other sources of information about [the Whitehall Road Regional Park loan], I've attached some of my reporting. [Bailiwick News March 9, 2017, June 6, 2017, May 24, 2019 and COG General Forum minutes, May 28, 2019.]

There have been several irregularities in past financing votes for this project. 

Last year (May 28, 2019, minutes at pp. 6-7), COG General Forum - for the first time in its 50 years of operation -  adopted written rules for the conduct of unit votes such as the type required for financial commitments of taxpayer funds. 

Given the COVID-era directives placing additional power in the Executive Committee members' hands, I'm concerned about further irregularities with the handling of this upcoming vote. 

Of particular relevance is the reporting on pp. 5-6 of the June 6, 2017 issue, regarding the May 2017 voting process for the loan extension.

Public comment re: these topics to follow in the next day or so.

I have opposed the Whitehall Road Regional Park project for a long time because I think the taxpayers of the Centre Region can't afford it, and because I think the 100-acres of publicly-owned agricultural land are more valuable to our people for short, medium and long-term food production uses than for soccer and lacrosse games.

I continue to oppose it, and believe we can afford it even less than we could three years ago due to COVID and related reduced property and earned income tax revenue, tourism spending in the Centre Region [and other lost revenue sources.]

I continue to  advocate that the COG Executive Committee and General Forum take this opportunity - laid out in the existing legal documents - to retire the loan, return the remaining funds to Fulton Bank, and cancel the WRRP project.

If you would be interested in using your professional position as Executive Director to advise COG legislators to protect essential public services and taxpayer resources by cancelling the non-essential Whitehall Road Regional Park loan, I think that would be a valuable contribution you could make to the public debate.

Excerpts from Oct. 3, 2019 Bailiwick News (historical summary used in campaign materials).

  • COG was founded in 1969. Jim Steff became executive director in 1985. 

  • In March 2015, concerned citizens began to track the passage of Whitehall Road Regional Park and PSU/Toll  Brother projects through municipalities, COG General Forum and COG committees. 

  • In January 2019, concerned citizens who now had a better handle on things like closed-door agenda-setting as a tool to limit public meeting debate and suppress dissent, and the Sunshine Law, objected to the handling of a General Forum unit vote on changes to the WRRP master plan. 

  • The March 2019 General Forum agenda – “As far back as anyone at COG can remember the practice of casting municipal unit votes has been used at General Forum meetings. It has been done by tradition and there is no documentation to explain or approve its use.” 

  • This led to the COG Executive Committee drafting rules, covering votes on things like real estate transactions, loans/borrowing, and amendments to the articles of agreement. Draft approved at May 2019 meeting. 

  • The result was a three-part set of rules, two of which – the “official” unit vote rules of Type 1 and Type 2, include as a matter of policy that: “No minutes are taken and individual votes are not recorded. Only the unit vote is reported.” 

  • COG operated for 50 years without rules governing financial votes, most if not all the municipal legislators who served on General Forum during that history were totally fine with that. And the “fix” still blocks citizens from holding individual legislators accountable at election time for their votes.

May 14, 2020 Public Comment to Borough Council and staff from Katherine Watt, regarding May 19 COG Executive Committee votes on the extension of the Whitehall Road Regional Park Fulton Bank loan (Item 5 on the May 19 COG Executive Committee agenda):

Any moves any State College Borough Council members can make - on Council or in COG contexts - to block the Whitehall Road Regional Park project and cancel the bulk of the remaining loan obligation on behalf of COG taxpayers, would be appreciated.

A decision to forego the regional park would save regional COG taxpayers about $6.2 million over the next 10 years, including saving State College taxpayers $1.5 million, without cutting a single existing public service. (Data included in 10.19.16 chart, attached...the values might be slightly different now, but are probably pretty close).

Postscript

Paid subscribers will receive an addendum to this reporting, containing email discussion threads on the issues above, that took place between Katherine Watt, State College Borough Councilwoman Theresa Lafer, and State College Borough Council President Jesse Barlow on May 14 and May 15, 2020.