Carroll commissioners, municipalities seek consensus on stormwater funding

While the Board of Carroll County Commissioners has waged a battle with the state on whether it needs to implement a stormwater fee, more commonly known as a "rain tax," the county's municipalities have felt left out of the discussion.

After a meeting between county commissioners and representatives from each municipality Tuesday, municipal leaders left saying they were optimistic about their involvement in the discussion moving forward.

"The general consensus is we're getting some reassurances from a majority member of the board [Doug Howard] to support the efforts of municipalities if it were to come to the worst case scenario," Westminster Mayor Kevin Utz said.

The worst case scenario Utz referred to is the county's eight municipalities having to find more than $16 million for federal and state required stormwater projects without the assistance of county funding, possibly through tax increases.

In June, Carroll County commissioners voted to create a Watershed Protection and Restoration Fund to be funded by grants and county dollars. This was the county's way of addressing the state's Watershed Protection and Restoration Program.

The program requires the state's nine largest counties and Baltimore City to collect fees to pay for stormwater management as well as stream and wetland restoration projects. The projects are aimed at improving water quality and reducing phosphorous and nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay.

The law has been dubbed the "rain tax" by its opponents.

Although the county commissioners believe this fund properly addresses its stormwater requirements from federal and state laws, municipal leaders have said the county has left them to fend for themselves in funding their stormwater projects.

Over the next six years, the county's eight municipalities will be expected to fund about $16.5 million of stormwater projects required by federal and state law. Without county assistance, municipal leaders said Tuesday that an annual fee to homeowners to cover their stormwater costs could range from $64 to $179 per homeowner.

The Maryland Department of Environment and the Attorney General's Office have also taken issue with the commissioners's fund threatening to fine the county up to $10,000 a day if a stormwater fee is not implemented. County staff is expected to meet with state officials in the coming weeks to discuss an agreement to address stormwater requirements and avoid the fine.

Sykesville Mayor Ian Shaw said as a group the municipalities support the county's efforts to combat implementing a countywide stormwater fee, but question what is "Plan B" when the municipalities stormwater requirements come due and the county has yet to finalize its mechanism to fund stormwater projects.

"We want to have a seat at the table," Shaw said. "We want to be sure the county includes us."

County Commissioners said Tuesday that they want open communication between county and municipal officials while providing reassurance to the municipalities that the county will not leave them "left out in the cold."

Commissioners just disagree on how to do that.

Commissioner Doug Howard proposed what he described as a short- and long-term solution, providing funding over the next two years from the county surplus to aid municipality stormwater projects while the county works with the state to address its stormwater funding mechanism.

"We can't ask the municipalities to just go along for the ride," he said.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild said he is opposed to funding the projects at all because he believes it does not address the actual problem, which is the state's overspending on stormwater projects without removing enough pollutants to clean the bay.

"There are ways to skin this cat that cost one one-hundreth of what the state wants to do," he said.

Frank Schaeffer, chair of the county Water Resource Coordination Council, which was tasked with researching potential stormwater fee rates earlier this year, said the committee meets Dec. 4 and will discuss the commissioners' proposals.

He said he hopes to have a working agreement between the county and municipalities on how to best move forward by early January.

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