Schuylkill County Commissioners clashed Wednesday on the subject of farmland preservation.
In a split vote, the Commissioners agreed to spend an extra $200,000 toward farmland preservation. That’s in addition to the $50,000 annual contribution they make. The money will come from the County’s contingency fund.
But the split vote was the interesting twist here. The split came within the majority Commissioners, Boots Hetherington and George Halcovage.
It even got to the point where Halcovage, who opposed the extra spending, called Boots out on potentially gaining personally from this funding.
Farmland Preservation Causes GOP Split Among Schuylkill Commissioners
Officially, the Schuylkill County Commissioners were voting on Supplemental Budget Appropriation Resolution #2022-3. It called for dedicating an addition $200,000 for the county’s farmland preservation fund.
According to Hetherington, who issued a public statement in defense of the measure, the County’s typical contribution of $50,000 is enough to preserve one farm in Schuylkill County. And he claims that every year one farm is preserved with the money, another five are added to a waiting list that’s close to 80 long.
He says with the additional revenue kicked in by the County, plus the state’s matching funds, there’d be enough to preserve 5 or 6 farms.
“The preservation of farms is a winner for the county, municipalities, and school districts,” Hetherington said Wednesday.
Now, since taking office to replace the late-Frank Staudenmeier, Boots and Halcovage have been in lock-step on every issue, not counting the big federal lawsuit against the long-term Commissioner.
But that ended on Wednesday and it was Halcovage slinging some arrows at Hetherington.
Intra-Party Rift Divides Boots and Halcovage
After Boots wrapped up his public statement on why he supported quintupling the farm preservation contribution, Halcovage said that while he supported the idea, he can’t get behind the $200,000 add-on.
In a comment before a vote that ultimately went against his wishes, Halcovage noted that Hetherington – as a private citizen in 2012 – pushed the Commissioners to begin funding farmland preservation again but that he’s also on the very waiting list Boots said continues to grow.
In fact, Halcovage noted that Boots’ Union Twp. farm is #13 on that waiting list. And if the County ups the ante on how much it’ll contribute to the effort, he stands to gain from this.
“With current funding, you noted that we weren’t going to reach your farm and other farms on the list,” Halcovage said to his counterpart to his right on Wednesday. “That concerned me.”
Halcovage went into more detail on the alleged closed-door discussions that surrounded the farmland preservation funding. He said Boots asked if the extra bucks could come from the elusive American Rescue Plan funding the County received.
“The comment that was made was that this was your pet project,” Halcovage told Boots, but it’s unclear whose comment he’s citing.
He then said that if Boots wanted his support on this project, he should have supported what he considered Halcovage’s pet project, the so-called “broadband project” that’s aimed at getting more rural and underserved areas of Schuylkill County hooked into high-speed internet.
“You want my support for that but, on the other hand, with our discussions on the American (Rescue Plan), that number has been decreased, as far as your view of it,” Halcovage said, indicating that Boots wants to spend less of that $26 million the County will get between last year and 2022 in federal COVID aid.
Halcovage then said “his” broadband project would impact more people in Schuylkill County than Boots’ initiative to increase farmland preservation.
“I respect those 75 applications that are out for farmland preservation, including yours,” Halcovage said, getting in a little jab at Boots. “There’s thousands of people that would be benefitting by getting broadband to these unserved and underserved areas, including every farm out that is out there.”
Boots didn’t really take kindly to his party-mate on the Commissioners board. He accused Halcovage of “mixing apples and oranges” on the topic. Boots noted that the money he’s proposing for the farmland preservation boost comes from the County’s contingency fund. And the money Halcovage is talking about directing to the broadband project comes from the federal Rescue Plan funding.
Boots also acknowledged that his farm is on that preservation waiting list but couldn’t understand the comparison.
“I don’t understand,” he said a few times in response. “You’re trying to mix something to make me look bad. This is not about personal gain. This is about protecting farmland.”