Markell proposes new tax to clean up waterways

By Amy Cherry 12:11pm, March 4, 2014 - Updated 5:40pm, March 4, 2014
VIDEO: WDEL's Amy Cherry reports.
If Governor Markell gets his way, you'll pay an added tax to clean up Delaware's polluted waters.

WDEL's Amy Cherry reports.

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The proposal would tack on an extra $45 to your annual property tax bill. Larger homes that use more water will pay more.

The user-based service fee would generate $30 million annually to clean up Delaware's disgusting waters.

Governor Markell details several projects this money would go towards.

"Remove toxins and restore our streams and our rivers; repair and update wastewater and drinking water treatment plants; upgrade stormwater infrastructure in our communities," he said.

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The fee would rise with inflation, and Delaware would use generated revenue from this tax to leverage more than $120 million per year for clean water investments to be managed through the Water Infrastructure Advisory Council.

"We'll also use this for matching grants, for federal funds, from private foundations for various grants from various entities, to try to again, leverage additional dollars into our state. We'll be more competitive than other states because we have these dedicated resources," said DNREC Secretary Collin O'Mara.

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O'Mara pledges for accountability and oversight into all approved projects.

Markell says these projects will create 1,000 jobs annually in science and engineering and construction.

The hope is that some day, you'll be able to swim in all of Delaware's waterways and eat the fish because right now, that's definitely not an option.

"When our children and even our pet dogs play in the water, we expect it to be safe, but too often it's not. And that you can't eat a single fish? It's unbelievable," he said.

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O'Mara calls it "heartbreaking" that fisherman use our waterways just to put food on the table. By 2030, he says these investments will show real differences in water quality and, in turn, quality of life in Delaware.

"We'll remove the worst threats to drinking water across the state. We'll make sure that more than 90 percent, hopefully much higher than that, are safe for swimming. We'll make sure that we're lifting the vast majority of the fish and shellfish advisories. We're making sure that 100 percent of communities have better wastewater and better stormwater management. We'll make sure that 100 percent of the communities that have waterfront are getting strategic investments to help drive economic growth," O'Mara said.

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The new tax would require approval from the General Assembly. Markell says he hates to ask for an added fee...

"But you know what? We gotta clean the water, and it costs. And I don't want to be a guy that he had a list of all the problem areas, but we didn't get it done, we punted to the next generation," he said.

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The General Assembly reacts to the clean water tax

Senate Republicans think Governor Markell faces an uphill battle when it comes to passing two new taxes on Delawareans -- the gas tax and the new clean water fee.

Senate Majority Whip Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley) tells WDEL that the state's water infrastructure issues are clear, but calls into question the governor's timing on these tax increases.

"Let's not forget the governor's been in office for six years now. When I read the governor's press release, I almost didn't want to leave my house, you know, 'it's so unsafe, it's so dangerous,' well, where have we been for six years?" asked Lavelle.

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House Minority Leader Danny Short (R-Seaford) reminds Delawareans that three years ago they proposed a plan to upgrade wastewater treatment plants that included no tax increases, and the proposal received no support. But yet still he calls the proposal an "intriguing" starting point for discussion.

"The legislature has a great, consistent history of going in and taking these funds to use for the General Fund when times get tough, and that shouldn't happen anymore, and quite frankly, the governor's gas tax scheme includes a one last raid of the Transportation Trust Fund to help the operating budget," Lavelle said.

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Senate Republican Leader Gary Simpson (R-Milford) is also against it saying, "We're putting another tax burden on homeowners and businesses at a time when we should be lowering costs and spurring economic development." He won't deny water infrastructure issues, but says Delaware should address them at the right time and the right price.

The measure appears easier than the gas tax for Democrats to get behind.

Democratic state Senator Karen Peterson (D-Stanton) calls the measure an answer to her concerns of flooding in communities like Glenville, in her district.

"While this proposal focuses primarily on cleaning up our water, it also provides for flood mitigation funding, which is long overdue. This is a huge step in the right direction, and certainly, an answer to my prayers," she said.

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The measure is also expected to add 1,000 jobs in science, engineering and construction. That's why Democratic state Senator Bobby Marshall (D-Wilmington West) says he'll support it.

"It's an outstanding and aggressive move, and I think what we need to do now, and part of the Blue Collar Task Force and its mission: create public works projects and employment opportunities," said Marshall.

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