The clock is ticking.
The Warren County Commissioners have until Sept. 30 to make a decision: take a set amount of Secure Rural Schools funding or gamble and receive 25 percent of the gross receipts for this year's timber harvest from the Allegheny National Forest.
"We are looking at our options," Commissioner John Eggleston said on Monday. "We will do our due diligence."
He explained that the commissioners will be holding a meeting with the municipalities that fall within the confines of the ANF in the coming weeks, in advance of making their decision.
Since 1908, the Forest Service has shared with states and counties 25 percent of gross receipts, primarily from timber sales, from national forests to benefit public schools and public roads in the counties in which the forests are located. In the late 1980s, due largely to declines in timber sale receipts, payments began to drop significantly and fluctuate widely, according to a release from the Forest Service.
In response, counties now have the option to choose between a pre-determined, fixed payment amount or the historical 25 percent of gross receipts, which is subject to market factors.
"We have elected on every occasion to go with the secure funding," Eggleston said. "It has worked out pretty well for us."
And the flat housing market does not increase optimism on the state of the timber market. "The harvest has been down and the market has been down. Right now the market is still down quite a bit" Eggleston said.
The ANF covers parts of four counties: Warren, McKean, Forest and Elk. When the last time this determination was made, Forest joined Warren in taking the secure funding. McKean and Elk took the traditional 25 percent.
But the 25 percent option presents some risk.
"it's a gamble," Eggleston said. "If the timber goes up, the number would be significantly more. Right now, the housing market is stuck in neutral. The price of these commodities - oak and black cherry - have stayed flat and the amount harvested has been fairly flat. It's a crap shoot."
Warren County has seen a sharp decline in Secure Rural Schools funding since 2008. The county received over $1.6 million dollars in 2008, down to 1.5 million in 2009 and down further to $1,355,579 in 2010.
The county's allotment took a steeper hit last year, falling to $807,607.
The projected payment to Warren County this year is $756,476, according to a spreadsheet from the U.S. Forest Service.
"I had expected it," Eggleston said of the reduction.
As for where the money goes when it comes to the county, Eggleston indicated that the "lions share" of the funding goes to the Warren County School District.
Currently, the county also receives funding, but that funding would disappear if the county elected the 25 percent option.
"If we take the 25 percent option, the county government doesn't get anything," Eggleston said. "That's been a factor as part of our decision. We have to manage emergency systems and respond to emergencies in the ANF and there is a cost to us there."
Using the county's share of the funding to help cover costs with the 911 system and emergency management agency is an "allowable expense," according to Eggleston, explaining that sending the funding in that direction is a logical conclusion.
Additionally, some municipalities within the county also receives funding.
And that's why the commissioners want to get together with the municipalities in advance of the decision.
"Basically, we want to get their opinions," Commissioner Stephen Vanco said on Monday. "Mead (Township), especially, gets the majority of their funding from it (Secure Rural Schools.)
"We just wanted to get all the players together and hear what they had to say and then we'll make a decision."
A date and time for that meeting is currently in the works.