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From 'rain tax' comes street sweeping program [Editorial]

The passage of time has a way of revealing facets of a controversy that provide new perspective. This is the case with the so-called "rain tax" and its implementation in Baltimore County.

Maryland's Stormwater Management Watershed and Restoration Program emerged from the state legislature to wide scorn in 2012. It was immediately dubbed the "rain tax" by many, and commentators, especially conservatives, held it up as another example of government putting its hand in homeowners' pockets for a wasteful program.

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To be sure, the implementation by the state, at least initially, was clumsy. The counties that faced imposing the fee were simply handed a bill and told to raise the cash. Disputes broke out between some counties and the state over the "how" in paying the bill.

A year and a half later, however, Baltimore County residents who see new street-sweeping trucks in action on local roads are seeing those tax dollars at work. County officials said that since May the trucks have swept up 562 tons of debris that include such bay-killing substances as nitrogen, phosphorous and suspended solids.

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"This program would not have happened without implementation of the stormwater fee," said County Executive Kevin Kamenetz while riding one of the trucks in a photo op last week.

Putting these trucks on the street effectively revives a county street-sweeping program that was active in the 1960s and 1970s, but was cut back over the years. The first year of the program's revival is expected to cost the county $1.6 million, or about 5 percent of the stormwater fee revenue collected from homeowners. Other revenues from the fee are used to clean storm drains, restore streams and plant trees.

Scientists have been clear for years that efforts to restore the pollution-damaged Chesapeake Bay have to focus on the watershed, not just the bay itself. Impervious surfaces resulting from development — a key to bay pollution — cannot become woods and meadows again, but we can clear them of debris that storms wash into the Chesapeake.

The debate over the "rain tax" will probably continue. But in Baltimore County, there is evidence in the form of trucks rumbling down our streets of how at least some the money is being spent.

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