Harford County Council members on Tuesday again delayed voting on a controversial bill that would charge all county residential and agricultural property owners an additional $125 a year to help treat stormwater and improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay.
One of amendments approved Tuesday, however, would have the county only collect 10 percent of the fee to start.
The bill would establish an annual flat fee of $125 (it was originally proposed to be $400 a year) for all residential and agricultural properties except apartments, and impose a fee of $7 per 500 square feet of impervious area for all commercial and industrial properties as well as apartment buildings, mobile home parks, maritime facilities and property owned by fraternal organizations, religious institutions or health care facilities.
During Tuesday's county council meeting, after reviewing 35 amendments to the bill, the council delayed until next week's meeting.
One amendment that was passed would allow for 10 percent of the fees to be collected, as of July 1, and be maintained in a dedicated fund, and at the same time establish a watershed protection and restoration task force.
McMahan said he is "excited" that the task force will provide an unbiased perspective.
Another amendment ordered the collection of the fee to end on June 30, 2018, when Councilman Joe Woods said the MS4 permit also expires. MS4 permits are granted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for storm drainage systems; MS4 is shorthand for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System.
Council President Billy Boniface said the task force will be established by resolution at the next meeting.
"This entire process has been exhausting at times," Boniface said. "We wanted to make sure this fee was being executed in accordance with the state bill that required it."
Boniface allowed the meeting to go past the set ending time of 11 p.m., and it ended by 11:30 p.m. McMahan said later he believes that is the longest council meeting he has ever sat through since he was first elected to the council, in 2006.
Amendments proposing a flat annual fee of $100 instead of $125, as well as instead of the fee of $7 per 500 square feet of impervious area and requiring municipalities to authorize their own remediation fees were also put on hold.
"One of the greatest things that is created here is animosity between the county and the municipalities," Boniface said.
One amendment, introduced by Councilman Chad Shrodes, proved controversial. He proposed that the watershed and restoration funds be divided into separate accounts for each of the county's four major drainage basins: Bush River, Gunpowder River, Lower Susquehanna River and Upper Western Shore.
A minimum of 60 percent of the funds collected from properties within each basin boundary would have been deposited into the associated, dedicated basin account to be used for water quality improvement facilities within the same river basin.
Shrodes extensively defended his proposal by saying it creates more transparency and objectivity, and gives taxpayers a better accounting of where their money is going.
Other councilmembers, notably Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, said it would be "micromanaging" the entire program. Councilman Dick Slutzky said drainage basin designations would be confusing to most people.
McMahan said he received the amendment at 4:30 p.m. that day and he found it "very confusing," although Council President Boniface said the amendments had been available since last Friday.
Shrodes basin-specific amendment narrowly failed, with Slutzky abstaining from the vote.
Other amendments were approved fairly easily, including the creation of a separate watershed protection and restoration fund, the creation of exemptions for those receiving property tax credits or having disabilities, and the award of a full fee waiver for properties that account for reductions in their stormwater discharges, instead of just a 50-percent waiver.
Another amendment "created lockbox language," as Lisanti put it, by explaining the funds from the fee would not be used for general fund governmental purposes.
McMahan said he was very happy to pass two amendments that charged religious institutions a flat fee of $125, saying it was a triumph for the Constitution and said he hopes the council would not "get caught up in the socialistic movement" which he said has led left-wing people to "take over the pulpit."
This prompted a small political scuffle, after McMahan also later talked about the recently-deceased former British prime minister and conservative movement standard bearer Margaret Thatcher, applauding her "guts to stand against the liberal press."
"Socialism had almost bankrupt a great nation," McMahan, a Republican, said.
Lisanti, a Democrat, shot back by reading the definition of "liberalism" from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, calling it a philosophy of liberty and equality that is supportive of free elections, free trade and private property.
Ryan Burbey, head of the Harford County Education Association, also commented: "Mr. McMahan will have to discuss at some point what the iron workers and coal miners thought of Margaret Thatcher." The recently deceased prime minister's actions prompted bitter strikes on the part of coal and iron unions in the U.K.
Municipal residents to be charged
While the new fee set to be approved applies only to county residents, the cities of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace and the town of Bel Air will most likely be eventually expected to contribute to the controversial stormwater management fee, Jay Sakai, water management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment, told the Harford County Council Tuesday.
Sakai also said the main reason for only making 10 jurisdictions set such a fee for now is those jurisdictions have restoration requirements in their permits with the MDE.
The state is clear that eventually it will make sure all its stormwater permits are consistent with the watershed implementation plan, which means localities will be hit as well.
"That will take place over next year so. I think the assumption here is that the municipalities will follow the lead of the counties in terms of engaging the restoration," Sakai said. "Right now the effort is to get the county to engage in those efforts and the municipalities will follow."
He said the state wanted to give a lot of flexibility to counties and municipalities, which is why it did not specify the fee that should be set.
"I think we're probably not qualified to tell the local jurisdictions what to credit and what not to credit," he said. "From what I've seen, all the crediting systems seem like they're pretty reasonable and all jurisdictions have put some thought into what type of [activities] they want to encourage."
Councilmen McMahan and Dion Guthrie said they are concerned about what they feel is the bill's inherent unfairness.
Guthrie pointed out that, for example, Kohl's department store would have to pay $25,000 for its impervious surface but Harford Mall would pay nothing because it is in the town of Bel Air.
"I have not seen a worse bill come out of Annapolis in my entire life," he said. "They're putting neighbor against neighbor, county against their municipalities, municipality against each municipality."
He said there are 53 municipalities in the state and each one will have a different system and different fee.
"[The state] just raised gas taxes. Every single person in the state who buys a gallon of gasoline is going to pay that 2 cents. But the stormwater fees are going to be paid by a handful of people," Guthrie said. "How do I go back to 40,000 constituents who are not in a municipality and say, 'You are going to pay this, but the people in Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace aren't going to pay this.'"
"I don't think anyone on this council has a problem with where we need to go. I think the problem is with how we get there," he said.
He also said he doesn't know why the committee to establish the plan did not include 24 members, instead of nine people, five of whom he said were from Anne Arundel County.
McMahan was a bit harsher.
"Is it your understanding that rain falls over the entire state of Maryland?" he asked Sakai sarcastically.
"Where in the name of common sense do you pick 10? I cannot fathom yet," he asked about the number of jurisdictions, adding it makes "absolutely no sense" to pick 10 when "rain falls over an entire state."
Sakai replied that he knows it was difficult to get House Bill 987, which made this implementation possible, passed, and one way to do that was to narrow the focus to these 10 jurisdictions.
"Beyond that, I think the state has been very clear under the watershed implementation plan … that we're going to be looking for stormwater management everywhere," he said.