Governor makes landfill money available for fire fighting, vetoes budget reduction planning

By Sarah Pridgeon

Governor Matt Mead has requested changes to the supplemental budget that will allow money to be drawn from the state’s landfill account to fight wildfires over the coming summer. The contingency will increase the amount on hand by $30 million, offsetting the reduced amount allocated to firefighting in this year’s budget.

“I want to be prepared to vigorously protect lives and property when fire season begins,” said Governor Mead. “To budget with less money than was used last year could require me to take money from other agencies and from services that the Legislature has endorsed.

“Depending on the extent of money moved to fight fires, other agencies’ budgets could be greatly affected.”

The state spent approximately $45 million fighting wildfires in 2012, but the Legislature has appropriated just $31.2 million during this session for the 2013 season, $8 million of which will go towards costs outstanding from last year. Governor Mead was also authorized to access an additional $5 million from the landfill fund if necessary.

The governor, however, stated that the budget should provide sufficient funding and be transparent about the source of that funding. He altered the supplemental budget to increase the total available for wildfire suppression to $60 million.

“The Legislature should directly budget for fires,” he commented. “Emergencies or natural disasters are hard to predict but where we can anticipate, as we can for fires, we should budget accordingly and know the funding source.”

The City of Sundance is relying on the state landfill fund to complete the mandatory closure of the landfill, says Clerk-Treasurer Kathy Lenz. Because the Legislature has not yet decided how to allocate money from the fund, however, it’s unlikely that the promised 75 percent reimbursement would have been provided this year even without the firefighting contingency measure.

“We’re going to be ok,” says Lenz. “It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul, but this is for fighting fire and you can’t speak against that – and we wouldn’t want to. They’re very aware of our situation and, by the time next year’s deadline is here, we’re sure things will be sorted.”

One of two acts relating to landfills, House Bill 65, has now been passed at the Legislature. This will aid the city’s landfill cause by creating a landfill remediation program and account and by providing reimbursement for the cost of remediation and monitoring.

“This bill will be good for us because hopefully we’ll get some reimbursement,” says Lenz.

House Bill 66 meanwhile creates criteria for the cease and transfer program aimed at closing the state’s landfills, providing qualifications for applicants to receive funds as well as authority for the State Lands and Investments Board to award those funds and the Department of Environmental Quality to administer the program. The bill has been returned to committee and, if it fails to pass, may delay the distribution of funds.

“We’d have to vote ourselves a tax for the $50,000 to close the landfill if that happens,” says Mayor Paul Brooks. “But your mayor is pretty resolved to die on that hill – it isn’t going to happen.”

“If House Bill 66 doesn’t pass, we will have to address the issue again next year,” agrees Lenz. “This is a huge problem and it’s not going away.”

In addition to addressing firefighting funds, Governor Mead vetoed language from the supplemental budget that would have required all state agencies to prepare four, six and eight percent budget reduction plans for the next biennium, stating that requiring specific figures to be created before the revenue projections have been updated is not an effective solution.

“Rather than increasing government efficiency, this makes for considerable work and eats into time and resources which could be put to other use,” he explained. “In addition, this ties me to specific reduction figures, when a greater reduction may be needed or it may be best to hold spending flat.”

The supplemental budget for fiscal year 2014 will see a reduction of ongoing spending by more than six percent and eliminates 130 positions across state government. The cuts have been made in response to declining revenue from natural gas prices and coal production.