February 25, 2011 - By John McVey, Journal staff writer
MARTINSBURG - The Chesapeake Bay funding bill is well on its way to passage, state Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, said in a telephone interview Thursday.
"We've cleared the highest hurdle - the Senate Finance Committee - it was a unanimous vote," said Snyder, who has shepherded the bill through the legislative process.
Senate Bill 245 would dedicate $6 million over 30 years to a bond issue that would help pay for improvements, upgrades and new construction of wastewater treatment plants in West Virginia's eight-county Eastern Panhandle.
The improvements are needed to meet new, stringent pollution limits imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the Chesapeake Bay Restoration program. The program is aimed at reducing pollution in bay tributaries.
The Potomac River is one of the bay's major tributaries, and the Eastern Panhandle is in the Potomac River watershed.
The estimated cost to make the improvements to 13 sewer plants across the Panhandle is about $225 million, records show. About $149 million would be needed to upgrade nine plants in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties.
SB245 would cover about $180 million of the total costs, or about 44 percent, Snyder said. Customers will have to stand the balance of the costs.
Without the funding assistance from the state, the entire cost to meet the EPA's unfunded pollution-control mandates would fall on the backs of the sewer customers, he emphasized.
"The real winners are the citizens who live in the Eastern Panhandle," Snyder said. "This is the state Legislature saying we are going to help."
Snyder credited state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, the majority leader and a member of the Finance Committee, for his "immense help."
Unger said in a telephone interview Thursday that one change made in the Finance Committee to the original bill was specifying the source of the revenue to underwrite the bonds.
Rather than coming from the excess lottery fund, which is already dedicated to specific programs, the revenue to cover the bonds will come from the video lottery's undedicated surplus funds that are used for supplemental appropriations at the end of the fiscal year, Unger explained.
"It settled everyone down - no one's ox was going to be gored," he said.
The unencumbered dollars come to about $26 to $30 million a year, Unger said, and are a stable revenue source with which to finance the bonds so the interest rate might be better.
The Chesapeake Bay funding bill also "set a mechanism to solve future" issues, Unger said, such as a pollution reduction program for the Ohio River watershed, which would encompass the rest of the state.
"This is not just an Eastern Panhandle issue, this is a West Virginia issue," he said. "The rest of the state could be in the same boat in five years."
The bill was expected to be sent to the floor of the Senate Thursday night with its first reading Friday and second reading Monday at which time Snyder expects it to be passed.
"Then it has to go through the House (of Delegates)," he said. "I'm sure the Panhandle's delegation will fully support it in the House and lobby for it. It is absolutely nonpartisan. It impacts everyone's constituents."
- Staff writer John McVey can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128, or firstname.lastname@example.org