Cleaning up Vermont’s polluted waterways is going to be an expensive undertaking, and earlier this year, lawmakers approved a new tax to begin paying for it. But the revenue plan isn’t generating as much money as officials had anticipated.
Lawmakers and administration officials heralded the Clean Water Fund as an important first step in generating the financial capacity needed to fund pollution-reduction efforts.
The legislation called for a 0.2 percent surcharge on all property transfers. It was expected to raise $5.2 million a year, and the money was earmarked for new efforts to curtail the flow of phosphorus and other pollutants into lakes, ponds and streams across the state.
On Monday afternoon, administration officials approved a two-year, $10.4 million pollution reduction plan, based on anticipated revenues. But there’s a catch.
“We’re basing it on that amount of money. We don’t know whether we’re going to actually have that amount of money at this point,” says Administration Secretary Justin Johnson. “The fund is running a little behind projections right now.”
Johnson says the fund was supposed to have collected more than $2 million by now. But the property-transfer surcharge has come in well below expectations. It's already running more than 20 percent below forecast, and if it doesn’t recover, then officials may scale back the plan.
“At the end of the day we’re not going to spend more money than we bring in,” Johnson says.
James Ehlers is head of Lake Champlain International, a nonprofit organization pushing for more aggressive water-quality initiatives. Ehlers says the property-transfer surcharge was a flawed plan from the beginning.
“A highly variable funding source relative to the whims of the economy, when we know that there will always be water pollution issues to solve, we didn’t think was a good idea to begin with,” Ehlers says. “And to hear an acknowledgement of that … is troublesome for us.”
The plan approved Monday includes more than $3.5 million to help municipalities deal with new requirements for stormwater runoff. It also includes nearly $2 million in direct grants to farmers, to help them keep phosphorus on their fields and out of the water.
Alyssa Schuren, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, says the expenditures approved Monday will deliver concrete improvements to water quality. But she says the Clean Water Fund is only a beginning.
“Is it enough? No. We know we have to continue our work with the treasurer’s office and the tax department to come up with a long-term funding source that will come up with more than the $5.2 million we’re seeing a year,” Schuren says.
Schuren says that longer-term financing plan will have to raise at least double the amount the transfer tax is taking in. She says a proposal for water-quality funding could come as soon as next fall.