Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99
News Opinion Editorial

Rainy days in Balto. Co.

There's a certain irony that only days after several Baltimore County beaches had to be closed as unsafe, some Baltimore County businesses and politicians were complaining about a tax on stormwater runoff. After all, it wasn't the presence of a great white shark that closed the county beaches but rain that swept bacteria and other pollution into the water.

Nobody likes to pay more in taxes, and it isn't too surprising that the "rain tax" complaints were revived last week when people opened up property tax bills that include the new tax. But it is a little disappointing that those so quick to criticize the tax fail to recognize its necessity — unless, of course, they have another way to pay for $25 million in remediation projects each year.

But we will give critics some credit. No doubt there are business owners who are getting overcharged because the county's method for judging how much they should pay — scrutinizing aerial photographs to measure impervious surfaces — is imprecise. From the air, porous blacktop probably looks a lot like the kind that doesn't allow water to filter through, and rain gardens look like, well, gardens.

That's why the county gives property owners the right to appeal the tax — first to the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability and then, if necessary, to an administrative hearing officer. If the county has overstated the amount of impervious surface on a property, whether it's a building or a private road, that should be corrected.

The truth is the way Baltimore County has approached the problem of stormwater pollution — and the state requirement to create a fee to cover its cost — has been pretty sensible. Homeowners face a flat fee of $21 (for a town house) to $39 (for a single family dwelling), and considering that property tax assessments have been stagnant (with some actually in decline in recent years), it's probably not even noticeable.

Businesses pay more, but they are also likely to have parking lots or other drainage issues that account for more of the problem. For them, the charge is $69 per 2,000 square feet of impervious surface or $20 per 2,000 square feet if they are a non-profit. A typical downtown Towson business might face a bill of $400-to-$500 per year.

Some people may ask, what if the county had thumbed its nose at the law like officials in Carroll County did and approved no tax? Well, the county then would have no way to meet federal water quality standards. Eventually, a court would be forced to intervene, and who knows what remediation might be required. The next fee might be a great deal higher — or perhaps the county would have to shortchange schools or public safety, slap a moratorium on further development or take other actions far worse than a fee.

Most important, the longer Baltimore County allows pollution into its rivers, streams, lakes and other waterways, the more damage that results. Water pollution comes from a variety of sources, but stormwater runoff is one of the most concerning because the problem is getting progressively worse, not better. Surely, people living in a county with 232 miles of shoreline can appreciate the need to better protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The big mistake was allowing development of all forms — from roads to schools to shopping centers and apartment buildings — without requiring better management of runoff so that it would slowly filter into the ground rather than swiftly pour into drainage ditches and creeks. We are paying for the cost of decades of poor stewardship.

Make no mistake, this problem is not unique to Maryland. Other communities are adopting similar taxes. Business should be happy that — just as the flush tax has been dedicated to improving sewage treatment — the "rain tax" can only be spent on stormwater improvements. County officials expect to break ground on the first of these projects by early next year.

Those who sneer at this remedy need to be asked: What would you do about the problem? Mocking the tax doesn't clean up a polluted creek, river or beach.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Churches should not have to pay stormwater fees [Letter]
    Churches should not have to pay stormwater fees [Letter]

    In response to your paper's recent article about churches paying stormwater fees, I would point out that churches provide heavily discounted space for community groups and that many house affordable kindergarten and nursery school programs and provide food and shelter for at-risk populations...

  • Rain tax: Noble goal, unfair execution
    Rain tax: Noble goal, unfair execution

    Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation laments that Maryland county officials are considering rolling back their stormwater remediation fees. ("'Rain tax¿ is rolling back," Jan. 26.) In 2012 the Maryland General Assembly passed HB 987 requiring nine Maryland counties and Baltimore...

  • Stop the smoke and mirrors of the 'rain tax' debate
    Stop the smoke and mirrors of the 'rain tax' debate

    The article by Pamela Wood on "rolling back the rain tax" ("Counties reconsider stormwater fees," Jan. 25) only adds to my confusion about how the whole state of Maryland continues to be in an uproar over the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act mandating reductions in nitrogen,...

  • Mr. Hogan's run-off trap
    Mr. Hogan's run-off trap

    Here's something all Marylanders can agree on: It sure would be stupid to tax the rain. Fortunately, the state doesn't do it and never has, despite what one may hear from Gov. Larry Hogan whose recent "truth to power" State of the State address would have been a lot more effective if he'd stuck...

  • Hating taxes, loving the Chesapeake Bay
    Hating taxes, loving the Chesapeake Bay

    Marylander's agree on two things: We love the Chesapeake Bay and we hate taxes.

  • Protecting the bay is a shared responsibility
    Protecting the bay is a shared responsibility

    I don't claim to know the details of Maryland's so-called "rain tax," but I do believe that improving the Chesapeake Bay is a responsibility all of us share ("Senators hear bid to repeal law requiring stormwater fees," March 3).

  • Hogan's 'rain tax' straw man
    Hogan's 'rain tax' straw man

    Webster's defines a "straw man" as "an argument or opponent set up so as to be easily refuted or defeated." We can find no better example than Gov. Larry Hogan's crusade against what he calls Maryland's "rain tax," which led this week to his introduction of legislation to repeal a law that he...

  • The rub of the 'rain tax'
    The rub of the 'rain tax'

    Like many other politically interested individuals, I've been wondering for quite a while if the "rain tax" really is the "Obamacare" of Maryland environmental politics. Does the savvy politico who coined the term deserve the credit/blame for single-handedly turning a fee that only 10...

Comments
Loading