Carroll's 'rain tax' compromise would cover small portion of stormwater management costs

Hager (Carroll County Times)

After threats of legal action and fines from the state, one thing is clear about Carroll County's proposed plan to comply with the law commonly derided by critics as the "rain tax": the plan would only cover a fraction of the costs of the county's stormwater management program.

County officials would dedicate a portion of real property tax revenue each year to a stormwater management fund based on the projected operating costs of stormwater remediation services. Operating costs are mostly day-to-day expenses, including administration, maintenance and repairs.

No new fees or taxes would be raised, county officials said. Instead, the county would dedicate a portion of each property's tax assessment for the fund.

The county proposed the plan to comply with the 2012 Stormwater Management Watershed Protection and Restoration Program - commonly known as the rain tax - requiring that Carroll and nine other jurisdictions in Maryland create a fee to pay for the costs associated with stormwater remediation. The law was meant to ensure that jurisdictions were taking actions to reduce the amount of harmful nutrients getting into local waters and the Chesapeake Bay.

But the county's plan would not raise money based on the largest source of expenses - the construction of new projects, which can run into the millions of dollars each year.

The majority of the capital project costs would continue to be paid for through bond issuance or the general fund, officials said.

For this fiscal year, the county budgeted more than $3 million for constructing new stormwater projects. In contrast, the county only budgeted $918,015 for operating costs, or only 23 percent of the total costs of the stormwater program.

Still, county officials said they would be able to comply with state stormwater mandates under the proposal.

Phil Hager, director of the county's Department of Land Use, Planning and Development, said even without a stormwater management fund in place, the county has always met the obligations of its stormwater permits. He noted that none of the 10 jurisdictions required to institute a fee are fully funding their stormwater remediation costs from that fee.

"We did not need this law to motivate us to do stormwater management," Hager said. "We have one of the best programs in the state and we are pursuing, and are on track, to achieve all ... requirements."

The county's plan was outlined in a letter by Carroll County Attorney Timothy Burke to state officials last week.

In response, the Maryland Attorney General's Office said the proposal would comply with the law, and noted that the Maryland Department of the Environment agreed with the plan.

In October last year, the Attorney General's Office sent a letter threatening the county with a $10,000 per-day fine and other legal action if it did not implement a stormwater fee as required by the law.

The county and state had been in negotiations ever since, until the agreement was reached last week.

Jay Sakai, director of Water Management Administration for the MDE, said in a written statement to the Times that the stormwater law gave Carroll County "broad flexibility" for how it would implement a fee as required by the law. After reviewing the proposal, attorneys for the department determined the county's approach met the law's requirements, he said.

County commissioners hailed the proposal as a good solution for county residents.

County Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, said taxpayers should be happy with the proposal. Although he said he does not agree that stormwater management projects are an effective means of reducing pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, he still felt the proposal was a good compromise that allowed the dispute to come to an end.

"When it's David versus Goliath, you can't necessarily get a perfect solution, but you can achieve good solutions," Rothschild said.

Officials with environmental groups said they would have to wait to see if the approach would make a meaningful difference in county's stormwater management policies.

Alison Prost, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said if county officials do not improve their stormwater management practices under the plan, then they are not carrying out what the law intended.

"It's good that they are dedicating funds," Prost said. "But if the dedicated funds don't lead to more action, and only cover existing work or existing staff, than it does not meet the spirit of the law in mind."

Brent Bolin, Clean Water Coalition director at the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said he was glad to see that the county would dedicate funds specifically for a stormwater management fund. He said this way, there would be a guaranteed source of funding specifically for stormwater management costs that would not have to compete with other county expenses.

"I think it's a step forward from where Carroll County was before," Bolin said.