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Setting the record straight on Arundel's stormwater fees

In recent testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman inaccurately depicted her county and others in Maryland as unsuspecting victims of a 2012 state law dealing with "stormwater utility fees." The fact is Anne Arundel, like other counties, is contributing significant polluted runoff to the Chesapeake Bay and therefore must do more to fix that problem.

Let me clear up the record following Ms. Neuman's testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. In that hearing Ms. Neuman attacked a Maryland law that requires Baltimore City and nine counties to begin collecting a fee dedicated only to fixing polluted runoff.

Ms. Neuman said she vetoed the storm water tax because she "did not like the way it was imposed on our residents by the state." She testified that it has resulted "in a race to the bottom among the 10 jurisdictions."

At the request of the Maryland Association of Counties, the law allowed localities to set a fee at whatever level they wished, based on their needs. Hardly a stiff mandate. One or two jurisdictions decided to flout the law, but they will see no state financial assistance for this important endeavor. It's a little like cutting off your nose to spite your face. As Ms. Neuman herself stated in testimony, Anne Arundel has the most to gain from a clean Chesapeake Bay. Finding the funding to reduce pollution will be a race to the top.

Ms. Neuman complained that "there was no large-scale public education campaign," leaving residents unprepared "for yet another tax on their property."

Why hasn't Anne Arundel County educated its own citizens? A storm water fee is hardly a new idea in Anne Arundel. The issue has been debated by the County Council for years. Ms. Neuman's office could do much to educate and inform the public about the problem, the benefits of fixing it, and the many specific projects on the books to do just that.

Ms. Neuman said her county's department of public works estimated the cost of the required stormwater remediation at $1 billion. But original estimates to address this pollution have been high in many localities, and in many cases, costs have come down as a result of innovation. Talbot County, for instance, cut its initial estimate by tens of millions of dollars through innovative technology. Also, it is important to note that these estimated costs are not to be paid by the county alone. There are state and federal dollars available, as well as innovative financing. Prince George's County believes it can cut its initial estimate by 40 percent through an innovative public-private partnership. Anne Arundel could innovate as well.

Ms. Neuman said that she and her staff had received numerous complaints from residents, non-profits, religious organizations and businesses. In truth, the bill approved by the County Council to implement the state law (which Ms. Neuman vetoed) was the end product of a lengthy stakeholder process that started before the state even passed the stormwater management bill in 2012. The process was supported by residential and commercial builders, the Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce, and environmentalists alike. These same groups supported the council's vote to override the executive's veto.

Ms. Neuman complained that "financial assistance has been woefully inadequate compared to the costs local governments are facing for stormwater retrofits." But that is the exact reason we support a local stormwater fee. In the past, local governments often shortchanged the important work of upgrading local systems that drain and treat polluted runoff. The regional plan to finish the job of cleaning the bay, what we call the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, now requires localities to participate fully in this work. Therefore, they need local funds to supplement state and federal funds.

Polluted runoff increases directly as a result of new development. When a county allows undisciplined growth — sprawling subdivisions and strip malls replacing forests and fields — it pays the price in increased pollution and higher clean-up costs for residents. Rather than play the victim, or rail against government, County Executive Neuman should provide leadership to solve the problem created, in part, by her own county government's past actions.

William C. Baker is president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. His email is chesapeake@cbf.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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