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Howard might see stormwater fee increase, officials say

Howard County might need to raise its stormwater fee in the future in order to keep up with federally mandated improvements, according to directors from three county departments.

In response to a question from County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty during a budget work session last week, DPW Director Jim Irvin said "it's going to be a challenge" to meet the county's stormwater reduction requirements at current funding levels.

"I think at some point the fee will have to be raised" in order to meet a goal of treating at least 20 percent of impervious surface in the county by 2019, the target the state's Department of the Environment has set before new public sewer permits are issued, Irvin told the council.

Tuesday, Budget Director Ray Wacks and Office of Environmental Sustainability Director Josh Feldmark said the fee might need to be re-evaluated, though they didn't have specifics yet about when or by how much.

"The truth of the matter is, we don't know yet," Feldmark said. "I think we're so early in this process, and I am extremely excited about the progress we're making." He said he expected that next year his department would have a better idea of the amount of money needed.

Part of the difficulty with planning and coordinating stormwater projects, according to Irvin, is that the county can't meet federal goals by improving only public land. A major challenge, he said, would be retrofitting private property against stormwater runoff.

"That's the big unknown," Irvin said. "How much effort are we going to have to make to get on people's properties and do these things? There's a lot of unanswered questions right now. We're going to need additional revenue, probably, to get to that point."

In fiscal year 2015, the county is expected to bring in $9.5 million in revenue from the stormwater fee, which was collected for the first time this winter after the County Council passed the current fee structure into law in July 2013.

So far, Howard has targeted nonprofits for stormwater projects by offering to reduce or waive the stormwater fee, labeled the "rain tax" by critics, if an organization follows county suggestions to decrease runoff on its property.

Additionally, recent watershed protection projects on public land include repairs to a stormwater pond in Ellicott City's Angela Valley as well as a planting project that added 2.10 new acres of native trees to land along the boundaries of Dunloggin Middle School and Northfield Elementary School, also in Ellicott City.

Council member Courtney Watson said the county should be targeting schools, which Irvin said took up one of the largest chunks of the county's property, as "the low-hanging fruit" for stormwater projects.

But according to county officials, projects on school properties have to get state approval, which makes the process more difficult.

Watson said she was frustrated that the state had given the counties a stormwater mandate without making state-owned property available for projects. 

“That’s where I see us working with the General Assembly next session,” Watson said. “[The state] should be instructing local boards of education that you will do [stormwater projects], just like they did with Common Core.”

Sigaty said another stormwater issue that the state should resolve is how to deal with making improvements to local streams when those improvements would involve crossing private property.

"I think that brings up a very interesting policy decision for the state of Maryland, not for us," she said.

Council chair Calvin Ball was skeptical that state officials would make those clarifications.

"I think we've seen from the state in recent years that, much like sunshine, fees and mandates seem to flow downhill," he said.

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