As the Baltimore County Council voted 7-0 without comment Monday to phase out the county's stormwater remediation fee, opponents in the audience held up signs that said, "Show us the $."
They were referring to the lack of a plan by the county to pay for federally mandated stormwater remediation if not with the current fee.
The council voted to reduce the stormwater fees attached to 2016 property tax bills and eliminate them in 2017. Council members have said the fee is a burden on homeowners and businesses.
But critics, including County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, question the move. Kamenetz reduced the fee by one third earlier this year, but has balked at doing away with it entirely. Don Mohler, a spokesman for Kamenetz, has said eliminating the fee would cut the county's annual budget by $16 million and that cuts to other projects would be necessary if the county doesn't have money dedicated for stormwater projects.
Moreover, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has warned the council that its elimination of the fee, without having an alternate plan to pay for required environmental projects, could violate state law.
In a letter to county officials earlier this month, the foundation said state law requires the county to first send a plan to the Maryland Department of the Environment, describing how it would pay for projects to reduce polluted runoff, "so we know [the money is] allocated and they can actually do the work," said Elaine Lutz, staff attorney for the foundation.
Environment Secretary Benjamin H. Grumbles said his staff is reviewing the foundation's concerns.
"We look forward to working with Baltimore County and its citizens for real progress in improving water quality and restoring the Chesapeake Bay," Grumbles said.
In 2012, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring 10 large urban and suburban jurisdictions, including Baltimore County, to collect the stormwater remediation fee to pay for projects to reduce pollution in rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. A revision approved this year allows jurisdictions to drop the fee after getting the state's approval to dedicate another source of money to the projects.
Baltimore County is the first of the 10 jurisdictions to phase out the fee. Some counties, including Harford County, dropped their fee before the state law was changed.
Baltimore County homeowners pay yearly stormwater fees of $14 for a townhouse, $22 for a condominium or $26 for a detached single-family home. Commercial, industrial and institutional property owners pay based on the measurement of impervious surfaces, such as rooftops and parking lots, on their properties.
The council's unanimous vote Monday makes it veto-proof against a possible challenge by Kamenetz. The vote was expected, but that didn't stop a group of about 50 people from gathering prior to the vote for a rally at Patriot Plaza in downtown Towson, where they called on the council to delay the vote until an alternative funding mechanism can be worked out.
"We want the executive and the County Council to work together to come to a solution," said Elise Bruner, of Towson, a community organizer for Blue Water Baltimore, which organized the rally.
Also represented was the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the newly formed Green Towson Alliance.
"I've let the County Council know I think it was a poor decision" to eliminate the fee, said state Del. Steve Lafferty, who represents Towson and who joined the rally. "Eliminating the fee, while permitted under state law, doesn't really expand efforts to eliminate stormwater pollution."
"Me and my family, like everyone else in the county, has a huge stake in clean water," said Bill Deysher, vice president of the Ridgeleigh Community Association and a member of the Green Towson Alliance, who spoke at the rally.
Also speaking was the Rev. Mary Gaut, interim general presbyter of the Baltimore Presbytery and vice chairwoman of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. She called it a moral issue.
"This is about making sure that the commitment to cleaning up pollution runoff is made clear," Gaut said. "This is about neighbors. This is about making sure the council respects us enough as citizens."
Jennifer Dowdell, 38, came from Baltimore City to the rally, "to support clean water and funding to keep our water clean," said the Hampden resident, a landscape ecological planner.