Mo. senators stall proposed fee hike for water quality permits

Saturday, February 16, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Some senators are blocking a proposed 50 percent fee increase on clean water permits that has been promoted as a way to improve Missouri's water pollution control efforts.

The Department of Natural Resources estimates it needs an additional $30 million over the next five years for water quality monitoring, permits and inspections. Legislators created a special committee last year to study the problem.

A draft committee report calls for a 50 percent cost increase over five years for the clean water permits required for such things as construction projects, industrial plants, sewage treatment facilities, large livestock farms and public swimming pools. Permit fees also would rise annually with inflation.

The department currently charges $300 for a land disturbance permit at a housing development. A gradual 50 percent increase would raise that to $450. A car wash that currently pays $60 a year to renew its permit could eventually pay $90 under the proposal. The maximum permit fee of $5,000 for some industries could rise to $7,500.

The higher fees would generate an additional $2.5 million annually. The committee report also calls for lawmakers to spend an additional $3.5 million annually in general tax revenues for the department's water protection program.

But the five senators on the committee skipped a scheduled meeting this week during which the panel was supposed to discuss and sign off on the report. Without at least one of the senators, the five House members could not constitute a quorum, and the committee could not approve the recommendations.

Some senators expressed concern about the size of the fee increase. They also want a guarantee that the department would handle permit requests more quickly if it gets more money.

"I do have significant reservations about the magnitude of the proposed fee increase," said Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon. It "has a potentially very negative effect on the citizens and job providers in the state of Missouri."

The draft committee report asserts "there is a broad consensus among the industries regulated by the department that a modest increase in permit fees is necessary" to add and retain staff, streamline the permit process, improve water quality monitoring and deter the federal Environment Protection Agency from taking over more duties in Missouri.

Senators hesitant to sign off on the fee increase did not identify any particular business or interest group that has raised concerns.

Committee chairman Rep. Walt Bivins, R-St. Louis, expressed frustration that senators waited until the work appeared to be done -- four months after the committee first met -- to balk it what he assumed had been a consensus. But Bivins said he will keep working toward a compromise.

Sen. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said he is concerned that businesses and city utilities may not see significantly improved services in exchange for higher fees.

From 2002 to 2007, the number of operating permits handled by the agency has doubled. More than one-fifth of the department's operating and construction permits were not issued within the times set out by law during the 2007 fiscal year.

The draft report said that if the department receives additional money, the committee would expect it to issue 95 percent of construction permits on time and 90 percent of other permits on time by the end of the five-year period.

Lager wants a greater assurance that permits would get issued faster.

"We're talking about it conceptually, but right now we don't have a plan to initiate it," he said.

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