ST. PAUL — State regulators are seeking comment on a new measure that could stick some Minnesotans with higher bills for water and sewer service.
By raising fees for several types of municipal water quality permits, officials said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency can avoid a shortfall in state and federal funding. But it might just pass the cost of those increases on to home and property owners in the process.
The rate hike would apply to permits that allow for the construction and operation of both municipal and industrial wastewater systems, public storm sewers, septic sewers and animal feedlots. Such permits require their holders to abide by state environmental guidelines.
Permit fees are collected annually and run from several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the size of a facility or project. How the cost of increasing them would be borne, MPCA assistant commissioner Katrina Kessler said Tuesday, Jan. 28, "would be up to the municipality."
According to the MPCA, permitting fees cover only 17% of the water quality program operating costs. An additional $2 million in revenue could be generated for the programs by increasing that share to 30%.
Agency officials said that extra cash would help to offset the loss of state or federal funding and prepare it for the 2034 sunset of the tax that supports the state Clean Water Fund.
The public comment period for the proposal began on Monday, Jan. 27 and will last until March 13. A series of public meetings is scheduled to begin in mid-February.
While the agency doesn't expect the proposal to be submitted to the legislature for consideration until 2021, some trade groups and advocacy organizations have already expressed some concern about it.
Elizabeth Wefel, a lobbyist for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said that some local leaders have questioned what their communities stand to receive in return for paying higher permitting fees. Others, she said, have renewed calls for the state to spend more of its general fund on water quality programs.
"With any proposed increase in fees, we believe it’s important that we see how that benefits our communities," she said in an interview.
Wefel said that some leaders are disappointed with the MPCA's proposal to abolish the waiver for the $10,850 flat fee charged to cities that apply for variances, which allow their holders to deviate from state wastewater requirements. Cities that can't afford expensive water systems that help to manage chloride levels, she said for example, would be particularly affected.
In place of the flat fee, MPCA has proposed a tiered system based on water usage. Smaller facilities that serve smaller communities would pay as little as $620, while larger ones would pay up to $15,500.
Some farmers, meanwhile, view the proposal as another way that Minnesota will attempt to nickel-and-dime them. Minnesota Milk Producers Association executive director Lucas Sjostrom said that some in his industry would prefer that the feedlot regulatory process and others be streamlined and scaled back.
One way for the state to compromise, he said in an interview, would be to grant waivers to those farmers that have state and industry certifications in water conservation.
"Let’s streamline the system so expectations are set right away," he said.