'Rain tax' repeal good politics, weak policy [Editorial]

Though there's plenty of reason to be critical about the stormwater fee, now widely known as the "rain tax," which Harford and other metro Maryland counties were obliged to levy as a result of action by the General Assembly, Harford County Executive David R. Craig's recent call for repealing it isn't necessarily a good idea.

Indeed, the call for repeal seems like little more than a campaign battle cry from a declared candidate for governor in a state where Craig would be an underdog in the general election, and it's possible he could still face serious opposition in the Republican primary.

Officially known as the "Stormwater Management - Watershed Protection and Restoration Program," the "rain tax" was ordered by the Maryland General Assembly because of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dictum that the state take action to improve the quality of runoff water entering the Chesapeake Bay.

On the whole, there's good reason for the EPA to demand some kind of action. Though saving the bay is a popular cause in general in Maryland, the specific state policies enacted often are weak and have limited effects on improving the estuary's water quality.

Something does need to be done, and it's probably not going to end up being cheap.

The problem with the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, as enacted by the state, is it is woefully short on specifics. It just tells the counties to levy a stormwater fee on developed properties and use the money to improve the quality of the stormwater runoff before it gets into the bay.

Fees ranging from a penny a property per year in Frederick County to about $400 per property per year in Harford County were initially proposed, apparently based on no particular plan of action for filtering stormwater. If there had been a plan, a cost could have been estimated and a logical fee or tax rate determined.

As it stands, Harford County ended up charging $12.50 a year per property until a study group comes back with a recommended action plan; after that the fee could go to $125 a year per property, or the county council could take action to increase or decrease it. It was actually a very reasonable approach to a complicated issue.

Dealing with stormwater runoff is something engineers know how to do. It involves building and keeping in good working order stormwater management ponds, which are, in effect, planned swamps. The idea is for stormwater to collect in shallow basins and be allowed to drain through various kinds of vegetation, allowing it to enter the watershed as slowly, as if the rain had fallen on an undeveloped field or forest. On the way, plants and soil filter out various kinds of pollutants, which include any number of bits of refuse that end up being spilled on parking lots, driveways and roadways.

In recent decades, construction of such ponds has been included in plans for new developments, but funding for their upkeep has been rather lacking. Moreover, there are plenty of places where construction took place long before any such facilities were regarded as being necessary to protect the bay.

A good place for Harford County and the rest of the state to start when it comes to spending "rain tax" money is figuring out how much it will cost to build enough stormwater management basins to deal with untreated runoff, and how much it is likely to cost to maintain them all once they're built. After that, it becomes easy to estimate a fee. Importantly, it also becomes easier to make the political argument in favor of the fee, because Marylanders, on whole, tend to favor cleaning the bay and few people are so foolish as to presume such an effort will be accomplished for free.

Craig's call for repeal of the "rain tax" might be good politics, but it's probably bad policy because cleaning up the bay is going to necessitate dealing with stormwater runoff – and dealing with stormwater runoff isn't going to happen for free.

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