Arundel executive vetoes 'rain tax' fee

Anne Arundel County Executive Laura A. Neuman on Thursday vetoed that county's version of the so-called rain tax — making it the first jurisdiction to take action against the controversial state-mandated stormwater management fee.

Under legislation approved last year, Anne Arundel, eight other counties and Baltimore City have until July 1 to approve a fee on property owners to pay for stormwater projects aimed at curbing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Neuman said too few people know about the fee, and it needs more discussion before it becomes law.

"Every single person I asked — citizens of this county — not one of them was aware of it. If they were aware, they said, 'Is this the gas tax?'" she said. "The vast majority of the public is not fully aware that this new tax is coming."

The Anne Arundel County Council voted 4-3 this month to approve fees of $85 for most single-family homes, $34 for townhouses and condominiums and $170 for rural houses. Businesses would be charged based on the square footage of impervious surfaces, such as rooftops and parking lots, on their properties.

Neuman said the county administration did not do an adequate job reaching out to businesses and homeowners to tell them about the stormwater fee. A Republican, Neuman replaced John R. Leopold as executive in February after Leopold resigned in the wake of a misconduct conviction.

She said she wants her staff to make community presentations to raise awareness of the issue, and in the meantime wants the council to rethink the fee amounts and consider phasing them in. She does not plan to introduce her own bill.

Some council members say they might move to override Neuman's veto, or pass another bill before July 1. Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat from Annapolis, said the county executive's veto "casts a veil of uncertainty" over what happens next.

"It's troubling that now the county executive is wanting to cancel this and start from scratch. I think it's a huge mistake," he said.

Trumbauer introduced the stormwater fee bill on behalf of Leopold and worked for a year before that on a task force that developed major portions of the bill. He said the best course might be to override the veto — which would take five votes — and then consider any change to the stormwater fees with subsequent bills.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, agreed an override is "a very real possibility."

"The state has given us a pretty clear mandate to deal with this by July 1," Benoit said. "They tell you to do something, you do it."

But Council Chairman Jerry Walker, a Republican from Gambrills, called Neuman's veto "fantastic," and Councilman Derek Fink, of Pasadena, applauded it as well.

"I'm not happy with this bill," said Fink, also a Republican. "I think it needs a lot of work."

He said he supports a "much, much, much smaller number as a place holder" while a new set of fees is considered. And he agreed the debate has flown under the radar of most homeowners and business owners. Such a substantial fee — it would raise nearly $20 million in the first year — needs more discussion, he said.

"People just aren't aware that bills of this size are coming and I think it was a smart thing to do," Fink said.

Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties have approved stormwater fees in the wake of the state mandate. Fees have yet to be approved in Baltimore City and Carroll, Charles, Frederick and Prince George's counties, according to the Maryland Association of Counties. Montgomery County has a fee, but is revising it.

When lawmakers required 10 large jurisdictions to pass stormwater fees last year, it generated some opposition but not a public outcry. But in recent weeks opponents have begun calling the fee a "rain tax," and the label has drawn attention in the national media, on social media and the Internet.

David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the "rain tax" moniker has gained further currency in the GOP as Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, considers a run for president.

"Part of our brand is being opposed to new taxes," he said. "I would hope leaders across the state would follow her example." Ferguson said Neuman's veto took "leadership and guts."

Alan Rzepkowski, chairman of Anne Arundel's Republican Central Committee, said the veto burnishes Neuman's Republican credentials.

"It shows she is a conservative and she does care about the citizens of Anne Arundel County and the amount of taxes they pay," he said.

But Alison Prost, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said there's been misinformation about the stormwater fee, and the "rain tax" talk hasn't helped.

"It's a very serious issue that I feel is being written off by calling it a rain tax," she said.

The fees are needed, she said, because stormwater is an expensive and growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake and the rivers that feed into it. The money would pay for upgrading stormwater control systems and restoring streams damaged by uncontrolled runoff.

The foundation supported the bill passed by the Anne Arundel council. Prost said the clock is ticking for the council to pass another version.

"My worry is they'll continue to delay and try to find something perfect," she said.

If Anne Arundel — or any other county — does not meet the deadline, there's not likely to be immediate consequences, said Les Knapp, legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties.

However, if the state deems any county is not acting in good faith in setting up a program, then perhaps it could withhold water quality funding or limit permits, Knapp said. Lawsuits from citizens could be possible, too.

"I think everyone's planning to meet the date and if they miss it, it will only be because they're wrapping up the process," Knapp said.