AUGUSTA — Members of a legislative committee voted Wednesday to endorse a proposal to increase the wastewater discharge fees paid by hundreds of towns and businesses.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection said the proposed 40 percent fee increase is necessary to cover a looming funding shortfall in the program that enforces state and federal water quality laws. Without additional revenue, DEP officials warned, the Bureau of Water Quality will likely have to eliminate additional positions in a program that already has a backlog of enforcement cases and is struggling to keep up with inspection and licensing demands.

Brian Kavanah, director of the Bureau of Water Quality, said that although 40 percent sounds like a large jump, it would have a relatively modest impact on many of the state’s 900-plus wastewater discharge licensees. The total annual fees paid by Maine’s publicly owned wastewater treatment plants, for instance, would increase from $76 at the low end to $6,678 for the largest facility. Verso Paper’s Jay mill would see the largest fee hike, from roughly $88,000 to $123,000 a year.

Part of the challenge is that closures of several paper mills – which paid the highest fees because they discharge the most wastewater – has reduced revenues to the program while, at the same time, federal grants have been flat or declining. Kavanah told committee members that the 40 percent increase wouldn’t even cover all of the costs to fill the three vacant positions in the bureau.

“But we realize that it is a large increase in and of itself,” Kavanah told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “In the coming year, we are going to be looking at how do we solve the bureau’s financial issues in total. This is just one piece of it. It is going to take a more comprehensive view and a lot of different ways to make sure that we are solvent across the board in all accounts and that we can fill our vacancies.”

Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, said he checked with his local wastewater treatment facility on the financial impact.

“This would add 32 cents a year to my sewer bill, and I am willing to pay it,” said Tucker, who sponsored the bill on the DEP’s behalf.

Lawmakers adjusted the bill to base the 40 percent increase on the fees that wastewater dischargers paid in 2019 rather than 2018 in an effort to generate additional revenue for the bureau. In response to questions from committee members, Kavanah said the bureau “could see the red ink coming” for several years but requests for fee increases were not approved until last year.

Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said the state cannot afford to do “piecemeal funding” for regulatory agencies responsible for protecting Maine’s environment. Instead, Chenette said he wants to see the “comprehensive view” on funding needs that Kavanah mentioned.

“This is just scraping the surface of what this department needs,” Chenette said. “We continue on this committee to hear … that the department has a lack of adequate staffing on just about everything we discuss around this horseshoe. It is frustrating to see approaches like this rather than something that is more comprehensive.”

The committee endorsed the bill in a 10-2 vote with one member absent. The measure will now go to the full House and Senate chambers for consideration.

The bill to increase funding for the wastewater discharge permitting program is among four top measures for the 2020 legislative session identified by the 28 groups that form the Maine Environmental Priorities Coalition.

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