EPA mandates could weaken municipal finances

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From The Beacon, September 2015

Municipal leaders wear many hats, and one of the most important is steward of the environment. With little heraldry, local government officials work every day to safeguard our quality of life, striving to ensure that our public and private lands are protected and preserved through zoning, planning and conservation protection, and serving as the first line of defense to protect the quality of our lakes, streams and rivers by ensuring clean drinking water, treatment of wastewater, and effective stormwater management.

Communities in Massachusetts and across the country dedicate more resources and taxpayer dollars to protect our environment than the federal and state governments combined. That is why it is so ironic and frustrating that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to burden local taxpayers with an unaffordable unfunded mandate, to be imposed via new stormwater management requirements.

It’s a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Here’s the issue: the Region One office of the EPA had issued draft National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) general permit requirements for stormwater discharges from small municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4) in Massachusetts. These rules would impact nearly 300 cities and towns across the state. Municipal storm sewer systems collect rain and snowmelt from streets and direct the flow to water bodies. The new MS4 permits would require communities to institute more advanced and costly programs to reduce pollutants that are discharged from storm drainage systems to rivers, lakes and bays.

EPA officials indicate that they could issue the final MS4 rules before the end of the year. Unless the federal agency revises its overly aggressive and expansive framework, this would be bad news for local taxpayers and local budgets.

As drafted, the EPA’s proposed permit would require increased municipal expenditures and resources to remove illegal sewage connections to storm drains, greatly expand street sweeping, monitoring and testing, engage in significant public education, and take steps to expand the filtration of stormwater runoff.

From the very beginning, the MMA and municipal officials have raised concerns about the cost of the new regulations at a time when municipal budgets are very tight.

In written testimony to the EPA, the MMA urged the agency to amend its approach to incorporate goals that are more realistically attainable within the financial constraints of the current economic climate, or wait until adequate federal funding is available to ensure that these requirements do not translate into a harmful unfunded mandate on cities, towns and taxpayers. (To see the MMA’s detailed comments, go to http://ow.ly/Rnjtn).

Cities and towns understand the need to protect water resources. Our members are committed environmentalists who take their role as stewards of this important natural resource very seriously. Communities throughout Massachusetts began working toward the reduction and elimination of pollutants in municipal stormwater discharges well before the initiation of the NPDES Phase II permit program in 2003. Communities have long understood the need to look holistically at how water resources are managed in the Commonwealth to promote public health, safety and economic growth for our citizens.

In the past, the federal government partnered with communities to the benefit of our health and environment. Today, as evidenced by recent regulatory initiatives and unfunded requirements, that is not the case, and localities are suffering as a result. Strict stormwater standards are placing a financial burden on cities, towns and local taxpayers at a time when local budgets are already stretched to the limit. The MS4 program has the potential to become one of the most burdensome unfunded mandates imposed on localities by the federal government. The EPA now estimates that MS4 communities can expect to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to implement stormwater programs in their communities, an estimate that seems particularly low. These proposed regulations could double or even quadruple many stormwater budgets.

In 2009, the state created a Special Water Infrastructure Finance Commission as a means of developing a long-range plan for the state and its cities and towns to maintain their waterworks. In its report, the commission conservatively estimated that it would cost communities approximately $18 billion over the next 20 years to meet the new federal stormwater requirements.

The new draft of the MS4 permit would require communities to institute more advanced stormwater testing, monitoring and management programs, yet it is completely silent on funding or mitigation of the additional costs to communities. That’s because the president, Congress and the EPA have steadfastly refused to provide additional funding for environmental protection programs and have refused to fund federal mandates on states and localities.

It’s pretty easy for the federal government to write up new rules if they assume no financial responsibility, but that is indefensible. The federal government must provide funding to assist local governments as they struggle to implement the requirements associated with this program.

The requirements under the proposed permit are well beyond the normal operating budgets of Massachusetts cities and towns. Because of Proposition 2½, many communities would be forced seek overrides to increase the local property tax burden, or would be compelled to dramatically reduce funding for existing programs and services, such as education, public safety and public works. That is the simple reality caused by unfunded mandates in a tax-limited environment.

The MMA and dozens of local leaders have expressed deep and serious concerns regarding these costly new permit requirements, which would certainly divert scarce resources away from core essential services necessary for the protection of public health, safety and education. The costs of the operational, structural and staffing changes necessary to monitor and meet the requirements of these permit mandates would have a negative financial impact on communities across the Commonwealth.

For these reasons, the MMA is calling on the EPA to amend its approach and incorporate goals that are more realistically attainable and within the financial constraints of the current economic climate, or wait until adequate federal funding is available to ensure that these requirements do not translate into a harmful unfunded mandate on cities, towns and taxpayers.