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Anne Arundel council to consider slate of changes for 'rain tax'

By Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun

10:28 AM EDT, May 12, 2013

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The debate over Anne Arundel County's new stormwater fees — criticized by many as the "rain tax" — will continue through this month, and possibly beyond, as the County Council weighs several options for revising the controversial levy.

Council members have before them five bills to tweak the rate structure, and more could come before July 1, when the fees must be in place.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat who is sponsoring four of the bills, said his goal is to "make this fee equitable and align the obligation to pay with the ability to pay."

The council initially approved a set of stormwater fees in April, only to have the bill vetoed by County Executive Laura Neuman, who expressed concern that too few people knew about them.

Council members overrode that veto May 1, but at the same time said they would work to make the fees more palatable.

Maryland's largest counties and Baltimore City are required by state law to start collecting stormwater fees in order to pay for pollution-control projects. Each jurisdiction can set its own fee.

The stated goal of the law is to provide a source of funding to pay for the projects aimed at reducing pollution that harms the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

As approved by the council, Anne Arundel's fee structure would see homeowners paying $34, $85 or $170, based on the type of property. Commercial property owners would pay based on the square footage of impervious surfaces on the property, such as rooftops, driveways and parking lots, with the amount capped at an equivalent of 35 percent of their annual property tax. Religious organizations would pay $1.

But changes proposed by council members include:

•Capping commercial fees at no more than 25 percent of the annual property fee and phasing in the fees.

•Including a notice in tax bills explaining that the fee is required by the state.

•Implementing a new calculation for apartment buildings.

•Limiting the fees for nonprofit organizations that own property.

•Doing away with the $170 fee for rural homeowners, so that all owners of single-family homes would pay $85 and owners of townhouses and condominiums would pay $34.

The first bill is sponsored by five council members and will be the subject of a public hearing at 7 p.m. May 20. The other four bills are from Benoit, and will have public hearings at 9 a.m. May 23. All hearings will be at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert St. in Annapolis.

Depending on how council members adjust the fees, it could influence the county's budget for next year, which they are currently reviewing. Neuman's original budget, submitted May 1, did not include money from the stormwater fees.

Once the council members overrode the veto, she revised her budget to include $14.7 million from fees. That revision assumes that the County Council will pass the bill reducing the cap on commercial property owners, said John Hammond, county budget officer.

Those plans will have to be adjusted if the County Council modifies the stormwater fees.

"To the extent they make changes, it will impact the money coming in," Hammond said.

Chris Phipps, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, said money gathered from the fees will be spent on planning and constructing dozens of projects, such as reworking stormwater holding ponds so they treat pollution and restoring streams damaged by stormwater runoff.

Money also will be spent on hiring project managers, inspectors and other employees, as well as for monitoring completed projects and improving mapping software, Phipps said.

Environmental advocates expect to keep a close eye on the County Council as the revisions are debated. They were so thrilled that the stormwater fees were put into place that they threw a celebratory party on Thursday night. In recent years, attempts to enact a county stormwater fee had failed twice.

Erik Michelsen, executive director of the South River Federation in Edgewater, has been a leader of the pro-stormwater fee movement and doesn't want to see the fees scaled back too far.

He's worried council members might chip away at the fees so much that there's no longer money to do enough stormwater projects to help the environment. He's most concerned about changing the fee for rural homeowners from $170 to $85.

"You keep cutting here and there, and the point of the program — to raise revenue to fix this issue — becomes quickly undermined," Michelsen said.

pwood@baltsun.com