Top 10, No. 1: Feds seek Lake Champlain cleanup cuts; state pushes back
Everybody uses it, but it’s often taken for granted.
And Vermont’s water made a lot of headlines in 2017 as lawmakers — amid steady pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — continued to discuss an action plan to clean up the state’s waterways, with the focus primarily on Lake Champlain.
Everyone was (and continues to be) a stakeholder in the estimated $2.6 billion cleanup plan, for which the Legislature has yet to assign a long-term funding source. The feds have promised to cover a big portion of the bill. But Vermont must still raise at least $30 million annually for the next 20 years as its share of the cleanup.
State officials believe the state will be able to bankroll the plan in the short-term — through 2021 — using funding from the property transfer tax, the state’s capital bill, and revenue from some competitive federal grants. Vermont could also soon receive more than $5 million annually as an impact fee from the TDI Clean Power Link project that calls for installation of electric power lines under Lake Champlain.
Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce gave the Legislature a report this past January that assessed potential cleanup costs and pitched 65 possible revenue sources for the state’s share of the Clean Water Initiative, including an excise tax on pesticides, a gas tax, a $50 annual flat parcel fee, and/or a sales tax on auto repairs.
Lawmakers formed an advisory council following the 2017 legislative session to take another look at potential funding sources for clean water. The panel issued a report in November that didn’t suggest any specific taxes or revenue options.
Indeed, finding extra money has been a difficult chore during these tough budget times.
Individual lawmakers have sought to protect their respective constituencies as much as possible from the sticker shock. Business groups have lobbied against suggestions the commercial sector bear a larger proportion of the water quality improvements. Municipalities have been on guard about potential new fees or regulations related to their wastewater treatment plants. Farmers have also voiced concern about being targeted as a result of fertilizer- and manure-related runoff into Vermont’s waterways. And Gov. Phil Scott has made clear his disdain for any increases in broad-based taxes or fees.
State Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, stepped forward in the fall with what he hoped could be a conversation starter for water quality funding: A per-parcel fee that he said could yield $18.8 million of the state’s estimated $30 million annual commitment.
Bray, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee, noted the average Vermont household size is currently 2.4 people, and there are roughly 360,000 parcels in the state. A per-parcel fee of $1 per week — amounting to $52 per year for the landowner — would yield $18.8 million annually. He reasoned that sum could be combined with another $12 million each year from the state’s capital bill to come up with Vermont’s annual $30 million “lift” for water quality programming.
It remains to be seen how Bray’s legislative colleagues will receive the per-parcel fee suggestion when the 2018 session convenes in early January. Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore told the Independent in December she had some concerns about a per-parcel fee, centering on the potential administrative costs of collecting such revenues.
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