A decision by the Board of Carroll County Commissioners last week to not create a stormwater runoff fee as mandated by state law has left the county's municipalities wondering how they will fund federal and state required stormwater projects.
The commissioners voted unanimously June 27 to create a Watershed Protection and Restoration Fund to be funded by grants and county dollars instead of establishing a fee for businesses and property owners.
The state's Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, signed into law last year, requires the state's nine largest counties and Baltimore City to collect fees to pay for stormwater management as well as stream and wetland restoration projects. The projects are aimed at improving water quality and reducing phosphorous and nitrogen entering the Chesapeake Bay.
The law has been dubbed the "rain tax" by its opponents.
There was a "flurry of phone call activity" between local mayors after the commissioners voted last week, according to Westminster Mayor Kevin Utz.
He said the county fund is appropriate to fund the county's required projects, but leaves the municipalities to fend for themselves.
"Basically they shut the door on us," he said.
Westminster, for example, is required to pay about $850,000 in each of the next six years for mandated stormwater projects, Utz said.
There are currently no funds budgeted for these projects and without revenue from the stormwater fee, Westminster could have to look at raising taxes to pay for the projects, according to Utz.
"It's a complicated mess to say the least," he said.
County Commissioners President Doug Howard said that the municipalities' stormwater requirements were not overlooked when the commissioners created the fund, citing a $200,000 hardship fund established in the budget this year for stormwater needs of local municipalities.
"It was just not enough of a reason to put a tax on all citizens of the county," he said.
The county's eight municipalities met with Howard and commissioner Haven Shoemaker Wednesday at the Carroll County Farm Museum to discuss potential assistance for municipalities' stormwater requirements.
Utz said that he doesn't view the situation as adversarial between the county and municipalities.
"We are asking the county to work with us to help fund some of our projects as well," he said.
Utz did not attend the meeting. City administrator Marge Wolf represented Westminster and could not be reached for comment.
Howard said he believed the meeting was a "very, very productive hour-and-a-half."
He added that the board could present some form of aid to municipalities by the end of September or early October.
"My hope is that a real solution will come in the form of a collective solution," he said.
Not every county commissioner was invited to the Wednesday meeting.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild said he did not know about the meeting until the county sent out a press release briefly reviewing the meeting at 5:07 p.m. Wednesday. The county did not advertise the meeting beforehand.
"I was disappointed to see that meeting scheduled without the other three commissioners," Rothschild said.
Shoemaker, who initiated the meeting after numerous phone calls from municipal leaders, said only he and Howard attended because a meeting with three commissioners would have required the county to advertise the meeting.
"We had to act promptly," Shoemaker said. "We wanted to address this as quickly as possible."
Shoemaker said the other three commissioners were not left out for "any nefarious purpose."
He added that the Board of County Commissioners has established two-person work groups in the past to research issues before presenting information to the full board.
Howard said that he sometimes likes to work on his own, gathering ideas before bringing them back to the board and that "political grandstanding" from other commissioners could have hurt the process in this case.
"They (municipalities) don't want to be preached to, they want to be heard," Howard said.
He said county staff was not present at the meeting and that there was no agenda because it was just an opportunity for he and Shoemaker to hear concerns from municipal leaders.
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"Any time we (Board of County Commissioners) set policy, it has absolutely got to be open," Howard said.