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News Maryland Howard County Ellicott City

Time has come for vote on Howard stormwater fee

For the past two months, the Howard County Council has debated the details on how to properly implement the state mandated stormwater fee. But after two lengthy work sessions and a number of proposed amendments to the legislation, council members admit they are not sure if a solution has been found.

"The fact is we have to do it," council member Mary Kay Sigaty said. "We do have a responsibility to follow state law."

The council is scheduled to meet Thursday, March 28, its last scheduled legislative session until May. If they cannot agree on the bill, it could put the county a year behind in meeting its stormwater mandates.

Council members have been urged by the county administration to pass the bill Thursday to give the county's environmental sustainability and finance departments time to calculate property fees and include it in the July tax bill without delaying the bills' distribution.

The state's Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, signed into law last year, requires counties to collect fees to pay for stormwater management as well as stream and wetland restoration projects. The projects are aimed at improving water quality and reducing phosphorous and nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay.

All property owners, except state and local governments and volunteer fire companies, are required to pay the fee, which will appear in the July tax bill as a line item, similar to trash and fire fees.

The average property owner is expected to pay between $40 and $60 in the program's first year, according to Jim Caldwell, county stormwater manager.

The bill in front the Council proposes that for every 500 square feet of impervious surface, property owners will be charged $7.80. Homes built after 2002 will pay a lower fee because they use the latest stormwater standards. Impervious surfaces include paved driveways and rooftops. The county's Geographic Information Services will determine the amount of impervious surface for each property.

But a resident's annual fee could double or triple in 2014, depending upon how much the county is required to pay for stormwater improvements, which is determined by state mandates. The fee is expected to escalate in each of the next five years.

An amendment filed March 26 by council member Calvin Ball, one of 12 filed by council members, would cap the increase each year at $15.

Ball said this prevents dramatic increases over the next three years and adds predictability for constituents and county businesses.

Council member Courtney Watson said "there is a big push" to get the bill passed, but the council won't act unless they're comfortable with the fee structure.

"I don't think we will vote unless we are ready," Watson said.

Caldwell called delaying the fee for a year an "unhealthy scenario," giving the county less time to meet its mandates.

Watson said she filed an amendment creating a business hardship credit because of stress on businesses caused by the sequester and implementing new health care regulations.

"I am very concerned that small- and medium-sized businesses already dealing with additional costs may be caught unaware [of the fee]," she said.

Sigaty said she is working on a trio of amendments, including one that will not allow the use of stormwater funds for new development projects.

"Any new development has to be paid for by the developer, not by Howard County taxpayers," she said.

Even with her amendments, Sigaty said she couldn't predict if the council would pass the legislation.

"We don't know yet whether or not its going to go," she said.

Added Ball: "We'll carefully consider the amendments and see if we can get this to a place where it can be passed."

According to county solicitor Margaret Ann Nolan, there is no "obvious penalty" in the law if the county were to miss the July 1 implementation deadline by the state.

The county has proposed an increasing fee rate over the next five years that will generate $7 million in the first year and about $19 million in the second before continuing to escalate each year.

The county needs to raise about $126 million over the next five years cover its state requirements on stormwater management.

Having already considered a plan measuring impervious surface and a plan charging a flat fee to property owners, Watson proposed last week that the county investigate a third option.

This would calculate a ratio measuring the amount of impervious surface to total acreage on the property, which Watson said would make the fee fair for property owners with long driveways.

"There is so much information that we don't have, I'm finding it very, very hard to feel well informed about our options," she said at last week's work session..

But Josh Feldmark, director of the county's Office of Environmental Sustainability, said the county feels "very strongly" that the method proposed is the fairest.

"We feel very strongly that if this is a third model that you want to pursue, this is coming from you," he said. "We do not think this is the right model."

To see if the Council voted on the stormwater management fee at its March 28 meeting, go to explorehoward.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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