Reason for skepticism all around on the latest 'rain tax' proposal [Editorial]

Just as there's good reason to be skeptical about the Maryland Storm water Remediation Fee, often referred to as the "rain tax," there's reason to be skeptical about Harford County Executive David R. Craig's vow to introduce legislation to repeal the county's version of the tax.

There is substantial justification for government action to deal with storm water runoff that enters the Chesapeake Bay. Runoff from urban and suburban areas is hardly pristine; no sane person would drink rainwater out of a roadside ditch. It contains all manner of impurities ranging from pet waste and excess lawn fertilizer and garden pesticides to automotive pollutants washed off roadways.

It's clear that such runoff is detrimental to streams and creeks it enters, and has ill effects on the bay. There's a substantial difference in the palatability of blue crabs caught off Crisfield and those netted from Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

As it stands, the storm water fee is something that was required of the state by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of the federal agency's effort to enforce the Clean Water Act with regard to the Chesapeake Bay. The Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring metro counties, including Harford, to levy a tax to pay for taking action to clean storm water before it gets into creeks, streams and, ultimately, the Bay.

Which is where the reason for skepticism comes into play: There are no concrete plans for dealing with the pollution in urban and suburban runoff. That means there's no solid information on which to base cost estimates for cleaning storm water. If taxes are being collected, but it isn't clear what the money is to be spent on, a likely outcome is an unreasonable amount of it will end up being spent on consulting services to see how to best spend the money.

Still, something needs to be done about the less-than-pristine state of storm water that's getting into the Chesapeake Bay, and it is going to prove costly. Actually, Harford County has a fairly reasonable approach in place. Though the storm water fee to be charged is $125 a year, as enacted, the actual charge in the first year is $12.50, or 10 percent of the enacted fee. In the interim, the county is supposedly ferreting out information about how much it will end up costing to put storm water filtration systems in place.

As an aside, it's worth noting that storm water management ponds, the likes of which can be found in most communities built after about 1980, are regarded as rather effective means of dealing with storm water. The ponds, actual basins that fill up with water only during storms, allow contaminants to settle out, where they can be absorbed by grass and other plants and, more or less, neutralized. The cost of such a pond varies, but is very generally in the $60,000 to $150,000 range. There are also costs associated with maintaining the ponds, and many of the ponds built in the past 30 to 40 years around Harford County have not been maintained.

Still, at $125 per household per year, Harford County's storm water fee would generate, very conservatively, $9 million a year (not counting any fees levied against businesses). That comes out to, very roughly, enough money to build somewhere in the range of 500 to 900 storm water management ponds a year.

Is that enough? Seems like a lot of storm water management ponds, but, then again, some of them are likely to be fairly expensive given there are plenty of areas that were developed before any provision was made for installing such ponds.

It seems like $125 may be a bit high, but maybe if the county's study took inventory of what was needed, what's in place that needs to be upgraded and what a realistic timetable is for doing the work, a more realistic number could be devised.

Enter David Craig, who orchestrated an event earlier this week where he highlighted the amount of money expected to be charged to businesses that have large parking lots and other impervious surfaces. He pointed out that $7 per 500 square feet per year comes out to nearly $3,000 a year for an operation like Boyle Buick in Abingdon. Sounds like a lot compared to $125 a year, but then again, property taxes on an operation like Boyle Buick also are substantially more than property taxes on an individual home.

This week, Craig's solution is to introduce legislation before the Harford County Council (he plans to do it Oct. 1) to repeal the storm water tax. Craig was one of the people in government to first recognize the impact of the state's storm water tax law, and it is probably to his credit that what's in place in Harford County is rather reasonable and forward looking with regard to goals and costs.

The opposition he expressed this week and the desire for repeal, however, ring a little hollow, despite his earlier opposition.

The procedural reality is that Craig could have vetoed the law when it was enacted, but he didn't. The political reality is the storm water fee law, and the version of it enacted in Harford County, were perfect campaign fodder for state and county elections in a year when there are no state or county elections.

Introducing a storm water fee repeal on Oct. 1 pretty much ensures an effort to repeal a tax will be at the forefront of local – and probably state – politics for several weeks at the beginning of the political year when Craig is running for governor.

Is it a coincidence? There's reason to be skeptical about that.

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