Harford County could face stiff fines and other enforcement actions from the state and federal governments if county officials repeal a local stormwater management fee, also known as the "rain tax," the state government's top environmental official warned Harford officials last month.
Some Harford officials, led by County Executive David Craig, have vowed to repeal the watered down version of the state-mandated fee they passed earlier this year, a move that could theoretically lead to thousands of dollars in daily fines.
Craig said once again Tuesday that the stormwater fee legislation "was a bad bill from the start."
But Harford County Council President Billy Boniface says he takes seriously the threats of fines and other sanctions and wants to "make darn sure" the county doesn't open itself up to any such liability, before he will go along with a repeal effort.
He and other council members debated among themselves and with Craig's aides Tuesday night about how far the county should go in defying the state's mandate to enact a stormwater remediation fee.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, the council president said he believes the county has to meet federal requirements and, in addition to facing fines, could risk losing its ability to issue stormwater permits for projects, "which could have an pretty hefty economic impact on us."
"It's not something we can keep shoving under the rug," he said.
Up to $32,500 a day
Boniface sent a letter to the Maryland Department of the Environment in early September, seeking guidance on what could happen if Harford officials repeal the unpopular fee. Secretary Robert M. Summers responded to Boniface's query in an Oct. 22 letter:
"Notwithstanding our concerns that Harford County elected to defer the collection of all but 10 percent of its proposed Watershed Protection and Restoration fee, a complete repeal of the program would place the county in non-compliance with State law, and could lead to civil enforcement action by the Attorney General's Office," Summers wrote.
The MDE secretary also warned that, in the long term, Harford County could be found to be in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and face fines and penalties of "up to $32,500 per day for each violation," if it did not meet the requirements of its Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, or MS4, permit, which include fully funding stormwater management projects.
The permit is issued by the state, which works in conjunction with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the requirements have become more stringent as EPA officials require communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to meet a "federal pollution diet" to protect the bay, Samantha Kappalman, director of communications for MDE, said Tuesday.
The stormwater fee is designed to help counties fund local stormwater management projects, she said.
"Stormwater pollution accounts for 18 percent of the pollution that flows into the Chesapeake Bay, so less pollution's the solution and that's what these stormwater management plans are meant to accomplish," Kappalman said.
Craig, who is running for governor, has called for the council to repeal the local fee, which is being charged to businesses, residents and industry. He was unmoved by the latest threats to the county from MDE.
"These are the same penalties that the state has threatened all along, and is partly why we provisionally attempted to comply with the state's directive," the county executive said in an e-mailed statement through an aide. "However, implementation of the bill has proven infeasible, given the lack of clarity on how to address everything from projects to credits."
Harford's council members voted during the spring to allow homeowners to pay only 10 percent of a flat $125 stormwater fee – initially proposed by Craig – and then established a task force to study the fee and make recommendations to the council on an appropriate fee to charge.
"They're still meeting," Boniface said of the Harford task force members. "They're working through those issues to come up with some recommendations for us."
Craig went along with the temporary reduction but then came out in favor of repealing the local fee, saying state legislators should reconsider their prior actions.