Bay foundation questions Baltimore County's move to eliminate 'rain tax'

Chesapeake Bay Foundation says Balto. Co. Council skipping a step before eliminating stormwater fee.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is warning the Baltimore County Council that its plan to phase out the county's stormwater fees could violate state law — unless officials first spell out how they will pay for required environmental projects.

Last week, all seven council members announced a bill to reduce the fees on next year's property tax bills, then eliminate them entirely the year after that. A public hearing is planned Nov. 10, with a vote set Nov. 16.

But in a letter last week to county officials, the bay foundation noted that state law requires the county to first send a plan to the Maryland Department of the Environment describing how it will pay for projects to reduce polluted runoff.

It's important to have such a plan documenting where the money will come from "so we know it's allocated and they can actually do the work," said Elaine Lutz, staff attorney for the foundation.

In 2012, the General Assembly passed a measure requiring 10 large urban and suburban jurisdictions to collect the fees — derided by some as a "rain tax" — to pay for projects combating stormwater, a chief source of pollution that harms rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

Under a revision passed this year, those jurisdictions can drop the fees after getting the state's approval to dedicate another source of money to the projects.

Baltimore County is the first of the affected jurisdictions to move toward eliminating its fees since the revision. Some counties, including Harford County, dropped their fees before the state law was changed.

Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat who is leading the charge for the Baltimore County repeal, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Lutz said the foundation wants to make sure county officials know they need to commit to paying for projects before they get rid of the fees.

"We're hoping that once they see this state law, they'll make a concerted effort to comply with it before they move forward with this bill," she said.

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.

All seven council members support eliminating the fees, but Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is opposed. The Democrat has maintained that without collecting fees, the county will have to look elsewhere in the budget to find money to pay for stormwater pollution projects.

Administration officials declined to comment Monday regarding the bay foundation's concerns. "The council did not consult with the administration on this bill, and any inquiries regarding the proposed legislation need to be directed to them," a spokeswoman said.

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 amount of impervious surfaces, such as rooftops and parking lots, on their properties.

Baltimore County still must complete projects to prevent polluted stormwater from reaching the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to meet federal requirements.

Elsewhere, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, hinted last week that he may introduce legislation this year to eliminate that county's fees. Though the Republican campaigned against the fees during last fall's election, he has held off on eliminating them.

"I'm cautiously optimistic we'll be able to announce something and roll back the rain tax," Kittleman said at a town hall meeting last week.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Amanda Yeager contributed to this article.

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