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Neuman's reckless stormwater veto

Laura NeumanEnvironmental PollutionEnvironmental PoliticsU.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Anne Arundel County's proposed stormwater fee provided newly appointed County Executive Laura Neuman with her first leadership test, and she failed. Her veto puts the county at risk of sanctions if it does not enact a fee structure by July 1, yet she appears to have no plan for complying with state and federal requirements for reducing the polluted stormwater that is washing into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The County Council should override her reckless decision without delay.

Ms. Neuman has offered two explanations for her veto. The first is her notion that the residents of the county were insufficiently informed of what the proposed fee is and what it's for — a consequence, she theorizes, of the distraction to the government and the public caused by the protracted scandal involving her predecessor, John Leopold. It must be tempting for Ms. Neuman to blame everything she can on the disgraced Mr. Leopold, but she doesn't get off so easily this time.

Anne Arundel County's stormwater fee proposal was developed through a six-month process that included input from the Chamber of Commerce, homebuilders, environmentalists and others. Since it was introduced in the County Council, it has been the subject of public hearings, which have resulted in dozens of amendments. As the other counties required to enact stormwater fees by the General Assembly's 2012 law have done so, the matter has attracted nationwide attention. Moreover, Anne Arundel officials have been talking about enacting a stormwater fee for at least five years. This should hardly be a surprise, and even if it was, the fact remains that the county is required to put a fee structure in place by July 1.

Ms. Neuman's second rationale for her veto is a belief that the fee structure approved by the council is too much, too soon and that Arundel residents are overwhelmed by the panoply of recent tax and fee increases enacted by the state government. No doubt the residents of famously tax-averse Anne Arundel County are unhappy, particularly since the stormwater fees the council approved would have been larger than those levied in some other jurisdictions.

If Ms. Neuman believes the fees are too high, she is welcome to propose an alternative, but she hasn't and doesn't intend to, saying instead that she's curious to see what the council comes up with next. But the council may not have much different to offer here since the amount of the fee was a function of the needs identified by what is now Ms. Neuman's public works department and the financing mechanism for addressing them was determined in consultation with what is now her finance department. The councilmen could propose something lower or phase the fee in, but the county would still risk failing to meet its requirements under the Clean Water Act.

That's the big picture here. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set tough new water quality targets for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and Anne Arundel County has more bay shoreline and tributaries than any other jurisdiction. It has a lot to do to mitigate the effects of polluted stormwater that flows off of roofs, driveways and parking lots and into streams and rivers that feed the bay. If the county fails to meet the July 1 deadline, the state could theoretically take it to court and secure penalties that run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

But the real risk comes if the county falls out of compliance with the Clean Water Act. Anne Arundel (along with the other counties required to enact stormwater fees) faces difficult goals for how much it must reduce its contribution of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay by 2025, and if meeting them seems expensive now, it will only get more so the longer the county waits.

Ms. Neuman is free to dislike that fact. She can kick and scream and curse the EPA. But the bottom line is that when rainwater is channeled into storm sewers rather than soaking into the ground, it takes all sorts of pollution with it. One way or another, the county is going to be required to undertake a variety of projects to mitigate that problem. It can pay for them through a dedicated fee, or it can find the money by shortchanging police, schools, the fire department and all the other things the county pays for. But this exercise is not optional.

Perhaps Ms. Neuman is playing populist here with an eye on the 2014 election, but someone needs to be the grown up in the room. The bill approved by the council was based on extensive study and consultation with experts and affected groups, and it reflected significant public input through the legislative process. There is no way for the council to come up with a well-thought-out alternative by July 1. Its best option is to override Ms. Neuman's veto and make any adjustments that are necessary down the road.

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