Arundel council to hear debate on storm-water runoff fee

A proposal scheduled to come before the Anne Arundel County Council on Monday would create a property tax surcharge to help reduce storm-water runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

measure would permit a $35 annual fee on residential property tax bills and $25 on condos and townhouses; nonresidential properties would be assessed depending on square footage. Advocates say the measure will help local government play a crucial role in cleaning up the bay, but opponents argue that it's too costly in tough economic times.

Councilman Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, sponsored the bill, aimed at helping the county comply with state and federal guidelines. The fees, which Trumbauer estimates would generate about $10 million to $12 million annually, would pay for filtration systems and other initiatives.

"What this problem needs is a very robust funding mechanism," said Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, who introduced the legislation last month. "We've needed to attack this for a long time."

According to Trumbauer, about a third of the county's nitrogen pollution comes from storm water, which occurs when rainwater runs off paved surfaces and pushes harmful pollutants such as fertilizer, bacteria and trash directly into waterways. The pollution has resulted in beach closures, waterways deemed unsafe for swimming and fishing, flooding and erosion.

Charles Levay, president of the Peach Orchard Civic Association, a development of 110 homes in Severn, said he opposes the bill.

"It's a regressive tax," said Levay. "I understand them trying to preserve the bay, but not on the backs of Anne Arundel County residents."

A recent study found that the county lacks the proper filtration systems to prevent the 1.4 million pounds of pollutants that are entering the Severn River annually.

Past efforts to curb storm-water runoff in the county have been unsuccessful. In 2007, members of the council floated a similar proposal. County Executive John R. Leopold proposed his own solution: the creation of the Storm-water Management and Restoration of Tributaries Fund, or SMART Fund, that would charge a fee on new developments based on the size of impervious surfaces. Both proposals failed to pass the council.

Dave Abrams, a spokesman for Leopold, said that the Republican executive "supports efforts to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay," but the timing of Trumbauer's bill is off.

"A property tax hike is not the way to do it," said Abrams. "Right now people are dealing with unemployment and under-employment, high utility costs and a possible tripling of the flush fee," a sewer bill add-on imposed by the state.

Abrams said there are no current plans to resurrect Leopold's past SMART Fund proposal, but he said the county executive will be watching the debate closely.

Trumbauer said Leopold's plan could be helpful as part of a broad strategy, but on its own wouldn't fully address the problem, which lies with older developments that aren't equipped with proper filtration systems. Newer developments, which Leopold's plan would have charged a 25-cents-per-square-foot fee, already face strict regulations, he said.

Only Montgomery County and a handful of municipalities, including Annapolis, now levy fees on property owners to pay for upgrading and maintaining storm-water pollution controls.

Most local officials have been reluctant to propose new fees, especially in recent hard economic times, and efforts by environmentalists to get state legislation mandating them also have failed.

But Jenn Aiosa, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said more local officials are taking a serious look at the need for some sort of dedicated storm-water fee, as state regulators press counties and municipalities to do more to control polluted runoff from streets, parking lots and buildings.

A task force appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley has recommended raising funds for local storm-water projects through the "flush fee" levied on all utility customers and septic system owners. The $30 annual charge now provides money for upgrading the state's largest sewage treatment plants and for installing less-polluting septic systems, but faces a shortfall in the next few years.

The task force called for up to a threefold increase in the fee, more than enough to cover the funding gap, with the extra dedicated to helping pay for runoff controls.

Environmentalists support increasing the flush fee to raise money for runoff pollution reduction. But Aiosa said that even a higher flush fee likely would not pay for all the storm-water work needed in some communities. There is a need to find money elsewhere to supplement the state aid, she suggested, either through new or increased local fees, or by shifting existing spending priorities.

"There's more than one way to skin a cat," she said.

Trumbauer has found support for the proposal in some quarters. In a statement, Bob Burdon, president and CEO of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, said he supports the bill. The maritime industry is a robust part of the county's economy.

"The Chamber of Commerce supported similar legislation a couple of years ago, and we were disappointed it was not adopted at that time," said Burdon. "We appreciate Councilman Trumbauer bringing this issue back again."

Support on the council has been mixed. Councilman Richard B. "Dick" Ladd is co-sponsoring the bill. But some other councilmen have questioned the idea of creating another fee.

County Councilman Jamie Benoit, who supported the council's past unsuccessful efforts at creating dedicated funding, said he was still examining the proposal.

"From a timing perspective, the economy is bad out there; $35 is a lot of money to people," said Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville.

Trumbauer countered that while he understands "it's not the best time," the long-standing problems needs to be addressed immediately.

"The longer we wait on this, the more it's going to cost us," said Trumbauer. "I certainly appreciate that the economic climate is not favorable. But that doesn't change the fact that this needs to get done."

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article

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