Counties reconsider stormwater fees

Harford, Baltimore counties revisit their stormwater fees, derided as the “rain tax.”

In Frederick County, property owners pay just a penny per year for stormwater fees. Carroll County residents pay nothing.

Harford County just repealed its stormwater fees and Baltimore County is poised to cut its fees by a third. And Howard County's new county executive is mulling whether to seek a reduction.

For opponents of increased fees and taxes, these rollbacks represent a victory over what's critics deride as a "rain tax" unfairly levied on urban and suburban residents and businesses. But it also raises the question whether the counties will have enough money to pay their share of cleaning up polluted stormwater that harms rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

"To just roll it back or zero it out is a major concern for us and it should be a major concern for the state," said Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which lobbied heavily for a state law enacted in 2012 requiring counties to establish the fees in order to pay for cleanup projects.

Stormwater runoff is one of the most vexing problems facing the bay: While other pollution sources are decreasing, stormwater is increasing. It's also expensive and difficult to reduce stormwater pollution.

Under the 2012 law, the state's 10 largest urban and suburban jurisdictions are required to collect fees from property owners, but the amount of the fees was left to each county to decide. The law applies to Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard, Anne Arundel, Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George's and Charles counties.

Critics began ridiculing the fee as "the rain tax" when counties began collecting it in 2013. The term was used heavily by some political candidates in 2014 — including now-Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

Shareese Churchill, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment on the counties' recent actions, but said in a statement: "Governor Hogan has been clear in his belief that stormwater management fees should be decided by the individual counties who are closest and most responsive to the needs of their respective citizens."

Even as some counties adjust their fees, state lawmakers will again consider repealing the 2012 law. Efforts to repeal the fees in the General Assembly have been unsuccessful the past two sessions.

The Bay Foundation is watching to make sure that counties that reduce or eliminate stormwater fees still are dedicating money to pay for projects such as restoring eroded streams, creating wetlands and planting trees — all of which reduce the flow of polluted stormwater.

"If a county wants to look for alternatives, there's room for that as well," Coble said. "But what there is no room for is not to address the problem."

The Harford County Council voted last week to repeal its fee, and Republican County Executive Barry Glassman plans to sign the repeal into law Monday. In a statement, Glassman said the rain tax is "an unfair and uneven burden" on property owners.

Harford was collecting $12.50 per year from residential property owners and commercial properties were charged based on their impervious surfaces such as rooftops and parking lots — raising a little more than $1 million per year. Glassman plans to fund stormwater projects from the general fund in his next budget, said his spokeswoman, Cindy Mumby.

"This is about the unfairness of the tax, not about addressing the issue of stormwater remediation," Mumby said. "There really are more ways to get to the same destination, so it's not about shirking responsibility for the environment and the Chesapeake Bay."

Even though Baltimore County plans to cut its fees by a third, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, is concerned other counties aren't doing enough to combat stormwater pollution.

"I don't want residents to feel they're being assessed something and other counties' residents are not doing their fair share," Kamenetz said.

Baltimore County can afford to cut its fees because some stormwater-fighting efforts have turned out to be less costly than anticipated, including the purchase of street-sweeping trucks, which scoop up dirt and debris before it washes into storm drains and waterways, he said.

Under Kamentez's plan, owners of single-family homes would see their fees reduced from $39 to $26. Commercial property owners, also charged based on impervious coverage, also would get their rates cut by one third.

In addition to the money raised by the stormwater fee — about $24 million last year — Baltimore County spends about $10 million from its general fund on managing stormwater. Given the program's expense and requirements of the multistate bay cleanup program, Kamenetz said eliminating the stormwater fee entirely has never been an option

While Harford and Baltimore counties are revisiting their stormwater fees, Frederick and Carroll counties resisted them from the start.

Frederick chose to enact a one-penny fee that generated $950.86 in its first two years.

Carroll County had to fight to charge its property owners nothing. At one point, the state threatened to fine Carroll $10,000 per day for not charging a fee. The county agreed evenutally to set aside money from its regular budget in a dedicated fund for stormwater projects. This year, the amount is $4.1 million, said Roberta Windham, a county spokeswoman.

"We've proven we are meeting our requirements. We are putting money aside," Windham said.

It's unclear whether Harford will face the same legal scrutiny that Carroll County did.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who took office this month, will ensure the state stormwater law is followed, said his spokesman, David Nitkin.

"This attorney general will enforce the stormwater laws to the fullest extent and we're monitoring all action in Annapolis and by the counties," Nitkin said.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman has asked his environmental staff to evaluate the impacts of reducing the fees, but there's no timetable for a decision, said Andy Barth, a county spokesman. Last year, the county collected $10.4 million from its stormwater fees, which range from $15 to $90 per year for homeowners.

Kittleman, a Republican, is reviewing the fees "given the recent fiscal pressure on the county and our residents and that the mandate from the state could change," Barth said.

In Baltimore, where the residential stormwater fees range from $40 to $120, Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake might entertain the idea of a reduction, said her spokesman, Kevin Harris.

"If there is a workable way to reduce stormwater fees, the mayor would certainly consider it," Harris said.

In conservative-leaning Anne Arundel County, however, any attempt to eliminate stormwater fees is unlikely to pass muster with the County Council, which has steadfastly supported the fees, said Council President Jerry Walker.

But Walker, a Crofton Republican who voted against the fees, said an anticipated budget surplus might open a door to use more regular budget money on stormwater, so the stormwater fee could be reduced.

"I wouldn't rule out a partial rollback or partial cut, especially given the fact you see the other counties doing it," Walker said.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, a Republican, voted for the stormwater fee bill in 2012 when he was a state delegate, but has since walked back some of his support for the fee. Schuh acknowledged he can't get the votes on the council to repeal the fee, said his spokesman, Owen McEvoy.

Instead, Schuh is promising to cut the property tax rate by 3 percent, which would help offset Anne Arundel's stormwater fees, which range from $34 to $170 for homeowners.

"The county executive is a practical man and he thinks this is a practical solution to the problem," McEvoy said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Blair Ames, Allan Vought and Bryna Zumer contributed to this report.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
72°