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Baltimore's stormwater fees are hard on businesses — and could have been worse

Baltimore businesses, homeowners and nonprofits took on new financial responsibility July 1 with enactment of the city's Stormwater Remediation Fee ordinance. Much media has been generated around the unfunded mandate handed down from Annapolis to the 10 largest counties around the Chesapeake Bay. Yet, based on fiscal reality, including the cash to be collected and spent, little has been written about the disproportionate impact on Baltimore City businesses and the latest layering of fees atop already hefty property taxes.

The South Baltimore Business Alliance (SBBA), representing a coalition of Baltimore-based industrial businesses (yes, they do exist), helped craft significant improvements to the legislation from first draft through final reader. The SBBA's timely and active participation generated full-blown discussion on the fair allocation of costs, as well as dialogue on the safeguards needed to protect the integrity of the multimillion-dollar fund.

The SBBA is proud of our success in improving the legislation, including a gratifying collaboration with a myriad of interests beyond the traditional business sector to inject needed transparency into the law. Our organization's involvement in Baltimore's stormwater remediation policy was a grass-roots mandate from membership, a coalition of vital job creators in the city. The amendments and clarifications introduced by SBBA included:

•a cap on the fee equal to 20 percent of state and local real property taxes;

•a reduction of the rate paid for impervious surfaces from $18 to $15 per equivalent residential unit (a Baltimore equivalent residential unit equals 1050 square feet);

•A credit of 55 percent of the fee for property with a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit to avoid "double-dipping";

•A credit of 30 percent for properties with stormwater management systems that do not use the city's stormwater infrastructure; and

•Full-disclosure requirements on the proposed budget, formulation of regulations and ongoing detailed reports.

Despite these much-needed changes, there are significant gaps in the legislation. The city's stormwater fee ordinance remains a burden for Baltimore businesses and threatens blue collar-employment. Through oversight of the ordinance's application and by continued engagement with the Baltimore City Council, both environmental and business stakeholders urge attention to the following unaddressed issues:

•deletion of the section requiring that property owners can either choose the 20 percent cap or the credits, but not both;

•further limitation of the permitted uses of the fund to ensure that the maximum amount possible goes to actual stormwater remediation, and not to pay for General Fund items or general administrative costs of the city;

•promotion of additional state legislation to remove the government property exemptions; and

•close scrutiny of budget expenditures and possible "leakage" from the fund.

Credit is due to the members of City Council who were able to grasp the big picture earlier than most. Without the leadership of Jim Kraft and his Judiciary and Legislative Committee (especially Mary Pat Clarke, Warren Branch and Bill Henry), and without the attentive ears of Rikki Spector and Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, the SBBA would not have made any headway. Thanks also to Council Vice President Ed Reisinger, who continues to support the growth and viability of Baltimore-based business enterprises alongside a balanced approach to environmental stewardship.

SBBA members want a clean Chesapeake Bay and are willing to pay our fair share of the cost, side by side with homeowners and nonprofit organizations. Since the rain knows not where it falls, we hope that a fresh look at the issue by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will result in Washington, D.C., Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York bearing a proportionate share of Chesapeake Bay restoration costs. Likewise, the inclusion of federal, state and local government property owners in the calculation of total impervious surface would more equitably share the burden.

The long-range forecast for the Baltimore City stormwater fee ordinance is a mix of clouds and sun. In the last election, city residents voted to impose the stormwater remediation fee upon themselves. With no such ballot option for business, the SBBA and other business groups will remain vigilant on issues that affect our members' ability to compete.

Jeff Fraley is president of the South Baltimore Business Alliance (www.sbbamd.org). His email is jeff@fraleycorporation.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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