In a strong show of force, nearly 100 supporters from a local organization packed the Howard County Council's Ellicott City chambers Tuesday to oppose legislation that would eliminate the county's stormwater fee over two years.
Raising forest green signs that read "Proud to Pay," supporters from People Acting Together in Howard set the tone for a five-hour meeting where a majority of witnesses — amid hushed applause and punctuated chuckles — opposed the elimination of the controversial fee.
"If it ain't broke don't fix it," said Paige Getty, co-chairwoman of PATH, a coalition of neighborhoods and congregations in Howard County."[We are] here tonight to say that the stormwater fee 'ain't broke.'"
Introduced by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Republican Councilman Greg Fox, the bill would slash the stormwater fee in half by fiscal year 2017 and eliminate it by fiscal year 2018. The fee generates roughly $10 million annually for stormwater projects, raising questions about how the county would carve funds from its budget.
Diane Wilson, Kittleman's chief of staff, said she did not anticipate any cuts as a result of the change, calling the bill a "change in funding source," not a change in the county's commitment to the Chesapeake Bay.
In fiscal year 2017, $3.2 million would come from state grants, $4.7 from a reserve fund balance, $5.5 million from previous fee payments and $10.2 in government obligated bonds, Wilson said.
In fiscal year 2018, $2 million would come from state grants, $1 million from anticipated transfer taxes, $5 million in pay-go funding and $19 million from government obligated bonds, she said.
Like other witnesses, Elaine Lutz, a staff attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, questioned why the county would remove a dedicated and secure source of funding while relying on "general funds that simply don't exist currently."
"This bill is a direct result of shortsighted, factually inaccurate and politically driven rhetoric that threatens to take Howard County back to a place where waters continue to be polluted," Lutz said. "It also very ironically depends on the very fee revenue that this repeal would remove."
Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, called the fee a "good public policy" and "necessary revenue."
Ben Alexandro, a water policy advocate for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, called Howard County's commitment to stormwater remediation efforts a "model for the mid-Atlantic region."
"Without this fee, this great progress that has been made here will start to wither," he said.
Pete Mangione, owner of Turf Valley, was one of a handful of voices supporting the phase out of the fee.
"To me this is another tax or fee being put on business," said Mangione. "Many people seem to think that businesses can absorb it but we can't."
Prompted for further details about finances, Wilson repeated, "The administration is confident we have the financial tools necessary to meet the requirements." The county executive's office will provide more detailed financial information at the County Council work session on Monday.
"We have time to figure some of these pieces out," said Fox.
The stormwater fee phase-out is a campaign promise for Kittleman. As a state senator, he introduced a bill to overturn a 2012 state mandate requiring Maryland's nine largest counties and Baltimore City to collect funds for stormwater remediation improvement projects. Though his bill failed, a bipartisan measure repealing the mandate passed in the General Assembly last year.
Kittleman organized a rally in support of his bill before the County Council hearing on Tuesday..
The county is still required to meet federal quality mandates even if the fee is eliminated. The Environmental Protection Agency requires the county to improve stormwater remediation in about 2,000 acres of impervious surface by 2019.
Since 2013, the fee is calculated 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 fees based on the amount of impervious surface on their land.
In a March 2015 report, the Spending Affordability Advisory Committee urged the county to avoid removing the stormwater fee before establishing an alternate fee structure.
"Otherwise, those mandated costs would further stress the General Fund budget by approximately $10 million," the committee noted.
Fox challenged County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, suggesting opponents of the bill were wedded to the stormwater fee "to feel good." Ball rebutted, saying he was looking for effective funding sources.
The plan must be approved by the Howard County Council, a majority of which voted to enact the stormwater fee in 2013.