Craig vs. 'rain tax'

Harford County Executive and gubernatorial candidate David Craig announces his plan to repeal the state's controversial stormwater fee at Boyle Buick GMC Truck in Abingdon. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF, The Aegis / September 17, 2013)

Harford County Executive and gubernatorial hopeful David Craig said he wants to repeal the state's storm water remediation fee, known as the "rain tax," and challenged state officials to prove that the mandate actually makes sense.

"When they tell us we have to do these mandated improvements, I am going to say, 'Prove to me it is going to work,'" Craig said after a press conference Tuesday in which he unleashed another assault on the controversial fee/tax.

He plans to introduce legislation Oct. 1 repealing the Harford legislation that passed earlier this year. The law now on the books set a fee of $125 per house per year and $7 per 500 square feet of impervious surface on commercial and industrial properties. By agreement with the county council, however, the first year's collection was set at 10 percent, or $12.50 per home and 70 cents per 500 square feet for commercial/industrial property.

Craig has been a consistent foe of the storm water fee, initially aimed at 10 counties mostly on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, that was signed into law on May 2, 2012 by Gov. Martin O'Malley. State Del. Kathy Szeliga, who attended the press conference and who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said she hopes to introduce a General Assembly bill next winter to repeal the fee mandate.

Craig and Szeliga, both Republicans, spoke at Boyle Buick GMC Truck on Route 924 in Abingdon, which Craig said has a provisional storm water fee of $295 for 2014 and would have had to pay $2,953 at the full implementation level. In addition to Szeliga, Harford County Councilmen Joe Woods and Dion Guthrie and Carroll County Commissioner Doug Howard were in attendance.

Craig said businesses like Boyle Buick, which has been in Harford County for more than 45 years and has more than 69 employees, are being stressed by state taxes and fees, like the rain tax, as they are just beginning to recover from the recession.

Paige Boyle, whose family owns the dealership, said the storm water fee puts Boyle Buick at an unfair disadvantage.

She said the business was just recently able to hire more employees and she also thanked Craig for his support in trying to overturn the fee.

Boyle Buick's storm water fee would have been more than $12,000 in Baltimore City or $7,300 in Baltimore County, Craig said.

Craig said the county had "many serious questions" about the fee, none of which have been "adequately answered" by the state or by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"I am now of the opinion that the leadership in Annapolis is no longer in a position to follow through on the threatened penalties for noncompliance given the public backlash that their 'Rain Tax' mandate has rightly received," he said in a prepared statement given out at the press conference.

In April, the county council passed the watered-down version of the fee, technically charging homeowners $125 but only requiring them to pay 10 percent the first year. The council also set up a task force that will study the bill's implementation and make recommendations in November, which now appears unlikely to happen if Craig is successful with his repeal effort.

Although Tuesday's press conference was initially announced through Craig's county press office on Friday, the Craig gubernatorial campaign also got into the act, with his campaign spokesman Jim Pettit sending out campaign e-mails about the event on Monday.

Sherrie Johnson, Craig's county spokesman, insisted Monday, however, that the press conference was a county initiative called so Craig could explain his plan to seek repeal of the local tax and to work for statewide repeal legislation.

Following the press conference, Craig said the state has no science to prove why one farm produces more pollution than another and noted farmers "are the original environmentalists." He said the same applies to homes, businesses and whole counties.

If the state challenged the county to comply with the mandates, "we will say, 'take us to court,'" he said.

"We were doing what we were mandated to do and now it's time to back off," he said.

Craig also pointed out that state-owned properties wouldn't have to pay a local storm water fee and likewise noted that in past practice the federal government has always claimed that state exemptions apply to them, as well.

"That is like a parent telling a child to clean up their room when their own room is a mess," he said. His office later clarified that Aberdeen Proving Ground, the huge Army installation in Harford, operates under a federal Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems, or MS4 permit, that regulates what it can discharge into the neighboring Chesapeake Bay; however, in either case the installation would not be subject to a county or state remediation fee.

Szeliga said she supports Craig's "bold and common-sense stand" on the fee, saying Maryland has become a laughingstock for passing the legislation and businesses are being "crushed" by the storm water and other fees.

She called the rain tax "ridiculous" and said it punishes just 10 of the state's 24 jurisdictions.

Szeliga said in other states she has visited, such as Iowa, "they pray for rain; they would never tax it."