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Businesses, nonprofits object to stormwater fees

BusinessEnvironmental PollutionPublic OfficialsLocal GovernmentJames B. Kraft

Residents across the Baltimore region could soon be hit with annual bills of $18 to more than $100 to pay for stormwater treatment, wetland restoration and other projects aimed at improving Chesapeake Bay water quality.

The fees, to be charged by localities starting this summer, have drawn complaints from local officials who object to the state mandate that requires the fees but also businesses and nonprofit organizations who estimate that, in some cases, their charges could be tens of thousands of dollars.

In Annapolis, some lawmakers concerned about the complaints say they'll make a last-minute push Monday to put the entire stormwater fee program on hold for two years, state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, confirmed Sunday.

"The economy is growing very slowly, and everybody is complaining about the fees and taxes," said Conway, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the fee program.

Prospects for the effort are far from certain, as the measure would have to clear both chambers on the final day of the General Assembly's 90-day session.

City officials have welcomed the proposed fee as a way to bring in $30 million annually to repair Baltimore's crumbling stormwater infrastructure while bolstering environmental efforts to protect the bay.

"When these practices are in place, then we should have a pollutant reduction," says Kimberly Burgess, the city's chief of Surface Water Management. "Then we should have a reduction in the algae blooms and fish kills and we should have improved health in our water ways, which should lead to more economic and recreational opportunities in the Chesapeake Bay."

At issue is a debate over how to pay for the cleanup needed when rain water carrying toxins, sediment, bacteria and other pollutants comes streaming off buildings, pavement and roads and ends up in the bay. Once rainwater hits the ground, it picks up pollutants from sewage, animal feces and urban runoff as it heads into the state's waterways.

Concerned about the pollution but reluctant to dedicate more state resources, Maryland lawmakers last year passed legislation requiring 10 local governments, including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties, to establish a stormwater utility with dedicated fees by July 1. The state law exempts government-owned properties from the fee.

In November, Baltimore City voters overwhelmingly approved passage of a charter amendment to authorize the new stormwater system.

"It demonstrated that people want to see a positive change for stormwater," Burgess said of the vote.

But since then, nonprofits, community associations and businesses across Baltimore have lined up to object to the city's implementation of a stormwater treatment fee, which they say will hit their organizations disproportionately hard.

"The increases on everything in this city [are] out of control," Linda Yannuzzi, psychological services coordinator at The Arc Baltimore nonprofit, wrote in an email to Councilman James Kraft, whose committee is considering the stormwater proposal in Baltimore City. "The working people of Baltimore are getting stepped on and beaten down while trying to survive."

Some organizations that provide their own stormwater treatment services say it's unfair that they could face some of the biggest bills.

Local governments are basing fees on a property's amount of "impervious" surface — that is, hard surfaces such as roofs, driveways and parking lots that deflect water rather than absorbing it. The fees would be included in water or property tax bills, or in new stormwater bills.

Around the Baltimore region, officials have taken varying approaches to how much to charge for the stormwater programs:

• In Baltimore City, single-family homes would be charged $48 to $144 a year, while larger properties would have to pay $72 per 1,050 square feet per year.

• Baltimore County is considering charging homeowners between $18 and $36 a year, while businesses could face much higher fees. Officials estimate an apartment complex with 127,680 square feet of impervious surface on a 5-acre lot would be charged about $4,405, and a shopping mall with 871,200 square feet of impervious surface on a 25-acre lot would pay more than $30,000 per year.

Owners of commercial properties could get credits to pay for up to 80 percent of the fee, depending on what steps they already have taken to manage stormwater runoff, county officials said.

• Harford County is considering a flat fee of $125 year for residential properties, and a fee of $7 per 500 square feet of impervious area of commercial, industrial and apartment structures.

• The Howard County Council, in a divided vote last week, approved a plan under which the average residential property owner will be charged about $105.

The council set the fee at $15 per 500 square feet of impervious surface for three years, meaning a property owner with 7,000 square feet of impervious surface can expect to pay $210 a year.

• Anne Arundel County has proposed a fee of $34 per year for owners of townhouses and condominiums, $85 for single-family homes and $170 for homes in rural and agricultural areas. The bill, which could be changed, would require nonresidential properties, including businesses and churches, to pay about $1,323 per impervious acre per year.

• In Carroll County, officials are planning to propose a rate structure this month.

City officials say Baltimore's fee is designed to hit larger customers harder. The administration says 88 percent of property owners — mainly single family homes — generate only 33 percent of the stormwater pollution, while the city's largest property owners account for 67 percent of pollution.

City officials stress that not implementing the fee would not only run counter to state law but hurt the city's attempts to keep pace with the rate at which the water system's pipes are crumbling.

The money from the stormwater fee also is a key part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blakes' 10-year financial plan aimed at reducing a $750 million projected shortfall. Money from the fee would free up revenue to help reduce property taxes, officials point out.

More than $150 million is needed over the next seven years to pay for stormwater infrastructure, including projects along Race Street, Patapsco Avenue, North Point Road, Pulaski Highway and Harris Creek, according to city officials.

"The state's not giving us any money," says Marcia Collins, legislative liaison for the city's Department of Public Works. "The federal government isn't giving us any money. So, they're saying to the locals, 'You need to take care of this.'"

But opposition has come from several fronts.

Jeffrey A. Fraley, vice president of the Fraley Corp., a South Baltimore-based industrial contracting company and scrap yard, says his property tax bill is $3,000 annually, but he would face $4,000 in stormwater fees under the proposal.

"These numbers do not add up and do not incentivize me to remain a Baltimore city commercial property owner," he wrote in a letter to the City Council.

David C. McKenzie, vice president of Liquid Transfer Terminals Inc. in Curtis Bay, said his company pays about $58,000 in property taxes and could get hit with nearly $44,000 in stormwater fees. That fee is too high, McKenzie argues, because his company treats its own stormwater.

"A facility that manages its own stormwater is not treated any differently than a facility that does nothing to mitigate its stormwater pollution," he said.

The Baltimore Jewish Council said nonprofits also are getting hit with fees that are too high.

"Our domestic violence organizations, if they are forced to pay $2,000 then that is $2,000 less dollars they can provide for domestic violence services," said Cailey Lacklair, the organization's director of government relations. "They may be able to pay, but you're going to see fewer services put back in the community."

City officials say they are considering a series of credits, including for residents who participate inclean-up events and take steps to reduce their pollutant runoff. Businesses that process 100 percent of their own stormwater would receive a 45 percent credit, officials said.

One South Baltimore business — Rukert Terminals Corp., the Canton stevedoring and warehousing company — estimates its bill would be in excess of $300,000.

"The impact on those businesses is monumental," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, vice chair of the legislative committee considering the proposal. "We're talking about people who are getting charged thousands an acre on this fee. Some don't even go through the city's system. This is hundreds of thousands of dollars."

In the coming weeks, city officials say they hope to post online an interactive website that would show residents their potential fee based on an aerial view of their property.

A City Council work session on the proposal is scheduled for Tuesday. A public hearing is scheduled for April 17.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Jonathan Pitts, Alison Knezevich, Allan Vought and Blair Ames contributed to this article.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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