Friday, December 19, 2014
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Clean water at a price
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Frank Wright carves spoons at his tiny shop in Lanesboro. Wright is concerned that proposed clean water legislation will level an unfair fee on small business owners like himself. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
While it's tough to find anyone who opposes the idea of having clean water, the question of how much people should pay for it is a little more controversial. The state of Minnesota is considering what's called the Clean Water Legacy Act. It would impose fees on homeowners and businesses to pay for cleaning up the states water supply. But some people say while they support the concept they don't like the fee structure.

Lanesboro, Minn. — Frank Wright makes wooden spoons and sells them from his storefront workshop in downtown Lanesboro.

Wright admits the thousands of tourists who flock to Lanesboro are drawn largely by the areas famed natural scenery carved by the Root River. Even so he says he has a problem with the biggest piece of legislation to target Minnesota's environment in years. If passed into law, the Clean Water Legacy Act will help clean up the state's dirty waterways by targeting pollution sources like aging septic tanks. But it's costly and business owners like Wright will be asked to pay an annual fee of $120.

"People just presume that because we have a business that we should pay more for things and you that know that's really not the case," Wright explains.

Wright's joined by another local business owner Eric Thiss who says the fee structure doesn't make sense. Under the legislation homeowners will pay $36 a year. Thiss says his business will be stuck with a bill more than three times the size even though it barely uses any water at all.

"Let me see, I have three kids and a wife. We do, I don't even know how many, loads of diapers and everything else at home and at the shop I think we flush the toilet twice a day," says Thiss.

Both Thiss and Wright say they like the idea of cleaning up the water supply but they don't want to pay more than what they consider their fair share.

Mike Robertson says he knows some people are unhappy with the proposal. He's an environmental consultant for the state Chamber of Commerce. Robertson was among a group of farmers, environmentalists and local government representatives known as the G16 that put the Clean Water Legacy Act together.

They spent close to two years wrangling over the fee structure and studied roughly 40 different ways to generate the needed money.

They never found a system that satisfied everyone but finally they settled on a structure currently before state lawmakers.

Robertson says he hopes the controversy surrounding the fee structure doesn't derail the policy.

"Well of course any time you are proposing to raise more than $80-million in a piece of legislation that is very serious business at the Capital," says Robertson. "So we knew this would have a difficult row to hoe in the process and I don't think we're surprised by the reaction."

But Robertson says Minnesota faces a big problem. Water is key to the state's economy and it needs to be protected.

Republican representative Dennis Ozment agrees. He's the Clean Water Legacy Act's chief author. He says the fee structure needs work, but the overall policy has broad support. Ozment says without this type of legislation Minnesota will be vulnerable to sanctions and lawsuits under the federal Clean Water Act.

"I don't know of any legislator that is happy with the fee structure right now but we all understand the need to fund this program," says Ozment.

Ozment says in the coming weeks the proposal will go before House finance committees and it's there where the policy could face it greatest opposition. He says in the meantime, lawmakers will work to come up with an alternative way to fund the Clean Water Legacy Act, one that Ozment hopes will be more sensitive to the state's small business owners. If they're unsuccessful, he doubts the legislation will pass.

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