By Kirk Ross / Coastal Review Online
With the changeover in North Carolina’s executive branch, supporters of the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund are looking to build on recent increases and leave behind an era of uncertainty.
In his first budget plan released earlier this month, it was clear that Gov. Roy Cooper differed widely from the first budget of his predecessor in dozens of areas. Among the sharpest contrasts of the bunch was in dealing with the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. Former Gov. Pat McCrory’s first budget almost zeroed out the clean water trust fund, which provides matching grants for local water projects and land acquisition for conservation.
Cooper’s budget aims to increase not just the overall funding, but also establish a larger foundation of recurring funding, proposing $3.1 million in recurring funding and a one-time $10 million boost for fiscal 2017 and $6.2 million in 2018 for a total of $18.9 million for the biennium.
In a briefing for reporters after the release of Cooper’s budget earlier this month, Charlie Perusse, the state budget director, said the plan is to raise the recurring budget by $3.1 million a year until it reaches $25 million. That’s double the current $12.5 million recurring budget.
“This is probably the most significant investment in a recurring and non-recurring basis that the trust fund has gotten in years,” Perusse said.
In the beginning, the annual budget target for the fund, established in 1996, was $100 million, but it rarely was fully funded. It hit a peak of full funding from 2005 to 2008, but since then became more and more of a place to squeeze in times of tight budgets. By 2012, the annual appropriation dropped to $10.75 million, the lowest level in its history.
“It leaves some concern from our perspective about the future of the program,” Richard Rogers, then executive director of the fund, said at the time.
His remarks were no exaggeration. In 2013, McCrory’s first budget proposal dropped the total to $6.75 million for the first year. The second year of McCrory’s budget did not include a specific amount for the fund.
Rogers said the first-year money was only enough to cover administrative expenses and projects already in the pipeline.
The legislature did come up with more money than originally proposed in the first McCrory budget and has steadily increased the funding. Some of the extra funds came with an earmark that it be used for building up buffers around military bases.
The lower funding level also made it difficult for the fund to play as big a role in acquisitions of key tracts of land, leveraging money from conservation groups with state grants to acquire larger tracts in mountain headwaters and eastern bottomlands.
Since the low point in 2013, the fund has gradually built back up and last year reached $18.8 million, thanks mainly to the efforts of Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a former national president of the Sierra Club and one of the main co-chairs of the House Appropriations Committee. McGrady has been pragmatic about how fast the trust fund can be rebuilt and in recent years has added money late in budget negotiations as numbers firm up.
Last year, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, or CWMTF, received an additional $5 million in non-recurring funds.
The trust fund is authorized for up to $100 million and was at that number for a few years,” McGrady said in an email. “Then the recession hit and the authorization went almost to zero. It just takes time to get back.”
McGrady is generally positive about Cooper’s funding plan, but notes that the governor starts off with a spending plan that is far higher than the legislature’s targets.
“The $25 million number is not an unreasonable number and is one I could support. However, whether it can be funded will depend on what it is competing with. The Governor used a much higher spend number than I expect we’ll have as our target. Given that, it may not be possible to fund CWMTF at the level that he did in his budget.”
He said the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, one of the state’s other key sources for conservation, is in a similar situation.
In addition to a swing in funding there have been structural changes as well.
The CWMTF administration shifted departments under the major restructuring in 2015, which moved the state parks system, CWMTF and the state’s Natural Heritage program under the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
This week, during confirmation hearings before the Senate, Secretary Susi Hamilton said she thinks that the trust fund is on good footing and she is upbeat on the prospect of eventually reaching the $25 million target.
“The Clean Water Management Trust Fund is a critical piece of creating and preserving the natural resource infrastructure in the state and its very import that we maintain that fund and the integrity of that fund,” she said. “I’m pleased to say that in recent year’s we have started to add back to the fund.”
Hamilton said that although the fund is far from where it was at its peak, she was hopeful that this year the rebuilding can continue.
“So far we have not heard any complaint about that particular line item from the final sayers of the budget, so we hope that that will be maintained,” she said.
Bill Holman, state director for The Conservation Fund, and former executive director of the CWMTF who worked as part of the Cooper transition team, said there had been bipartisan support for both the parks and clean water funds in recent years.
“There’s been bipartisan support for funding for both clean water and state and local parks for several years,” he said. “We’re optimistic that’s an area where the governor and General Assembly can work together.”
Holman said demand is there with roughly three to four times the amount in grants applied for as there is money to fund them.
In remarks after her hearing, Hamilton said the trust fund would have new leadership in April with the hiring of Walter Clark, now executive director of the Boone-based Blue Ridge Conservancy. Clark will serve as director of the Division of Land and Water Stewardship and trust fund executive director. Clark’s decision in February to step down and his new job were announced in an email the conservancy sent its supporters on Friday.
Clark also served for two decades as a coastal law, planning and policy specialist with North Carolina State University’s Sea Grant program.
Both McGrady and Holman called Clark a good hire.
“He knows the state well,” Holman said. “We look forward to working with him.”
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