Harford County government is holding a public informational meeting next week to discuss impact of new state and federal stormwater control mandates that some officials say will force the county to collect a new and more costly version of the reviled flush tax.
The meeting will be held Tuesday, Jan. 29, at C. Milton Wright High School, 1301 Fountain Green Road in Bel Air, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Harford County Executive David Craig's office put out a media advisory about the meeting last week, in which it blamed Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Maryland General Assembly for passing legislation last year which forces Harford and nine other urban jurisdictions to collect a stormwater remediation fee.
Last fall, Craig suggested the new fee would have a far greater impact on county budgets than would the legislature's earlier decision to shift teacher pension costs to local governments.
The fee is designed to pay for local stormwater management systems and stream and wetland restoration projects, which are being imposed on states by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to a county official who is familiar with the situation.
How much the new taxes or fees might cost the average Harford County taxpayer has not been determined, Bob Thomas, Craig's chief spokesman, said Friday.
The Department of Public Works, he said, is reviewing the requirements and a formulating a plan for structuring and implementing "this state required fee." Eventually, he added, the county administration will submit legislation to the Harford County Council to comply with the state law.
Thomas also warned that the state mandated fee the county is required to collect will potentially affect current homeowners and businesses, not just new construction.
"These requirements are going to affect every property owner in the county," Thomas said. "The purpose of the meeting is to tell the public what's coming and why and how it is likely to affect them."
"There are really two things going on here which have been joined together," Ben Lloyd, the county executive's deputy chief of staff wrote in an e-mail Friday explaining the situation.
"First are the ever-tightening federal and state regulations pertaining to stormwater," Lloyd wrote. "Second, the General Assembly passed House Bill 987 last year that requires 10 counties to establish and collect a Stormwater Remediation Fee, as well as to create a special fund for the money, which is to be dedicated for stormwater projects."
Lloyd, who is Craig's liaison to the General Assembly, said the Maryland Association of Counties' Legislative Committee, of which Craig was a member, testified against the legislation.
Lloyd said a state and federally mandated storm sewer system permit currently in the renewal process will require Harford to treat runoff from 20 percent of impervious surfaces, such as highways, roofs and parking lots.
In addition, he explained, Harford is required to comply with the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan for reducing nutrient loads originating from stormwater runoff.
"Our estimates are that the total cost of meeting these permit requirements and treating 20 percent of impervious surfaces is between $72 million and $96 million by 2017, when a new, more strict permit will be required," Lloyd wrote.
"Both the EPA and MDE can severely fine or otherwise penalize counties for noncompliance of these discharge permit requirements," Lloyd wrote. "In the past they have been willing to work with counties when we have shown a good faith effort; however, it has been made clear that now that there is a funding mechanism in place via this fee, we will be expected to do considerably more."
In September, Craig wrote in an op ed piece published in the Gazette Newspapers of suburban Washington, D.C., in which he criticized the state's passage of a local fee requirement to fund stormwater remediation projects.
"In Harford County, we estimate that the requirements created by the EPA permitting process will cost approximately $30 million per year over a three-year period. And that is just the first phase," the county executive wrote.
"Applying this new, mandated expense to our tax base, it threatens to become an estimated 14 percent across-the-board increase on our property taxes - one of the largest tax increases in history," the piece continued, noting that stormwater and urban runoff from Maryland account for about 5 percent of the sediment and 2 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
"Are the benefits to the Bay worse than the strain that the implementation of these improvements will cause for our working families and young adults trying to buy their own homes?" Craig asked.
Craig suggested that state leaders "failed to stand up for taxpayers" in their dealings with the EPA, writing: "Maryland should realize the harsh reality county officials across the state are coming to terms with: that the costs of implementing these mandated improvements will make the recent shift of teacher pension costs seem like a drop in the bucket."