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February 07. 2013 10:33PM

Municipal, environmental groups seeking promised dollars

CONCORD - The state has reneged on its promise to pay its share of the cost of building and fixing wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities and landfill closures, and cities and towns say they have been left hanging.

Municipal officials and environmental groups turned out Thursday to support House Bill 623, which would provide about $9 million over the next two years to pay the state's share of the cost of the projects totaling $52.7 million throughout the state.

The state promised to pay up to 30 percent of some projects although usually much less. In 2008, due to a budget crunch, the state stopped paying its share of new projects that had been completed, and on bonds issued by cities, towns and sewer and water districts.

Since then lawmakers have not included the money for the state's share of the new projects, while municipalities and districts have paid the full costs of the bonds, including what was expected to be the state's share.

"The state reneged on its commitment," said the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Thomas Buco, D-Conway, and "cities and towns have been left holding the bag."

State environmental officials acknowledge the projects are important and many have to be completed so cities and towns can comply with the federal clean air and clean water acts.

But Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Thomas Burack said there is no other money available in his agency to pay for the projects, although his department supports the goal of the bill.

"We have many competing demands," Burack told the committee. "It is your determination what is funded and what is not funded."

He also told the committee the problem is not going away and will only grow as many community wastewater and drinking water treatment plants grow older.

Frederick McNeill, the head of environmental protection for Manchester, said the city is in year six of a 20-year, $300 million community improvement program.

"We have an aging and failing infrastructure with 100 miles of wastewater pipe over 100 years old and a drinking water system with 150 miles of pipe over 100 years old," he told the committee.

And the city faces more stringent nutrient and phosphorus standards for discharges into the Merrimack River.

Restoring the funding for the state's share of the environmental projects is a top priority of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, which held a news conference before the public hearing urging lawmakers to support HB 623.

Barbara Reid, the association's government finance advisor said, "Local government officials and citizens alike faithfully relied on the state's commitment to this funding partnership that was created by the Legislature to make these environmental investments at the local level affordable."

Without the state paying its share, she said, communities have had to raise fees and taxes and cut budgets to make up the difference. "This should be a priority this budget cycle," Reid told the committee.

Along with the municipal association a number of other community agencies and environmental groups also backed the bill.

The "delayed and deferred list" includes 127 projects in 64 communities totaling $52.6 million. The state's share of that cost over the next two years would be $9.5 million.

The list includes 103 wastewater treatment projects, 16 drinking water projects and eight landfill closures.

Burack said the closure of the state's last unlined landfill in Farmington was recently completed and that is the last such project for the state.

Under the Clean Water Act, the federal government paid 75 percent of the costs of projects, the state 20 percent and local communities five percent.

The federal grants were eliminated under the Reagan administration and replaced with revolving loan funds.

The committee did not make an immediate determination on the bill.



grayno@unionleader.com

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