New budget upends environmental panels, funds

By on July 25, 2013

This tract along the Chowan River is among the thousands of acres along the coast that have been preserved with grants from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Photo: Clean Water Management Trust Fund

This Chowan River tract is among thousands of acres along the coast preserved with grants from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. (Clean Water Management Trust)

The new state budget given final approval by the General Assembly Wednesday includes a provision that will dump all but four members of the Coastal Resources Commission at the end of the month.

It also reorganizes the state fund that helps pay for land acquisition and sewage treatment projects to preserve clean water.

The budget moves the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, now an independent agency, to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The trust fund will absorb the Natural Heritage Trust Fund but will no longer provide grants to treat wastewater and storm water, a function that will move to the new Water Infrastructure Authority.

Richard Rogers, executive director of the clean water fund, said Monday that in addition to coordinating the organizational changes, the fund will also be taking direction from a new governing body.

The budget provision ends the fund’s current 21-member board and replaces it with a new nine-member board.

Rogers said he was not sure how the changes would affect the current grant cycle. He said they will likely affect wastewater and storm water applications, which represent about 30 percent of trust fund grants, because those would move to the new authority.

“There are a lot of questions,” Rogers said, “but that’s to be expected with this kind of change.”

Rogers said the funding in the budget was a welcome sign this year and going forward. The trust fund will see recurring funding of $10,426,976 in 2013-14 and $13,657,530 in 2014-15.

For almost two decades, the fund has contributed nearly $1 billion to projects ranging from preventing encroachment of the state’s military installations to helping small towns improve water quality. Created by the the legislature in 1996, the fund issues grants that specifically address water pollution problems.

But the program has seen big budget cuts in the past two years — nearly 90 percent below the $100 million the General Assembly allocated in 2008. Legislators allocated about $12 million last year and also dropped it from the state’s recurring budget. Gov. Pat McCrory in the proposed budget that he released earlier this year slashed that appropriation in half.

The Clean Water Management Trust has funded 18 projects totally $21.8 million since 1998. See the full list »

“The upside is that there are recurring funds in (the budget),” Rogers said, “and it’s more than we have had to work with in the last few years.”

In addition to recurring money, the fund will also receive proceeds from specialty license plates and will no longer have to cover its own debt service, which is roughly $1.6 million a year.

With the wastewater and stormwater component out of its portfolio and the natural heritage fund’s mission incorporated into its own, the new clean water fund would likely be able to focus more on land acquisition to protect critical watersheds, Rogers said.

Another top policy provision in the budget settles a long-running dispute between the House and Senate on major changes to the state’s environmental oversight boards.

Eager to get new nominees in place to reflect the changeover to the McCrory administration, the state Senate early in the session proposed firing all current members of several state boards and commissions, including the Environmental Management Commission, the Coastal Resources Commission and the Coastal Resources Advisory Council.

The House countered with a proposal that dialed back the scope of the change, citing concerns about loss of institutional memory and expertise with ongoing issues.

In the new budget, the Senate appears to have won most of the argument. Terms of all current members of two of the commissions would expire on July 31 to be replaced by a new round of appointees.

Among the sour members of the Coastal Resources Commission who will keep their seats until July 2014 are Ben “Jamin” Simmons of Fairfield, Lee Wynns of Colerain and Nags Head Commissioner Renee Cahoon. The remaining members, including Jerry Old of Moyock, will be removed from the commission after July 31, 2013.

The CRC would drop from 15 to 13 with nine appointed by the governor and four by the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, Sen. Harry Brown Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, managed to see through one of his priorities for the year — funding for inlet dredging.

After running into headwinds in both the House and the Senate in separate legislation using higher boat licensing fees and a portion of the motor fuels tax, Brown, a chief budget writer for the Senate, got the language in the final budget.

The bill doubled the fee for boats under 26 feet from $15 to $30 and $50 for 26 and over. Under the provision the funds, estimated to be around $5 million per year, would go to cover a dredging program for shallow draft inlets of 16 feet or less and give DENR final say-so on the projects.

The budget also:
• Requires DENR to develop a plan to raise private funds for support of the state’s aquariums
• Reduces funding to the Shellfish Rehabilitation Program;
• Eliminates Fishery Resource Grants
• Provides funds to start up an observer at sea program for fisheries

Sam Walker contributed to this story.

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