A year and a half after the state's General Assembly passed a stormwater remediation fee in April 2012, taxpayers are seeing a charge on their bills for the first time.
On Dec. 2, Howard officials sent out the county's second round of semi-annual property tax bills, the first to contain the new stormwater fee, characterized as a "rain tax" by critics.
The state-mandated annual fees, created to fund projects aimed at reducing polluted runoff into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, are required of Maryland's nine largest counties and Baltimore City.
Each jurisdiction has the leeway to decide how to implement the charge. In Howard County, there are two rate structures: a tiered, flat-rate system for residential properties and an individually tailored fee, based on impervious surface area, for nonresidential properties.
For residential property owners, the annual fee won't go into triple digits. Apartment residents will pay $15, single-family homeowners on lots of up to a quarter acre will pay $45 and homeowners on lots of more than a quarter acre will pay $90.
But for nonresidential property owners, fees can soar to $10,000 or more. Businesses have complained they're being asked to bear too much of the burden.
Sam Mangione, whose family owns Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City, called the fee "a penalty" for business owners.
"It's a brand new expense that came from nowhere, that's not budgeted" for Turf Valley, Mangione said. The expansive property, which totals a little less than 800 acres, was billed $10,000.
Mangione said the fee's costs would probably trickle down to consumers.
"It will most likely result in some price hikes," he said. Though he doesn't foresee his company having to make fewer hires or having difficulty retaining employees for now, he cautioned that having to pay the fee every year could put a strain on his business.
Chip Doetsch, who owns the Apple Ford car dealership in Columbia, agreed.
"Any costs in a business come at the expense of an opportunity cost," he said.
County Executive Ken Ulman said he understood the county was asking a lot of businesses.
"We understand it's a burden we're asking folks to bear," he said of the stormwater fee in November.
But he pointed to credits and rebates offered to business owners and nonprofits who make stormwater improvements on their property. Mangione said he was planning to look into potential credits for Turf Valley.
Both Mangione and Doetsch said they were supportive of measures to clean up the Chesapeake. But they said they already had stormwater management systems, built to county specifications, on their properties.
And they questioned whether the money would actually go toward stormwater management.
"My main concern is I have yet to see any effective remediation plan on the water quality of the Bay, and we've been trying for 30 years," Doetsch said.
According to state law, the money can't go anywhere else.
The stormwater legislation creates a local watershed protection and restoration fund, where the new revenue is funneled and can only be used for a specific set of purposes enumerated in the bill, including improvements and maintenance for stormwater facilities, public education and outreach related to stormwater projects, hardship grants to nonprofit entities and stormwater facility inspection and enforcement.
In Howard County, the budget for Fiscal Year 2014 includes $10 million in revenue from the stormwater fee, plus another $5 million for stormwater mitigation from other county funds.
Stormwater projects funded by the new revenue include flood mitigation improvements in Ellicott City, retrofitting of stormwater facilities and county-owned roads throughout Howard and incentives to install stormwater facilities and non-turf landscapes on private properties.
But some think the county should find its own funds to pay for stormwater projects, rather than imposing another tax.
District 9 state Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican running for county executive, prefiled a bill in October that seeks to repeal stormwater legislation in 2014.
Calling the tax "discriminatory" and "counter-productive," he said he wanted to find another way to fund environmental improvements.
"Going forward, fairness would demand that our entire community must contribute to solving the stormwater run-off problem. Local and state governments were excluded from these fees, and residential property owners pay only a small amount of the true cost of stream and wetland restoration," Kittleman said in October.
District 9A state Dels. Gail Bates and Warren Miller followed suit, filing their own bill to repeal the stormwater fee on Dec. 9.
Kittleman pointed out that the county has had the authority to levy a stormwater tax since 1992. "I think counties should make that decision for themselves," rather than being required by the state to collect a fee, he said.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation spokesman Tom Zolper said relying on the counties to clean up the Bay hasn't worked due to the realities of local politics.
"If you're a county commissioner or councilman and it comes to a choice between teachers, police, roads and, oh yeah, there's this thing called stormwater — it gets short-changed," he said.
He likened uproar over the stormwater fee to controversy over a "flush tax," created eight years ago to fund sewage plant improvements.
"We need a reliable source of funding because it's going to get more and more expensive as the problem gets worse," Zolper said. "At what point do you say we've got to stop postponing this legislation?"
Observers say the General Assembly will likely revisit the stormwater law in 2014. Until then, property owners will have to pay up — bills are due by February.