Senate Looks To Property Owners To Fund Water Quality Improvements

May 7, 2015

Anyone who owns property in Vermont could soon be on the hook for helping to clean up Lake Champlain and other bodies of water.

The Senate will soon vote on the $10 million water quality bill that includes a per-parcel fee on residents and businesses. And while Senate lawmakers say the plan equitably distributes the costs of pollution remediation across the whole of Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin is urging lawmakers against the funding plan.

Lawmakers will pass a water bill this year, that much is for sure. Rapidly deteriorating water quality in Lake Champlain, coupled with a crackdown from federal regulators, has brought the issue to the fore. The governor and the Legislature both say they’re prepared to spend money to address the problem.

Exactly how to raise the $10 million needed to fund the pollution reduction plan, however, is far from a settled issue. And the Senate looks poised to adopt a per-parcel fee on every property owner in the state to fund the bulk of the water quality investments.

“The shared mantra, the shared understanding for this bill from the very beginning was, ‘everybody in.’ And in keeping with that, we’re saying ‘everybody contributes,’” says Addison Sen. Chris Bray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.

"The shared mantra, the shared understanding for this bill from the very beginning was, 'everybody in.' And in keeping with that, we're saying 'everybody contributes.'" - Addison Sen. Chris Bray

House lawmakers used an increase in the property transfer tax to fund the lion’s share of their version of the water quality bill. Shumlin wants to use a per-parcel fee on commercial and industrial property in the Lake Champlain water basin, as well as taxes on agriculture fertilizers, among other sources.

But Bray and Chittenden Sen. Ginny Lyons say an-across-the-board fee is the most equitable way to distribute the costs of a water quality problem that everyone bears some responsibility for helping to fix.

“So this is an opportunity for us all to chip in really a minimal amount of money and build resources to correct the problems of the past,” Lyons says.

Shumlin says the proposal will act as a property tax increase on Vermonters who have already seen rates soar due to the rising costs of public education.

The Senate proposal, as of Thursday, would assess a flat, $15 annual fee on residential and commercial property owners. People with land enrolled in Current Use would pay an additional fee on top of that - $1 an acre for farmland, and 50 cents per acre for forest land.

Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza is among the chief critics of the proposal. Mazza says he’s all for raising money to clean up water.

"The part that I'm opposed to is a parcel tax, and to me, it's an increase in the property tax. I don't care what you call it." - Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza

“The part that I’m opposed to is a parcel tax, and to me, it’s an increase in the property tax. I don’t care what you call it,” Mazza says.

Mazza says voters made it clear last fall they were fed up with rising property tax rates, and he says lawmakers won’t be able to resist the urge to increase the per-parcel fee in the future.

“It may be a small amount this year … next year it’ll be $50, and then $75, and then it goes higher, Mazza says. “So I’m not prepared to raise property taxes through this new program.”

The Senate Committee on Appropriations will finalize the plan before the water quality bill heads to the Senate floor next week.