Concord — December 4, 2010 — The economic recession has placed the state programs geared to safeguarding the quality of surface and ground water at risk. The four programs — wetlands, alteration of terrain, subsurface disposal and shoreland protection — all administered by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES), are funded by permitting fees levied on development that fills wetlands, clears land, installs septic systems and encroaches on shorelines.
Rene Pelletier, assistant director of the water division of DES, said this week that as home construction and commercial development has slowed, applications for permits have fallen by about 30-percent and permitting fees have dropped by a commensurate amount.
“It’s a big concern for us,” Pelletier said, explaining that the revenues from the fees are the sole support for the programs. “We are struggling in all these programs. Our personnel are supported by the fees. If we can’t pay our people, the programs would have to stop,” he said.
Pelletier said that DES developed the fee structure to spare the cost of environmental protection on the state general fund, which contributes only $26-million, or about nine-percent, of the agency’s annual operating budget of some $229-million. Approximately $12-million, nearly half of the money appropriated from the general fund, is distributed to cities and towns in the form of sewer and water grants.
“The fee revenue is down,” Pelletier said, “but, the workload hasn’t shrunk. The compliance issues never go away, no matter what happens to the economy.”
He said that staff and resources were being shuffled between the programs to address the most pressing issues and make the most efficient use of personnel. In particular, he stressed that the division was making every effort to minimize the turnaround time on permit applications “so we can do what we can to help the economy along.”
Jared Teutsch, president of the New Hampshire Lakes Association, shares Pelletier’s concerns. He said that the quality of water in lakes, ponds and rivers, which contributes significantly not only to the quality of life but also to the economic vitality of the state, requires the effective pursuit of these programs.
Pelletier said that “environmental protection has always enjoyed strong support from our legislature because our legislators know what it means for the quality of life.”
However, just when DES may need help from the Legislature, some of that support may be eroding as lawmakers wrestle with a large budget deficit and question the economic impact of government regulation. Representative Andrew Renzullo (R-Hudson), a co-chair of the House Republican Alliance, has filed a bill to repeal the Comprehensive Shoreland Protection Act in its entirety.