New statewide water and sewer fees are in the works, and they have already caused a splash the size of a cannonball dive.
The proposed fees amounting to about 10 cents per month for water district customers and a $1 a month "toilet tax" have come under fire from all corners of the state, with urban districts voicing some of the loudest concerns. The fees would help pay for drinking water and water-quality programs in the Department of Environmental Quality.
"They're basically selling tax increases in the form of fees," said Fred Finlinson, who represents the Utah Water Coalition, a group comprising the state's four largest water conservancy districts that has criticized the fees.
Though the drinking-water proposal is advanced and the sewer proposal is just in the early stages, both proposals signal a shifting approach to funding environmental programs in Utah.
While it's nothing new to have businesses with state-issued environmental licenses cover the costs of their own regulation with fees, programs that benefit the public traditionally have been covered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state general funds.
"That's the discussion they're ducking," Finlinson said.
A big driver behind the fees is that Congress has begun to starve the EPA's budget. And, coupled with the sequestration cuts, states count on less and less federal funding.
The cuts have prompted the Natural Resources Defense Council to call the current GOP majority in the U.S. House "the most anti-environment House in history." Its preliminary 2014 budget cuts EPA's funding by 34 percent, roughly the same as 1976 levels when adjusted for inflation, the environmental group pointed out.
Ken Bousfield, director of the Utah Drinking Water Division, says those EPA reductions are his main reason for seeking the new fee from about 1,000 public water districts. Without the fee, his agency's budget would be about $1 million short, and that could mean cutting his 40-person staff by five to 10 along with the programs they run.
"I'll try to retain programs the best I can," he said. "But when you start unzipping the pillow, all the feathers start coming out."
Bousfield has spent the summer trying to sell the idea around the state at public meetings. At first, he ran into a wall of opposition. And some of that lingers even as the proposal goes out for formal public comment.
The state's largest drinking-water provider, the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake & Sandy, detailed its objections in a July letter. So did Syracuse, Sandy and even the couple behind the South-Forty RV Park in Marysvale, Piute County.
"I am informing you it is something we will not pay for," said Jim and Terri Peterson. "We already pay fees and our time to have our water continually tested for the state."
Doug Allen, mayor of the San Juan County city of Monticello, initially resisted the fee. But he's more concerned about the possibility that the state might lose to the EPA its authority to carry out drinking-water laws if it can't find some way to cover the shortfall.
"We're not flush with money or anything," he said, "but I'd much rather have the [state] government be over it [the drinking water provided to the 700 homes and businesses in the community] than the EPA."
Jodi Hoffman, of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, agrees that the state should preserve its primacy over EPA programs, but her organization disputes the idea that the proposed fees on water and sewer districts are the way to accomplish that.
Fees like these are unprecedented, she said. "The question is, if that's allowed, then when does it stop?"
The league's legislative-policy committee recently voted unanimously against the kind of fees proposed by Bousfield's agency and the "toilet tax" the Division of Water Quality is considering.
Walt Baker, who oversees the state's water quality office, noted that the $10 million raised through the sewer-district fee would help pay to clean up nutrients primarily phosphorus and nitrogen from runoff and sewer-plant discharges.
Though not required under pending federal laws or regulations yet the effort is the biggest water-quality endeavor since the enactment of the Clean Water Act itself, he said.
"Water quality is a quality-of-life issue," he said, noting the impact on recreation, drinking water and the environment. "It's preserving what makes Utah where we want to be."
And, ultimately, the thinking goes, the statewide program would go a long way toward averting a future EPA crackdown on nutrient-related pollution that could cost billions of dollars. And the idea of generating the funds from user fees is something that resonates with Utahns, Baker said.
"Choose your poison," he said, noting that either taxes or fees would be coming from Utahns statewide. "It's either your left pocket or your right pocket."
He said his office is not pursuing the fee this year. "It's just not ripe yet."
Finlinson says it's time for an adult conversation about the fee vs. tax question. He has no quarrel with the proposals on the table, he just wants any decision about them to be thorough and well-informed.
When you add up all the fees including costs sewer districts would be passing on to ratepayers to remove the nutrients, a cost he projects to be upward of $3.75 per household monthly he estimates that ratepayers would be ponying up $60 a year or more.
"The issue that is challenging," said Finlinson, a former state senator, "is when [Baker, for instance] raises the fee for the sewer patrons to pay for the farmers to be better farmers."