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Measuring the impact
Measuring the impact

With this year’s impact fee allocations across the state being the highest total since the law’s creation in 2012, the influx of cash from the natural gas industry to local coffers is sure to present plenty of opportunities for counties and municipalities.

Of a statewide figure of $252 million, Bradford County will be receiving $6.2 million — $1.2 million more than last year’s Act 13 allocation and the third most of any county in the state.

According to county Commissioner Doug McLinko, there’s no hard plan or idea to spend that money — yet.

“We’re banking it,” he said. “We’re saving it for the future for right now, and we’re going to evaluate where we are throughout the county and see where we’re at.”

County officials currently have several impact fee-funded projects underway — most notably the ongoing construction of the county’s new 911 and public safety center in North Towanda.

The approximately $13 million, 25,000-square-foot, multi-story facility will include a 6,350-square-foot maintenance garage and office space for numerous operations, including the county’s sheriff’s office, planning office, and emergency and 911 operations.

McLinko said the county is also continuing work on its bridge bundling project, which includes the replacement and/or repair of seven county-owned bridges over the next two years.

“Without the impact fee, the bridge projects would take forever,” he said. “The impact fee allows us to be able to focus on some of the most structurally-deficient bridges in the county and do it relatively quickly.”

McLinko added that the county would have also eventually been able to build the 911 center, but it would not be the “state-of-the-art” facility that is currently being constructed.

“For us as commissioners, the whole point of the impact fee is to spend it in ways that benefit all taxpayers,” he said. “It’s their money.”

McLinko explained that the endeavors, such as the $4 million replacement of the courthouse roof a couple of years ago, are most often paid for right away with no future financial burden.

“We want to do everything we can and get it all done now so it’s all taken care of for decades,” he said. “For the roof, it had not been done since 1929, and even then it wasn’t placed properly. So not only did the impact fee allow us to do that, but it also let us put back the original-style copper roofing to maintain the historical integrity of the building.”

In rural counties such as Sheshequin, where road miles and gas wells are plentiful, but revenue is often not, the impact fee is considered “manna from heaven,” at least according to township supervisor Kurt Lafy.

His township is slated to receive over $200,000 from the impact fee, which will allow the municipality to continue its replacement of several bridges, said Lafy.

“We have some bridges that are inspected by the state — those are the bigger bridges — but we’re responsible for them,” he said. “Two of those bridges are beyond reproach. They’re not in any danger or anything like that, but they do need to be replaced.”

Because of the cash boost from Act 13, the township is able to replace both of those bridges over the course of this year and next year, the supervisor explained. The bridge located on Goose Hollow Road is be replaced this year,while the structure on Crowley Hollow Road will be on next year’s slate.

“After that, we have about five or six tiny crossings that are on our radar,” Lafy said. “We have the money. We are going to do this. We’re going to keep going with these necessary infrastructure repairs, and they’ll be set for the next 50 to 75 years — all because of the impact fee.”

Lafy noted that the “giant financial cushion” that Act 13 has given the township has had a domino effect across the other municipality’s accounts — allowing officials to use liquid fuels money for equipment purchases that would not have been possible before.

“We’re ahead of the game. We got the money in the bank. So let’s do this,” he said. “We’re doing our best to use the money wisely. Sheshequin has a great crew up there. We work well together, and I look forward to working with them for many more years.”

DPost / Dave Post/Morning Times  

Sayre’s Zach Garrity puts the ball in play during Sunday’s District 15 Junior All-Star contest with Wellsboro. For complete coverage on this game, check out page B1. For more Little League photos, check out Little League Scenes on page B8.

Congress has ambitious agenda tackling health care costs

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers are trying to set aside their irreconcilable differences over the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and work to reach bipartisan agreement on a more immediate health care issue, lowering costs for people who already have coverage.

Returning from their Fourth of July recess, the Senate and House are pushing to end surprise medical bills, curb high prices for medicines, and limit prescription copays for people with Medicare.

Partisan disagreements could derail the effort, but lawmakers fear the voters’ verdict in 2020 if politicians have nothing to show for all their hand-wringing about drug prices. President Donald Trump has political exposure himself because the big price cuts he promised haven’t materialized. On Friday, he promised an executive order that he said would be intended to enable the U.S. government to pay lower prices for prescription drugs. The U.S. would pay no more than the lowest amount paid by other nations or companies, he said.

“Frankly, the issue is so urgent for Americans who are facing increasing drug costs that to us it’s really not about who gets the credit,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. “It’s about what kind of relief we can give to consumers.” She serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has a role in shaping the legislation.

In the Senate, Republican Lamar Alexander has shepherded bipartisan legislation on surprise medical bills through the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that he leads. That bill also would raise the legal age for buying tobacco products to 21.

“Obviously, we will continue to have significant disagreements on ... Obamacare,” said Alexander. “What we’ve done is shift our focus to the larger topic — or the different topic — of reducing health care costs.” He would like his bill to be on the Senate floor by the end of this month.

Different pieces of legislation are at various stages in a half-dozen committees in the Senate and the House. The Senate seems to hold the keys to what can pass because Republicans and Democrats have to work together to avoid gridlock on the Senate floor that could sidetrack legislation. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is keeping an open line to the Trump administration on drug costs.

“The public demand for action is high on both sides of the aisle and I’m sure these guys are feeling it,” said John Rother of the National Coalition on Health Care, an umbrella group that represents a cross section of business and consumer organizations. “They have to do something, and the question is, is that something going to be meaningful, or is it going to be window-dressing?”

A look at some of the major pieces:

—Medicare Drug Negotiations

House Democrats are pushing for a floor vote on authorizing Medicare to directly negotiate prescription drug prices. Legislation from Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, would empower the government to license generic competition if the manufacturer of a brand-name drug refuses to deal.

Think of it as an opening bid.

Medicare negotiations are a nonstarter for Senate Republicans, and the administration has been opposed although candidate Trump once advocated the idea. Liberals in the House say they’re not backing off.

“The first step is we pass a progressive bill in the House and then we see what the Senate takes,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. “We’ve got to do that as a first step, and then we’ve got to negotiate for as much as we can get, but we have to pass the bill we ran on.”

—Medicare “Inflation Rebate”

Senators of both parties and key lawmakers in the House are looking at requiring drugmakers to pay rebates to the government if the prices of medications covered by Medicare escalate beyond a yet-to-be-determined measure of inflation.

That wouldn’t solve the problem of high initial “launch” prices for brand-name drugs, but it could restrain cost increases for long-available medications such as insulin. Democrats say it could be a fallback if they’re not able to get Medicare negotiation authority.

A signal of whether inflation rebates have political traction could come within a couple weeks when senators are expected to offer a bipartisan compromise. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and the committee’s top Democrat, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, are trying to get a deal to reduce drug costs for federal programs and the people they cover. A senior GOP aide said rebates are under consideration. The aide spoke condition of anonymity because there’s no final agreement.

Separately, Labor Department data show some signs that prescription drug inflation has eased in recent months.

—Limit on Medicare Drug Copays

Medicare’s “Part D” prescription drug benefit currently has no limit on out-of-pocket costs paid by patients, which means beneficiaries taking very expensive medications may wind up with copays rivaling a mortgage payment.

Senate and House lawmakers of both parties want to limit those copays, as does the administration. But lawmakers want to pair that with meaningful limits on prescription drug prices.

—Medicaid Gene Therapy

Senate Finance Committee members are considering a Republican idea that would allow the federal-state Medicaid program for low-income people to make installment payments for gene therapy treatments, which can cost $1 million or more.

—Surprise Medical Bills

Alexander’s committee has approved legislation that would hold patients harmless from “surprise” out-of-network bills that can run to tens of thousands of dollars. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is working on a similar bill.

Alexander said the legislation won’t solve every health care problem, but added, “You don’t have to preach the whole Bible in one sermon — you can do one important thing at a time.”

DHS official defends conditions at Border Patrol stations

WASHINGTON (AP) — Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on Sunday defended conditions at U.S. Border Patrol stations following reports of crowded and unsanitary conditions that have heightened debate about President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, a trademark issue for his re-election campaign.

“It’s an extraordinarily challenging situation,” McAleenan told ABC’s “This Week.”

The Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog provided new details Tuesday about the overcrowding in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings. The report said children at three facilities had no access to showers and that some children under age 7 had been held in jammed centers for more than two weeks. Some cells were so cramped that adults were forced to stand for days on end.

Government inspectors described an increasingly dangerous situation, both for migrants and agents — a “ticking time bomb,” in the words of one facility manager. The report echoed findings in May by the department’s inspector general about holding centers in El Paso, Texas: 900 people crammed into a cell with a maximum capacity of 125; detainees standing on toilets to have room to breathe; others wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks.

In tweets Sunday afternoon, Trump went further than McAleenan in defending his administration’s response, accusing the news media of “phony and exaggerated accounts” but without providing evidence.

“Border Patrol, and others in Law Enforcement, have been doing a great job. We said there was a Crisis — the Fake News & the Dems said it was ‘manufactured,’” Trump wrote. Federal detention centers “are crowded (which we ... brought up, not them) because the Dems won’t change the Loopholes and Asylum. Big Media Con Job!”

Democrats faulted Trump for not offering an immigration overhaul that could pass a divided Congress.

“The president is acting like we are some weak, pathetic country,” said Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democratic presidential candidate. “We have the ability to treat human beings humanely. We have the ability to lead our hemisphere in a discussion about how to deal with this refugee crisis,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

McAleenan said that since the first of the year, 200 medical providers have been added to facilities, including personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Public Health Service Commission Corps.

“We have pediatricians in border patrol stations for the first time in history trying to help address conditions where children are coming across 300 a day in ... April and May,” McAleenan said.

“We’ve built soft-sided temporary facilities. These are spaces that are much more appropriate — high ceilings, more room for children and families. We’ve put them both in Donna, Texas, in South Texas as well as in El Paso to provide additional space. ... We’ve bought buses to transport people to better places.”

McAleenan disputed news reports, including those by The Associated Press, of especially troubling conditions at a border station in Clint, Texas, where a stench was coming from children’s clothing and some detainees were suffering from scabies and chickenpox.

“There’s adequate food and water,” he said. “The facility’s cleaned every day because I know what our standards are, and I know they’re been followed because we have tremendous levels of oversight. Five levels of oversight.

“Inadequate food, inadequate water and unclean cells. None of those have been substantiated.”

He said everyone in the chain of command is worried about the situation of children detained at the border. He said that on June 1, his department had 2,500 children in custody, including 1,200 who had been there for more than three days. As of Saturday, McAleenan said there were 350 children, and only 20 have been in the department’s custody for more than three days.

“So that’s huge improvement based on the resources we asked for from Congress and were finally given,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he is stunned when administration officials say that reports on the conditions are unsubstantiated.

“I’m just like, ‘What world are they living in?’” Merkley said, citing government and news reports. “From every direction you see that the children are being treated in a horrific manner. And there’s an underlying philosophy that it’s OK to treat refugees in this fashion. And that’s really the rot at the core of the administration’s policy.”

Separately, McAleenan addressed questions about U.S. Border Patrol agents who are under fire for posting offensive messages in a “secret” Facebook group that included sexually explicit posts about U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and dismissive references to the deaths of migrants in U.S. custody. The existence of that group was reported Monday by ProPublica. Prior to that, few people outside the group had ever heard of it.

He said an allegation about such activity was investigated in 2016. “Discipline was meted out on an agent that made an offensive post on that website,” he said.