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City backs plan to slash stormwater fee at port

Companies could see 85 percent reduction

By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

6:53 PM EDT, June 4, 2013

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Baltimore officials endorsed a proposal Tuesday to knock as much as 85 percent off the tabs that some port-related businesses would owe under the city's new stormwater fee — a change that could save one auto processing company more than $300,000 a year.

The city's endorsement of the industry-backed idea comes as details of the city's fee plan remain in flux, just weeks before a July 1 deadline to establish a state-mandated stormwater program. Surrounding counties have already set the framework for their programs.

Next Tuesday, a City Council committee will begin voting on amendments, with final votes likely on June 17, said Avery Aisenstark, the city's director of legislative reference. The bill will then go to the full City Council for consideration that evening. A final vote by the council could come June 24.

More than 60 proposed amendments have been submitted to the committee. While some are technical, others would have a major impact. They include the proposal for port-related companies and a push by religious nonprofit groups to sharply reduce how much they'd have to pay the city.

"We have not yet begun to debate," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, vice chairwoman of the committee that has been studying Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's stormwater proposal.

The purpose of the fee, derided by some critics as a "rain tax," is to combat pollution that comes when dirty rainwater flows off buildings, pavement and roads on its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

The General Assembly passed a law last year requiring 10 local governments, including the city and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties, to establish a stormwater program with dedicated fees by July 1. Local governments were given wide latitude to shape their programs.

Among the intended uses of the money are the creation of wetlands to corral water-borne nutrients that harm the bay and the restoration of streams damaged by erosion from land development.

Under Rawlings-Blake's plan, single-family homes would be charged $48 to $144 a year. But owners of larger properties would have to pay $72 annually per 1,050 square feet of "impervious surface," such as roofs, driveways and parking lots.

Clarke has offered amendments that would phase in the fees, lowering the charges for businesses by about 45 percent the first year. She has identified spending cuts to offset the reduced revenue.

The port-related businesses argue that they deserve special treatment because they already have stormwater pollution prevention plans as a condition of obtaining industrial permits from the state Department of the Environment. More than 200 permit holders would be eligible for a 55 percent credit under the plan.

An additional 30 percent credit would be available for properties that don't use the city's storm-drain system but discharge directly into the harbor.

"The fee is supposed to be based on the share of stormwater services provided by the city to the property owners," said Margaret Witherup, a lobbyist who represents auto processor Amports as well as the Maryland Industrial Technology Alliance, an organization of manufacturers. She said it's not fair to charge owners to help upgrade a system they don't use.

For Amports, the combined credits could turn a $400,000 bill into $60,000.

Both credits make sense for such properties, said Jeff Raymond, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, which is drawing up regulations for the city's program.

Raymond did not say whether the department would support a proposal to lower the annual fee for religious nonprofits to $10 per 1,050 square feet. Such groups are treated the same as businesses under Rawlings-Blake's proposal, meaning they'd likewise owe $72 per 1,050 square feet.

Advocates say that is money the nonprofits would not have for community services such as domestic violence prevention and low-interest neighborhood stabilization loans.

"If they have to pay this fee, those funds are directly going to come out of the services that are currently provided to the city," said Cailey Locklair, director of government relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council, which submitted the amendment.

Clarke said she supports giving religious nonprofits a break in light of the services they provide. But at least two of her colleagues, James B. Kraft and Carl Stokes, disagree, noting that these groups already pay no city property taxes.

"All they're doing is saying, 'Foot our bill once again,'" said Kraft, who chairs the committee considering the stormwater fee. "My position is, at some point you got to start carrying some of your own weight. I want them to carry some of their own weight."

scalvert@baltsun.com