Environmental officials, lawmakers stump for water fee

 

DOVER — A new clean water fee could be coming.

Lawmakers and environmental officials briefly discussed the state’s waterways in a budget hearing Thursday, with Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary David Small urging the Bond Committee to support a method for funding the cleanup of rivers, ponds and lakes.

Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat who sponsored a 2015 resolution creating a task force to study the issue, said he expects legislation to be filed within the next month.

A draft report created last spring would have added additional fees for income tax filings, business licenses and the Gross Receipts Tax, bringing in more than $22 million annually.

Mr. Small said Thursday the state has “kicked the can down the road” by failing to clean up Delaware’s waterways, of which more than 90 percent are significantly polluted, according to DNREC.

Citing the situation in Flint, Michigan, where the water has been tainted by lead for several years, Mr. Small said, “If that wasn’t a learning opportunity for us, then shame on us.”

Mr. Small, who was named to his post in the prior administration, is likely in his final weeks as DNREC secretary — Republican senators blocked the nomination of Shawn Garvin in January, but Democrats now have the numbers to force the selection through.

Thursday, legislators on the Bond Committee also briefly discussed increasing funding for land preservation and making entrance to state parks free.

Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, questioned DNREC last month during a Joint Finance Committee meeting about waiving the cost to use a state park. Noting the loss of revenue such a change would bring, DNREC officials suggested raising fees for out-of-state visitors or increasing license plate fees to subsequently allow the state to grant easier access for Delawareans.

The ideas, Mr. Small stressed Thursday, are still in the planning stages and may amount to nothing.

In response to a question about public-private partnerships, he said the state has done “some amazing things” by working with private businesses. The businesses invest in the parks, upgrading areas that otherwise would be left alone for years.

One example of a successful partnership, Mr. Small said, is Go Ape Zip Line & Treetop Adventure at Lums Pond State Park.

Several public speakers asked lawmakers to fund open space and farmland preservation. While Gov. John Carney has not released his budget proposal, the plan issued by former Gov. Jack Markell in January did not allocate any money for the programs.

The Delaware Code says the farmland preservation program should receive $10 million annually, but it has been expended that amount only twice in the past seven years — something that has drawn the ire of legislators from more rural areas downstate.

A bill that would bind the General Assembly to the $10 million figure failed to pass last year, and during another budget hearing Wednesday, Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, questioned why lawmakers ignore the recommendation for fully funding the program.

“What’s the point of passing legislation if it doesn’t mean anything?” he said.

During the three-hour hearing Thursday, Rep. Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville, grilled Mr. Small over the 2013 purchase of Owens Station Sporting Clays in Greenwood, accusing DNREC of failing to use it for anything.

The land, he said, has become a “white elephant.”

Mr. Small said the state initially planned to use a building on the property as a visible sign of official enforcement of hunting laws but later changed goals.

“I think we got to where we’d hope to start out,” he told a visibly frustrated Rep. Wilson. “The size and scale changed but I think we’re close.”

After a month of budget hearings, Thursday marked a conclusion. The General Assembly reconvenes March 14, and the Joint Finance Committee may meet once Gov. Carney’s budget is unveiled later this month.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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