Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman plans to introduce legislation to roll back the county’s stormwater fee.
Kittleman announced Tuesday that he’s partnering with County Councilman Greg Fox on a bill that would phase out the controversial fee, dubbed a rain tax by critics, over two years. Stormwater projects would be paid for by money from the county’s general fund instead.
Taking steps to get rid of the fee is a campaign promise for Kittleman, who as a state senator introduced legislation last year to overturn a 2012 state mandate requiring Maryland’s nine largest counties and Baltimore City to collect money for a fund dedicated to stormwater remediation improvement projects. Kittleman’s bill was unsuccessful, but a bipartisan measure repealing the mandate passed the General Assembly earlier this year.
“I felt then, as I still do now, that creating another tax or fee was unnecessary, excessive and a burden on working families and small businesses, and it was obvious that many residents of Maryland felt the same way,” Kittleman said Tuesday.
The bill, co-sponsored by Fox, a Fulton Republican, would cut the stormwater fee in half next year and eliminate it entirely in 2017.
Since 2013, Howard County has assessed the annual fee based on a tiered payment system for residential property owners: apartment residents pay $15, single-family homeowners on lots of up to a quarter acre pay $45 and homeowners on lots of more than a quarter acre pay $90. Commercial property owners pay an individually calculated fee based on the amount of impervious surface on their land.
The fee has generated about $10 million per year for the county, according to Howard Office of Sustainability Director Jim Caldwell.
Howard County will still be responsible for meeting federal water quality mandates even if the fee is eliminated. According to Caldwell, the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring the county to improve stormwater remediation on about 2,000 acres of impervious surface by 2019. So far, improvements have been made on about 300 acres. In 2015, stormwater projects totaled approximately $6 million.
Kittleman said his decision to roll back the fee does not conflict with a desire to save the Chesapeake Bay, which has struggled with water pollution from both agricultural and residential runoff.
"I don't want anyone to take this legislation as any less of a commitment by Howard County to making sure that we meet our requirements to do what we can to preserve and protect our Chesapeake Bay," he said. "What's in dispute is how we fund it."
Stormwater improvement projects would be paid for out of the county's general fund under Kittleman's plan. Money from the dedicated stormwater fund could be leveraged to pay for general obligation bonds that fund stormwater remediation capital projects, he said.
Despite recent belt-tightening by county government to fill a $15.8 million budget hole last fiscal year, Kittleman said he is confident the county can pay for stormwater improvements.
"You always have trade-offs," he said. "This isn't to say we're taking away from somebody else. We're respecting the citizens." He and Fox said they plan to work with the state to find ways to make stormwater remediation projects more cost-effective.
If Howard phases out its stormwater fee, it will follow in the steps of Baltimore County, where the county council voted unanimously last week in support of a similar plan. Other counties refused to enact a fee, charged a nominal fee or eliminated the fee before the General Assembly passed a statewide repeal, arguing they should be allowed to find their own way to fund the federal requirements rather than levying a new charge on residents.
Tom Zolper, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said rolling back the fees might make it harder for counties to meet their stormwater obligations.
“Our main goal is that the stormwater work be done – it’s never been our intention that it be paid for in any one way,” Zolper said. “But we’re sort of surprised. Across the country, there’s more than 1,400 towns and counties that have voluntarily enacted these fees becase they make the best financial sense. We feel if Howard or Baltimore County are going to do this, they’re effectively shooting themselves in the foot because now they’re going to have to start siphoning money from schools or police or something else, which doesn’t make sense.”
Before a phase-out could be implemented, the plan would need to be approved by the Howard County Council, a majority of which voted to enact the current stormwater fee structure in 2013.
Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who supported the stormwater fee, said he hasn’t yet seen Kittleman’s legislation.
“I remain committed to working with everyone who is dedicated to investing in our environmental sustainability,” Ball said. “While it is unfortunate that the county executive has not shared any of these details with me, I look forward to hearing more about how we’re going to fund the fee and ensure that we address stormwater runoff [and] how we’re going to continue to work towards saving the Chesapeake Bay.”
Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat from west Columbia who also serves as the council’s liaison to the Patuxent River Commission, the group that acts as a steward for that tributary to the Bay, said she’d like to see more specifics before passing judgment on the proposal, though she said she is skeptical of its financial soundness.
“We have a significant amount of work that needs to be done in order to meet our [stormwater permit requirements],” she said. While the current fee “will make a dent at it, is not enough to meet the needs... if the revenue we were generating wasn’t going to meet the requirements that we had already, I really don’t understand, without looking at this very carefully, how a reduction in the fee would meet the obligation.”
Councilman Jon Weinstein, an Ellicott City Democrat, noted the county has already reduced its borrowing, from $120 million in fiscal year 2015 to $96 million this fiscal year. “I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more detail so that I can determine what the impact is on our ability to use the [general obligation] bonds for other purposes,” Weinstein said.
The legislation will be introduced next month and could come up for a vote as early as January.