COMMENTARY: A delicate balance between DNREC fees and subsidies

In our consumer-driven, market- based economy, we are used to paying for goods and services. When we can, we often shop for value seeking the most for our money. Cell phone minutes, electricity for our homes, dinner and a movie — the user pays and benefits.

DNREC offers goods and services, including spectacular outdoor places, access to recreational and commercial interests, and permitting the use of — and impacts to — our air, land and water resources. The fees that we charge for state park passes, fishing licenses, permits to emit sulfur dioxide or discharge nitrogen, never cover the true costs of providing these services.

The costs of operating parks, managing fisheries, repairing boat ramps or processing and overseeing permits are subsidized by the public, through taxes paid to the state general fund or the federal treasury and returned to our agency in budget appropriations or grants.

How government pays for programs has long been the subject of debate. There are programs and activities that benefit the public and others that serve the interests of specific users. Finding the right balance between user fees and taxpayer subsidies to fund programs is not easily done.

David Small

David Small

In an era of increasing competition for shrinking general revenues in the face of rocketing health care costs and other priorities, it’s time we modernize DNREC’s license and permit fee structures to help fund activities that benefit users and also shift more of the financial responsibility to those whose activities impact our natural resources more directly.

Should boaters pay higher registration fees to help pay to maintain navigation channels? Should waterfront property owners pay more than the $225 fee that allows them to build and use a dock over public lands for a 10-year term? Should farmers pay a fee that allows them to install a well and pump millions of gallons of groundwater for irrigation? Should birders, hikers and photographers start paying a small fee to help maintain thousands of acres of lands that have been historically open for free to the public and paid for by hunters and trappers?

These are some of the examples that are prompting conversations about our agency’s fiscal health. Most of DNREC’s regulatory permit fees have not been increased in 24 years. The cumulative rate of inflation during that time was more than 68 percent.

Those incremental costs have been born by DNREC programs and eroded our ability to deliver goods and services. Increasing costs have, in some cases, impeded our ability to deliver timely approvals to the regulated community, adequately provide regulatory oversight and to keep up with advances in technology to make information and business transactions more efficient and transparent.

Though we have increased parks entrance fees recently, the last increase in hunting and trapping licenses was nearly 10 years ago. We are losing our ability to fully leverage federal dollars available to Delaware (every state dollar brings in three federal dollars) and with it our effectiveness in delivering the quality outdoor experiences that result from well-managed wildlife areas with well-maintained infrastructure.

Our agency manages nearly 100,000 acres of lands for outdoor recreation, fish and wildlife habitat. Those lands hold hundreds of buildings, many of them historic, nearly 500 miles of roads and trails, electrical, water and wastewater systems, piers, boat ramps, pavilions, duck blinds, deer stands, impoundments and other infrastructure that requires constant oversight and investment.

Delawareans demand and deserve the right to enjoy our outdoor spaces, clean air and clean water. It is also fair to expect that those of us who use these resources or impact them pay our fair share to help manage and protect them.

David Small is secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

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