Carroll commissioners looking to avoid expensive 'rain tax'

As jurisdictions around Maryland implement a state-mandated tax on the rain coming off of people's driveways and roofs, Carroll County government is looking to maneuver to help residents avoid paying the tax or make it so low that it doesn't negatively impact residents.

A special advisory committee made up of members of the Carroll County Environmental Advisory Council, farmers, business owners and county planning staff are in the process of developing a possible fee structure and trying to determine how that fee structure may be implemented. The committee will present their ideas to the Carroll County Board of Commissioners in June.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, has been the leading opponent of the rain tax on the board. Rothschild said he has no plans to approve a state-mandated tax that would cause hardship on Carroll residents.

"My preference is that we not implement it at all, but if I am forced to implement it than I would implement it in such a way that the tax would be miniscule, which to me means one penny per citizen," Rothschild said.

In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law which requires Maryland's nine largest counties and Baltimore City to establish a watershed protection and restoration program that includes a stormwater remediation fee for impervious surfaces. The money collected by the new tax would be used to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The jurisdictions must adopt and implement the restoration program by July 1.

The rain tax is likely to be modified, key legislative leaders told a business group Thursday, according to MarylandReporter.com.

Brenda Dinne, special projects coordinator for the county, said the county has been funding projects to comply with its federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems permit program for years. County staff, along with the commissioners, don't think that Carroll should have to implement a tax on residents since it is already covering the cost of stormwater projects, she said.

The permit program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website. As part of its permit process, Dinne said, Carroll has funded stormwater management projects, like retention ponds, to lessen the impact of rain that is coming off of impervious surfaces into the ground.

The rain tax is tied to the county's permit program, Dinne said. In order for a jurisdiction to be in compliance with its federal stormwater permit, it must develop a tax, she said.

Dinne said she does not have an estimated cost of a rain tax in Carroll, as a fee and structure is still being worked out by the advisory committee. It's hard to estimate the financial impact with so many variables, she said.

It is important that the county develop a plan to implement the program, according to Josh Hatkin, chairman of the Carroll County Environmental Advisory Council. If the county doesn't develop a plan, it gives the Maryland Department of the Environment the justification to step in and create its own plan for Carroll to adopt.

"We've got to come up with something of our own doing even though we may not like it because it sure beats having something rammed down our throats which may be pretty onerous," said Hatkin, who is also on the county's rain tax advisory committee.

The county could face "costly ramifications" if it does not have a plan in place by the July 1 deadline, Dinne said. The county could be fined, have funding withheld or have projects held up, she said.

"There's also the possibility that if you don't make the effort to comply with your permit, that when it gets renewed, they make it even more restrictive," Dinne said.

The rain tax, Hatkin said, is a topic that is being discussed a lot among the community. Most, if not all, of the people he's spoken to are not pleased about a new tax, he said.

"Most of the people I talk to in the county are very, very much against it," Hatkin said. "They look at it like just another money grab by the governor."

Bill Franz, the owner of a farm outside of Linwood, said he's concerned about the rain tax because none of the details have been worked out yet. Franz said his 130-acre cow farm has barns and other impervious surfaces that would be affected by the tax. But as of now, Franz said he and other farmers have no idea how to plan for an unknown tax.

"How do you plan if the people putting it in place don't even know exactly how to explain it to you?" Franz said.

Aside from his disdain for state-mandated taxes on local jurisdictions, Rothschild said he has problems with the tax for other reasons.

For one thing, he said, it is questionable that rain running off someone's house or driveway in Carroll County impacts the Bay enough to require a fee on property owners. Rothschild noted that a federal court decision earlier this year in Virginia indicated that stormwater itself is not considered a pollutant.

Rothschild said he also has issues with the fee implementation process that was approved by the general assembly. The state, he said, wants the county to levy a tax based on the amount of impervious surface in the county. If a fee must be implemented, it should be done on the percentage of impervious surface in the county and not the total amount, he said.

Carroll, with its large number of open space and farms, has a low percentage of impervious surface, Rothschild said.

"This rain tax is a piece of garbage," Rothschild said. "It's not going to solve any problems."