State Water Cleanup Panel Provides Few Answers

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore. Photo by Terri Hallenbeck.

Seven Days - A state working group tasked with proposing legislation and identifying a funding source for Vermont's 20-year effort to reduce phosphorus pollution in its waterways has finished its work - without achieving either of its primary goals. 

The Working Group on Water Quality Funding was created by Act 73, a law passed this year by the state legislature. Its members were mainly officials from the administration of Gov. Phil Scott. Its final report was delivered to the legislature on Wednesday. 

Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, a member of the group, blames its failure to reach conclusions on a short timeframe and a raft of complications. "There's a need for several important public policy questions to be discussed," she says. "We need to have clarity on how much we need to raise before we can propose legislation." 

Other complications, she adds, include how to collect and administer a per-parcel water-quality fee that remains the most likely long-term revenue source, and how to split costs between state and local governments for many types of improvement projects. The working group is effectively kicking back many of those questions to the legislature. 

Environmental groups are not happy. "The report is a disappointment," said Jared Carpenter of the Lake Champlain Committee in a written statement. "The working group was charged to find a long-term funding solution ... for clean water and it misses that mark by a wide margin, offering no solutions and no legislation."

The working group's report does not map out funding sources beyond the next five years, and it calls for heavy reliance on the state's Capital Fund throughout that period. 

In 2016, State Treasurer Beth Pearce proposed a two-year "bridge" of capital fund money totaling $50 million for water-quality work. The legislature approved the plan and the governor signed it - but Pearce made it clear that the two years should be devoted to coming up with a stable, long-term funding plan that doesn't involve continued borrowing. 

"We're trying to reduce our reliance on capital debt," she now says. "I urge the governor and the legislature to come up with a stable funding source for years three through 20. The time is now."
In preparing her 2016 recommendations, Pearce examined "60 to 70 revenue sources," she says. "We vetted and modeled each one. We ended up with a per-parcel fee tied to the amount of pollution. Polluters pay." 

The working group was charged with devising a system for a per-parcel fee; instead, it found a wealth of complications - although its report still concludes that a per-parcel fee remains the likely long-term solution. 

"The state tax department and the Vermont League of Cities & Towns both looked at new billing structures," Moore explains. Both concluded that the administrative cost would eat up too much of the proceeds. 

But that's mainly because both entities chose to model a completely new and separate collection system. The tax department says it makes more sense to assess the fee through the local property tax system, since it is also an assessment based on property ownership. League members, Moore says, don't want the water-quality fee to appear on property tax bills for fear of confusing taxpayers. Hence, the modeling of a new, costly collection system. 

If you called that bureaucracy getting in the way of progress, I wouldn't disagree. 
Agriculture is the biggest contributor to phosphorus pollution in Vermont, accounting for 43 percent of the nutrient load. And agriculture is where the working group's report is precisely the foggiest.