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Howard legislators predict a revisit of stormwater fee issue

BusinessSmall BusinessesAllan H. KittlemanJames N. RobeyEdward J KasemeyerLaura Neuman

Howard County legislators said this week that they believe the General Assembly will need to make adjustments to a state-mandated stormwater management fee imposed on Howard County and nine other Maryland jurisdictions.

"I don't think it's over yet," said state Sen. James Robey, co-chair of the county's delegation to Annapolis. "We need to go back and make this more fair."

Robey and six other members of the county delegation spoke at the Howard County Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative wrap-up breakfast Thursday in Columbia. Several chamber members spoke against what some have called the "rain tax," saying it will hurt business and residential property owners.

The Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, signed into law last year, requires nine counties and Baltimore City to collect fees to pay for stormwater management projects and stream and wetland restoration efforts to help improve water quality and reduce phosphorous and nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay. The measure primarily looks at the amount of impervious surface — such as parking lots and roofs — that properties have.

Del. Warren E. Miller called it "a ridiculous tax," and said it will likely prove onerous to small businesses and nonprofits.

"I think anyone with a parking lot better buckle down," said Miller, a Republican. "You're going to get a big bill for this 'rain tax.' "

Robey, a Democrat, agreed. He referenced acres of parking lots at the port of Baltimore and said that under the proposal for that area, "I saw the tab for the port, and it was more than $400,000 a year."

Last month, the Howard County Council voted 3-2 to set a rate of $15 per 500 square feet of impervious surface for three years in Howard. Based on that, residential property owners with 2,500 square feet of impervious surface would pay $75 a year.

Baltimore and Harford counties have also approved stormwater fees in the aftermath of the state mandate. The Anne Arundel County Council had passed a bill setting a rate structure, but this week, County Executive Laura Neuman — the former Howard County Economic Development Authority chief — vetoed the measure and sent it back to the council.

Fees have yet to be approved in Baltimore City and Carroll, Charles, Frederick and Prince George's counties, according to the Maryland Association of Counties. Montgomery County has a fee, but is revising it.

Several members of the delegation predicted that the fee should, and probably will, be revisited by the legislature in next year's session once its supporters realize its impact on small businesses and nonprofits.

In a partial defense of the fee, Del. Steven DeBoy noted that the fee was essentially the result of a federal mandate that was passed down.

"We needed to pass it in order to continue getting federal funds," said DeBoy, a Democrat.

The stormwater issue was a key topic as legislators assessed how Annapolis has helped, or hurt, businesses, particularly during the recently concluded 2013 session.

Robey, who recently announced that he is leaving the Senate after the 2014 session, noted the approved increase in the state gas tax, which was passed this spring and will be phased in over several years, beginning with a roughly 4-cent increase July 1. He said the tax was opposed by some business groups but supported by others.

"It was the most difficult choice we had to make, but from my perspective, it had to be done," he said.

Other issues discussed included corporate income taxes, and why an effort to reduce them failed.

Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, a Democrat, said that it was because, in early March, "our revenue projection was reduced by over $100 million. That really took the wind out of our sails for any reduction to occur."

He added, "I do believe that next year it will occur."

That was countered by Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican, who said he put in a bill to cut the corporate tax to zero "to bring more businesses to Maryland, but that didn't go very far."

Overall, "this was a really good year in Annapolis for businesses," said Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat. He noted several public-private partnerships that will benefit businesses, and reeled off a list of tax incentives, such as a research and development credit, a biotech investment credit and a film production credit aimed at attracting film crews to Maryland.

But Del. Gail Bates, a Republican, disagreed. "If we were truly pro-business, we wouldn't have to have all these tax credits," she said.

Kittleman said he was concerned by the way new taxes, such as the gas tax and an offshore wind energy tax, added "a dollar here, a dollar there" to the burden on small businesses.

"You've got to look at the overall impact of piling all these [new taxes] onto small businesses at one time," he said.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Blair Ames and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BusinessSmall BusinessesAllan H. KittlemanJames N. RobeyEdward J KasemeyerLaura Neuman
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